Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Time passages: Deceased Artiste Nicolas Roeg (part 1 of two)

Nicolas Roeg forged a style that was so visually and narratively distinctive that one can identify his work from any single scene in his best films (and can see his influence in later films by other directors just as easily). A shallow evaluation of his contribution to cinema would be that he “made actors out of rock stars,” but his most valuable innovation involved blending memories, dreams, and fantasies to depict the thoughts and emotions of his characters.

He served an apprenticeship in the film industry for more than two decades before becoming a director. From “tea boy” to second unit director (Lawrence of Arabia) to cinematographer, he put in his time and the results showed. His most memorable stints as d.p. include Masque of the Red Death (arguably Corman’s best, and the best-ever screen adaptation of Poe), Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, and several Richard Lester films, most notably the dark and potent Petulia, which is Lester’s best drama. Its style and visuals lead the way to Roeg’s directorial debut.

Roeg broke apart his storylines and reassembled them in front of the viewer. The clearest point of comparison would be Alain Resnais, who dismantled the chronologies of his early features and produced beautiful, seamless montages that followed both dream logic and the functions of memory.

Roeg’s films have more clear-cut narratives than Resnais’ work, but he also doted on things that his characters remembered or were about to undergo. It’s a haunting style that makes his best films impossible to forget and yet also provides for new discoveries each time they are rewatched.

In interviews Roeg spoke about his dislike for storyboards and rehearsals. His films were always tightly scripted, but he did work with his editors in the Seventies and Eighties to “refine” the material — in the case of Bad Timing (1980), he took a chronological storyline and rejiggered it so we see past, present, and future throughout the film. His dislike of rehearsals most likely stemmed from the fact that he cast either seasoned pros (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now) or amateur actors (his rock star trio; his son Luc in Walkabout) who were prone to do their best work on-camera.

His debut as a director, Performance (1970), is a film that caught the zeitgeist of its time while offering a glammed-up variation on Bergman’s Persona. Jagger is terrific in the film (pretty much playing himself), while James Fox went through a complete transformation (and, according to most accounts, a nervous breakdown afterward) — a posh actor playing a working-class gangster, he has his gender-preference and his mind bent by Jagger’s character, resulting in a schizophrenia that is manifested in the film’s visuals.

Roeg directed the film with Donald Cammell. Cammell handed the actors and dialogue, with Roeg crafting the visuals. Different critics and academics attribute the editing to either man (two professional editors are credited, with two others indicated online as having done uncredited work), but clearly both made a contribution.

Despite the book and documentary about Cammell (both fascinating) that claim he was the “real genius” of the pair, Roeg’s later work does bear out his immense talent. Cammell made three other films, of which White of the Eye is a terrific surreal thriller; the other two are fun but not very good (making Cammell’s genius more of a “what if?” situation).

Walkabout (1971) was Roeg’s first solo directorial effort, and it shows just how beautiful his visuals, and how inventive his editing, could be. It’s a sun-drenched film that offers sharp commentary on what comprises “civilization” in the mind of Westerners — in this case a British teen (Jenny Agutter) who is stranded with her young brother (Luc Roeg, Nicolas’ son) in the Australian outback.

Agutter’s character is one of several Roeg protagonists who is charming and unlikeable at the same time. The Aboriginal teen boy (David Gulpilil) who serves as the only lifeline for her and her brother is an object of sly derision for her. While she accepts his help in finding sources of food and drink, and surviving the deadly heat, she also maintains a patronizing attitude toward him throughout the film (only in the final moments does she realize what a prig she has been).

The film is Roeg’s next to last credit as a cinematographer, and it is a triumph in that regard. The photography is peerless, with the most beautiful sequences occurring when images of the landscape are superimposed over each other.

The editing (credited to Antony Gibbs and Alan Pattillo) is also stirringly brilliant. We see frozen images of certain actions, which brings to mind the work of Funhouse deity Chris Marker. Other sequences tear down the thin curtain between reality and illusion — a prime example being the moment where the young boy sees a hunter killing a buffalo. The footage is then shown in reverse, as we enter the boy’s mind and see the “resurrection” of the fallen animal.

The last film that Roeg shot is also his only feature-length documentary. He received co-director credit with Peter Neal (listed on the credits as “completion director”) for Glastonbury Fayre (1972), a look at the 1971 Glastonbury music festival, held in  June of that year. It’s a standard-issue rock-doc, which does have some interesting images and edits, but its only major difference from other music-festival films that came out in the wake of Monterey Pop is that a good deal of emphasis is placed on spiritual ceremonies.

The proceedings become more spirited when Arthur Brown is seen around the midway point, performing with a band who are wearing facepaint (take that, KISS!). Brown’s theatrics are punctuated by scenes of a cross-burning ceremony (a benevolent one, in which crucifixes are set alight, presumably because they look “trippy, man!”).

The druid/pagan/what-have-you embrace of spriritualism reaches its height when a substitute for the Maharishi shows up and lectures the crowd (happily chanting “hare krishna”) on the positive aspects of love. Then Christian ministers hold a mass, spontaneous chanting and dances are taking place in another area, and one begins to wonder if the drugs are fueling the heavy interest in religion, or the other way around.

The musical acts are not identified, so you either know ’em or you don’t. The other two that distinguish themselves are Melanie doing “Peace Will Come” and (the last song in the movie) Traffic doing Winwood’s classic “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

The most notable trivia about that Glastonbury festival was that a “folk rock” act performed songs from his latest album on guitar. He’s on the soundtack album but is nowhere to be seen in the movie: future Roeg star David Bowie.

Roeg then made the unforgettable Don’t Look Now (1973), based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier. Here two important facets of Roeg’s work appear for the first time. The first of these is a deep well of tortured emotion, that is glimpsed in the brief shots that make up his dream/nightmare-like montages.

Like his countryman and fellow dream-film master Ken Russell, Roeg was often accused by critics of being clever for clever’s sake, while both filmmakers actually conveyed much genuine emotion in their best films. Even if some images can’t be fully understood until the end of the picture (or on a second viewing), we get the impression that these memories and dreams matter very much to the characters, and we thus absorb the longing (or loss) contained within them.

The other Roeg trademark introduced in Don’t Look Now is an impassioned sex scene. Here the participants are a married couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) who can’t escape memories of their dead daughter, but who also clearly have a healthy sex life, informed by a very real love for each other (ruptured by the husband’s desperate belief that the daughter is still alive).

The sex scene was controversial for its time. In this most chaste of filmmaking eras in the U.S., the scene seems even more erotic but also serves an important function in the narrative, defining the characters and showing how sex is a regular part of their relationship. This is signaled by the cuts to their getting dressed afterward that are inserted into the scene. 

Don’t Look Now contains one of the single scariest finales of any film ever made. It won’t be given away here, but suffice it to say that it lingers on in the memory and, despite being equally as jarring on repeated viewings, it does have its own inherent logic (the logic of nightmares, of course).

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is arguably Roeg’s best film and inarguably one of the best science fiction films ever made. The absolutely perfect casting of David Bowie is only the most obvious of the ways in which Roeg crafted a film that is at once a political statement, a sensory experience, and an unlikely but incredibly effective character study about addiction.

The political aspect of the film is what makes it such a significant and powerful work of science fiction. The American government seeks to crush Bowie’s character and the best way to do that is to “normalize” him (via surgery) and reduce his threat (by encouraging his alcoholism — an obvious corollary to the plight of Native Americans).

Roeg generally stayed away from political themes (with the exception of a subplot in Bad Timing and the setting of his underrated Two Deaths). In The Man Who Fell... Bowie is constantly under surveillance by the government, something that becomes clearer on repeated viewings of the film. He faces numerous menaces, but none is as mysterious and unbeatable as America itself.

The aesthetic aspect of the film is unassailable. Roeg was at the top of his game in the mid-Seventies, and the visuals and editing are superb. We inhabit the mind of Bowie’s alien and are as confused and disturbed by the hallmarks of our society as he is. We see his memories of his planet and his visions of a past he never knew (as when he sees American farmers from a previous era in an empty landscape). What appears “impenetrable” or obscure becomes easy to understand as the film moves on (and Roeg’s eye for evocative empty settings proves him to be a fitting heir to one of his heroes, Antonioni).

The final dimension, and the one that has made the film so resonant over the decades, is the purely personal. Writer Walter Tevis wrote the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth... as an allegory about alcoholism (he maintained that his first few novels were all about alcoholism in one way or another). Tevis wrote two kinds of fiction: gritty urban scenarios (The Hustler) and very smart science fiction. Scripter Paul Mayersberg kept alcoholism at the core of the plot, thus creating the single best depiction on film of the way we inhabitants of Earth would most likely treat an extraterrestrial (if we didn’t just kill it straight off).

If one wants to see the difference between the films of the Seventies and those of the Eighties, just compare The Man Who Fell... to John Carpenter’s romantic but ridiculous Starman (1984) and Spielberg’s cheesy little alien, who’s as cuddly as a domestic pet, in the mawkish slop that was E.T. (1982).

Roeg’s career unfortunately breaks into two distinct parts. The first is squarely situated in the Seventies, and the second (which will be covered in the second part of this piece) begins in the early Eighties and continues on until the end of his career, in 2007 (he made one final short-short in 2014).

The dividing line came right after his fifth film, Bad Timing (1980), which stands as a kind of summation of his genius, in the form of a very grim but compulsively watchable tale of obsessive love and sexuality.

We begin with the end of a tempestuous relationship — an American woman (Theresa Russell) living in Germany is taken to the hospital, as she quickly succumbs to a drug overdose. Her lover, a college professor (Art Garfunkel), flashes backward and forward through memories of their relationship, showing us how much he wanted her and what he was capable of doing to prevent her from leaving him.

The most astounding fact about the film is that it was scripted and then shot as a strictly chronological narrative. Roeg “dismantled” the storyline and then reassembled it as a jigsaw puzzle of memory and longing.

Garfunkel was the third and last “rock star” — the mellowest of the bunch by far — to whom Roeg gave a starring role (Art had already had supporting roles in Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge). He’s uncommonly good, even though one senses he is “adjusting” to the role as the film proceeds. As it stands, he clearly had a tougher job than Jagger (who basically played himself) and Bowie (who was indeed living a fairly “alien” lifestyle while making The Man Who Fell...).


His character is one of the most unlikeable in all of Roeg’s work. He is cold and distant, and grows more and more quiet and inhuman as the film moves toward an unforgettably nasty sequence set in Russell’s apartment.

The supporting male lead, Harvey Keitel, is terrific in his role, but it is very hard to believe that he’s a native German cop — mostly because Harvey speaks with his usual New Yawk accent.

The real star and “life force” of the picture is Russell as the carefree young woman who is sexually obsessed with Garfunkel but falls out of love with him as he turns colder and more possessive. This was Russsell’s first film with Roeg — the two went on to get married and have two children. She starred in five of his features and two shorts he made for anthology films.

Her character is a complicated woman. She continues to maintain a sexual relationship with the professor even after she has clearly stopped loving him. His eventual “turning” on her results in one of the most harrowing moments in any of Roeg’s films. The scene could be likened to various moments from Hitchcock films, but since it contains a sexual aspect it hits harder than Hitch’s “lethal husband” sequences.

To be continued...

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