Movie night with Urbaniak: Performance


  nor I had ever seen Nicholas Roeg’s 1969 druggy, draggy landmark of 60s Weird British Cinema before, so we were on equal footing for this viewing.

Myself, I’ve come to believe that the cinematic form demands a certain complexity of plot. Others, obviously, disagree. In any case, I’m always keeping my eye out for novel plotlines, so I kept a pad of paper and pen handy to record the plot of Performance. Here’s what I wrote:

“Chas is a cockney gangster in the 60s” (James Fox is quite startling in this part, seamlessly playing a snide, brutal thug, not unlike Michael Caine’s gangster roles of the same period, and looking a lot like Paul Bettany in Gangster #1 (which is set in the same time period).

“He gets in trouble with his boss and has to go on the lam. He scams a room in a creepy dive, a townhouse that happens to be owned by a guy named Turner, who used to be some kind of pop star.” (Turner is played by Mick Jagger, who is always fascinating to watch, but the part is drastically underwritten, I’m guessing intentionally so, to keep him enigmatic and weird.)

That’s Act I, and it’s straightforward enough. The editing is, to my taste, a little show-offy and grating, but up to here it’s still pretty much a 60s Cockney Gangster Movie (this genre would be revived in the 80s by movies like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa, and in the 90s by Guy Ritchie, whose movies had show-offy editing of their own).

(One of my favorite things about Cockney Gangster Movies is that everyone freaks out whenever someone pulls out a gun. You, essentially, have Gangsters Without Guns, because guns are a relative rarity in Britain. Here in the US, it’s assumed that all gangsters (at least in movies) carry guns at all times, but when a Cockney Gangster pulls out a gun, everyone hits the deck — watch out, he’s got a gun! No “Mexican Standoffs” for Cockney Gangsters, it’s all punch-ups and thrown chairs. At the climax of The Long Good Friday, Cockney Kingpin Bob Hoskins goes to war with somebody or other, calls his guys to his HQ, and passes out guns — “okay boys, here you go, come and get ’em.” Imagine Al Pacino in Scarface having to supply his thugs with guns at a special meeting.)

At the end of Act I, Chas dyes his hair red and puts on sunglasses and a trenchcoat, and begins to look disturbingly like David Bowie in 1975 (which I’m beginning to think is not a coincidence — that was the year Bowie performed in Roeg’s similarly plotted The Man Who Fell To Earth).

Act II

“Chas tries to figure out what the hell is the deal with Turner.” Turner himself is uncommunicative to the point of opacity, but he has a couple of birds who live with him who are more than happy (delighted, even) to share their secrets with him. They wander around the house, take baths, take drugs, dress up, have sex in various combinations, talk about philosophy, essentially lead a burnt-out late-60s version of the hippie dream. Turner, we eventually find out, used to be a pop star but has lost his inspiration, is looking for something new. “A time for a change,” says Turner, over and over, quoting Mick Jagger, who happens to be playing Turner. There’s a child, I don’t know whose, who also lives in the house. Turner wants Chas out, but then decides to let him stick around.


“They try to fuck him up — why? Chas freaks out.” Turner’s girlfriend feeds Chas a psychedelic mushroom. Chas has a bad trip. The themes of Act II are pushed to their abstract extremes. Incident drops severely as Chas’s concerns turn within. And I have a confession to make: I have about as much patience with movies that try to describe altered states of consciousness as I do with people who try to describe altered states of consciousness.

Anyway, Chas freaks out for a long, long time, and then, just when the movie has lost all semblance of form, it bursts through into a weird, four-minute musical number where Mick Jagger, now made up as a Cockney Gangster, sings “Memo From Turner” to Chas and his Cockney Gangster Pals, backed by the able Rolling Stones. The scene makes no sense in any way I feel like trying to discern, but it is electrifying, and I’m guessing it was inserted by studio people who said “What? You’ve got Mick Jagger in your movie and he’s not going to sing? Then what the hell is he doing there?”

“Chas’s pals come and get him.” Because the movie has to end somehow. Chas’s pals find out where he’s hiding (he doesn’t make it very hard for them) and show up. And there he is, now wearing a chestnut wig and hippie clothes, looking less like David Bowie and more like a member of Spinal Tap. It’s the Lord of the Flies moment, where “order” is suddenly restored and we see how far gone the protagonist is.

But the movie isn’t quite over yet. Something happens between Chas’s pals showing up and Chas (or someone, it’s not clear who) getting in the car with them. Someone shoots someone else in the head, someone winds up dead in a closet, someone else is shown covered in blood in an elevator. I’m not trying to keep a secret here, I honestly have no idea who’s doing what to whom.

The End.

TODD: So, I’m sorry, wait — I have a question. What just happened there?
JAMES: (Cockney accent) Well, it’s about identity, innit?

James, I will have to say, got a lot more out of this movie than I did. He recognized that it was saying something about its time (the 60s), and how the world seemed to be exploding with all these new avenues of psychological and spiritual investigation, and here’s two guys who are coming to the end of that decade from two different directions, the gangster on the lam symbolizing the “establishment” and the burnt-out pop star representing “bohemia,” and they’re both stuck in this purgatory-like house, their lives on hold as they try to figure out where to go now that all the rules have been suspended. And it’s true, the movie does do that. I just wish it would have done it with more plot.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Thomas Jerome Newton is from another planet.  In a piece of canny 1970s casting, he is played by David Bowie.

Newton has come to Earth with a number of extremely valuable patents tucked under his arm.  His plan is: find the world’s greatest patent attorney, form a gigantic corporation that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars of income, and use the money to — to — well, that’s the part where I get lost.

Apparently his planet is in trouble.  They’re all out of water, and they desperately need water to — to — well I’m sure they need it to live, but all we ever see in the movie is that they use copious amounts of it in the course of their marital duties.  But that’s enough, fine.  Thomas Jerome Newton needs water or else he can’t fly through the air in sexual ecstasy with his wife in huge cascades of water.  So he’s come to Earth because we have water.  It’s like we’re a giant-sized Pleasure Chest store for him.  “Be right back honey, I have to pop down to Earth for some lubricant.”

He knows how Earthlings talk and think and what they value.  He knows all this because he’s been watching our television for decades on his home planet.  He knows we’re motivated by greed and materialism and he’s got a plan to use that greed to make a pile of money and — and — well again I’m less clear on that.

After many decades of living on Earth and building his fortune, he builds a spaceship to go back home.  What his plan is, I don’t know.  He’s not going to bring back a ton of water to his waterless planet and we’ve seen that his wife and children are already dead.

Now that I think of it, what’s going on on Newton’s home planet?  There seem to be only three people living there, his wife and kids.  They don’t have a house or food, all they have is a charmingly home-made papier-mache beehive with sails that trundles along on a track.  Yet somehow they got it together to send Newton to another planet, so presumably there’s a space center somewhere with rockets and a launchpad and people running it and all that stuff you need to send people into space.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t Newton just bring his wife and kids along?

But no, they stay behind and never age, because apparently the folks on Newton’s home planet don’t age, even the children remain the same size for decades.  And they wait by the trundling beehive, because — because — well I’m not clear on that either.  I think the trundling beehive is the planet’s mass-transit system, but since the beehive has stopped permanently in one spot there doesn’t seem to be much reason to wait there for Daddy to come home.

Anyway, after a very long time, Newton compiles his wealth to build a spaceship to get back home.  I don’t know what he’s going to do once he gets home, maybe he’s just a scout for Earth and he’s setting up his gigantic corporation so that he can start bringing his people here and have them live in splendor.

Just as he’s getting ready to get on his spaceship to go home, he gets kidnapped by — by — by an evil somebody, and his patent attorney is killed by the same evil somebody.  It’s unclear.  Is it another corporation, is it the government?  Somebody wants to derail Newton’s plans and they will stop at nothing to do it.

Newton is placed in exile in a hotel under guard.  He is studied by scientists.  The scientists seem both convinced that there’s nothing unusual about Newton and convinced that he is an alien.  In any case they make him very uncomfortable and he has no choice but to take comfort in large amounts of gin.

Eventually everyone loses interest in him and he escapes out into the world.  He makes a recording to be broadcast into space where his wife might hear it.  We never hear the recording but I’m guessing the message on it is something like: “Dear Wife: had a plan to use human greed to get water to us so we could havesex again but got screwed over by the same human greed I was hoping to exploit.  Never coming back.  Sorry.  Best to the kids.  PS: Don’t wait by the Beehive Station lying in the sand for decades — for God’s sake GO HOME!”

Strictly speaking, the movie falls into science-fiction, but as we can see, it is not the nuts-and-bolts wing of the genre but rather the spiritual/societal analysis wing.  Indeed, the movie is content to explain very little at all, in spite of being well over two hours long. 

The production design is perfunctory.  Newton’s inventions, which are supposed to be futuristic and amazing, are clunky, ugly and unappealing.  His rocket-building center is housed within a grain-elevator complex with nothing but chain-link fences for security.  Decades pass within but it remains steadfastly 1976.  Earthlings get old and grey and fat but records are still pressed on vinyl and cost less than five dollars, men still wear polyester leisure suits, and Newton even drives the same car throughout.  It’s as though Newton’s arrival on Earth brought the evolution of human design to a screeching halt.

The movie’s strategy of ignoring explanations has its strengths.  It’s moody and jarring and elusive, and Bowie is cooler than cool as the slowly dissipating visitor who becomes, alas, too accustomed to Earth ways.  In fact, I think that’s the real point of the movie after all, not to tell the story of aliens and government conspiracies but to dramatise the story of an idealistic young man who enters the world with a clear purpose and to show his increasing anxiety at being co-opted, distracted and annihlated by the inevitable crushing forces of capitalist greed and human frailty.  (Bowie, apparently, felt a strong connection to the character — he used images from the movie on two consecutive album covers — but did he realize that he, too, would eventually become human, falling from stardom to mere showbizhood?  Or is that, in fact, the subtext to his performance?)

This being the 70s, there’s also lots of nudity.

David Bowie would later reprise the “weird guy with a miraculous invention” role in The Prestige.  Rip Torn, who plays the only guy who knows Newton’s secret, would reprise the “guy who knows there are aliens on Earth” role in the Men in Black franchise.

The Criterion edition helpfully includes a copy of the original novel, which I have not read, but which I presume holds many of the answers to the movie’s narrative ellipses. hit counter html code