October 13, 2013

Queer Review: Performance (1970)

Directors: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Writers: Donald Cammell and Anita Pallenberg
Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton, Ann Sidney, John Bindon, Johnny Shannon, Anthony Morton, Allan Cuthbertson, Stanley Meadows

Inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, this psychedelic gangster tale has a few interesting elements but is ultimately too incoherent and badly paced to be worth a full watch.

Chas (James Fox) is a gangster on the run after he becomes the target of an inexplicable hit gone wrong. He takes refuge in the home of retired musician Turner (Mick Jagger) and the their two opposing personalities cause the two to clash. Eventually though, they begin to take on each others identities. By the end, they are indistinguishable.

The Queering
When I took metaphysics back at SUNY Oneonta, I absolutely despised the material and lines of questioning the lone saving grace of the course was having to Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths. Due to the obtuseness of certain parts of the narratives, it took me a little while to warm up to his work. However, once I did, I found it to be some of the most provocative and intellectually stimulating material I had ever read.

Unfortunately, the only aspect of Borges captured by the filmmakers here is the obtuseness. "Provocative" and "stimulating" are far from the descriptors that could apply. The terms that spring to mind instead are "relatively boring" and "pretentious". There is a lot of stuff that goes on in Performance that is designed to simply not make sense. Randomness and incoherence are perhaps the best keywords to describe the philosophy of the filmmakers.

That is not to say there are not any small pleasures to be had. Mick Jagger performing a psychedelic version of "Memo from Turner" is chief among them and for reasons that have nothing to do with the stripping gangsters the scene features.

I'm including "Memo from Turner" here as it's the only scene from the film worth seeing and imagine that more than a few people out there might want to watch it without watching the whole movie. Although, thanks to the aforementioned stripping gangsters, a NSFW warning is warranted:

Speaking of Mick Jagger's performance in the film, it shows flashes of brilliance, at least outside of the scenes where he isn't too busy looking stoned. James Fox is alright I suppose. And nobody else does anything worth commenting on.

From a technical perspective, the opening scenes are the worst, with editing that jumps from scene to scene without bothering to make sense. Once things settle down after a little bit, the film becomes a little easier to understand, but by that point, the whole thing turns into a turgid mess.

Borges was a brilliant writer and elements of his philosophies and stories can be found scattered throughout. Most notably, "The Theologians", of which the ending of Performance borrows a key plot twist from. Also, the camera frequently focuses on labyrinth-esque imagery as well, which were a common motif in Borges' writings. The idea of our lives being little more than performances for outsiders, which the film relies heavily upon, can also be seen as Borgesian.

There is a certain tendency among certain groups of artists and storytellers, that I have encountered, that holds that randomness and (and thus the resulting incoherence of that randomness) are markers of original storytelling and artistic vision. This attitude can be seen most strongly in not only the filmmakers of Performance but in defenders of films like Mulloholand Drive, among others. However, it was while contemplating some of Borges works, particularly, "The Library of Babel", that a reason why this attitude is problematic occured to me.

In "The Library of Babel" Borges proposes a universe that is simply a library, in which people live, and has books that contain every possible combination of letters of a certain page length. In short, the library of Babel contains not only every possible story and nonsensical combination of letters possible. What is important to note about this, is that in the Library of Babel, that stories that are random and incoherent are going to be most common stories. In short, what I am getting at is that randomness and incoherence are not markers of originality but rather indicates that an artist or storyteller has exhausted their creative energies. Of course, I have issues with the idea that "originality" is something worth striving for to begin with, but that's an issue for another day...

Of course, I would be remiss to note that Performance does have something of a place in cinema history. The "Memo From Turner" scene would inspire the development of music videos in the eighties. Furthermore, the obviously queer gangsters that Chas starts out on the same side of, appear to have been directly inspired by The Kray Brothers organization, The Firm. John Bindon, who plays one of the gangsters, was rumored to have been an associate of The Krays. Furthermore, Performance can be seen as having influenced subsequent British gangster films, most notably those by Guy Ritchie.

Other queer elements worth commenting on include the queer subtext that develops between Chas and Turner, in addition to the instances of cross dressing.

This particular Performance is one best appreciated from a distance, if at all.

The Rating
** out of ****


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