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Performance. Courtesy of BFI Stills, Posters and Designs flat (especially Pherber played by Anita Pallenberg), as well as woman, devil-incarnate Turner-Jagger).

It is not possible to 'explain' Performance with some well coordinated global interpretation. It is deliberately disturbing on so many levels, not least in form. Centrally, it contemplates and expresses feelings about the astounding gulf between its utterly opposed cultures, both of which had to an extent been experienced by Donald Cammell in particular. There is little point in using the milestones of plot for a sense of the film, and, without the usual comforts of those goals and resolutions relied on by Hollywood, expanding on the film poster's verbal (and visual) conflict is more useful. In addition to the 'madness' and 'sanity', 'fantasy' and 'reality', 'death' and 'life', 'vice' and 'versa', Performance is about Britain and social class, the British establishment, class identity, culture, counter-culture, violence, sex, sexual violence, hatred, fear, shame, repression, liberation, love, class, observation, involvement, manipulation, sexual identity, heterosexuality, homosexuality, gender role subversion, mirrors and reflections. Among all this, taking in a wealth of textual and subtextual references from literature, poetry, drama and cinema, Performance is also about the Rolling Stones or, more specifically, their visual icon - Mick Jagger.

The production of Performance, on location in and around

London, has been surrounded by so many myths that it has become difficult to know which stories to believe ever since, but enough has always been known to raise the question as to how Warner Brothers could ever have funded such a wild creation, shaped by novice directors, exerting so little studio control until it was too late. Any studio executives' blindness is explained partly by just how 'hot' the very idea of film starring arch-Stone Jagger was. In purely commercial terms, the Rolling Stones were second only to the Beatles. As an embodiment of the dangerous tide of youth rebellion against the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, Jagger himself was 'His Satanic Majesty', Emperor of all that was abhorrent to the protectorates of 'common decency'. Cammell and Roeg knew exactly what Jagger represented and at one level Turner was simply Jagger in close up. In this respect, a reading of Performance demands reading of the headlines and newsreels of the mid-late 1960s. The film's narrative structure upset Warner Brothers, but its depiction of sex and violence, unprecedented in a Hollywood project, appalled them. Performance was almost closed down during shooting, but its 'final' cut was the limit, and Warner Brothers forced a re-cut. The impression was that Warner Brothers were still deeply disturbed and embarrassed by Performance when it was finally released in 1970. The critical reaction in America was extremely negative, although considerably better in Britain in 1971, where the critical establishment was now considerably more liberal than the one that had condemned Peeping Tom in 1960 (when condemnation had gone beyond 'this is a bad film' and into the realms of 'this is evil and should be destroyed').

Cinema audiences have a long-standing appetite for being frightened, but there is little evidence of a willingness to be profoundly disturbed in mainstream theatres. Part of Performance is a straightforward gangster-thriller plot, but its cinematic 'persona' had everything to do with its skilful, complex, unquestionably powerful use of image and sound overlapping and juxtaposition. Violence screams familiar anger and blood, but also stuns in the abstract, with the visual conflict between motion and stillness/stills, continuity and fragmented non-verbal connections. Censorship is part of the film, as unwelcome necessity, but equally as part of the film's own territory and interest in voyeurism. Roeg and Cammell's success in sheer visual impact seems like a precursor to later directors who may be less revolutionary, but still greatly accomplished in taking British film out of the theatrical/verbal and towards the visual. Neil Jordan's films, from the outset, are good examples. What Alan Parker tried to do non-verbally with his Pink Floyd music vehicle The Wall also has similarities. Performance has to be celebrated as a landmark British film, one that showed there were ideas and talent around that promised the possibility of surprise, even liberation from the constraints of conventionality shown by even 'revolutionary' forms, including the post-neo-realist British 'working-class' films of the late 1950s and 1960s. The mirrors and echoes of its free-style construct makes it one of a very few works in mainstream cinema about which the word 'explores' might be used with justification - a regular critics' phrase that is, in the vast majority of applications, utterly groundless. There can be only one satisfactory way to grasp why Performance has to be a key film text: sit and observe the film, in the light of any and every film you have seen before or since.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

8 Would you describe Performance as 'dated'? What precisely does this mean?

• Were you aware of any documentary style of presentation while watching it?

• Why did Roeg and Cammell shoot/edit the scene of Chas's violent beating in the fractured way that they did?

• What are the main themes/ideas/concerns about sex expressed in the film?

• Can aspects of Performance be compared with music videos?

• In what sense was / is Performance disturbing?

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