Performance (UK 1970)

Saturday July 27th 5.30 p.m.

This is both a cult movie and a seminal British film. Chas, (James Fox) is an East End gang member who collects protection money. When his methods result in a killing he goes on the run and hides out in Notting Hill Gate basement, where, upstairs there is a ménage à trois. Chas becomes involved in the hedonistic activities at the house and, in particular with an ex-rock musician Turner (Mick Jagger).

The film became infamous for its melee of explicit violence, sex and drug-taking. The 1970s also became infamous for the clash between adventurous film-making and conservative values, embodied in another British film The Devils (1971) and the campaign against it by an organisation called ‘The Festival of Light’.

This film was produced by Warner Brothers, who also were involved in the equally controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). The studio executives did not know how to manage the film and enforced cuts in the finished property. The British Board of Film Censorship [as it then was] made more cuts. On release it received an ‘X certificate’ whilst in the USA it received an ‘R’ rating. It received similar certificates in other territories and often additional cuts. The USA release suffered the further indignity of having some cockney dialogue being dubbed [re-voiced]; a fate also experienced by the radically different Kes (1969).

Two people received director credits. Donald Cammell, a bona fide maverick, who wrote the screenplay and was also associate producer. He was born in Edinburgh in the ‘Outlook Tower’ later home for a ‘Camera Obscura’; how apt. Cammell started out as a painter, took up script-writing and then Performance. This is his most famous and successful film; later works have a similar combination of the exotic and the erotic, but not the acclaim.

His fellow director was Nicolas Roeg. He was born in London; and also appropriately nearly opposite the old Marylebone Film Studio, used at one point by Hammer Films. He started out as a cinematographer and indeed shot this film. He went onto direct several successful and highly praised films, including Don’t Look Now (1973), screened in a digital version here last week. He had an unconventional style of film photography. One critic, Steve Rose, remarked that his films

“shatter reality into a thousand pieces” .

His film work, as in this title, is always memorable.

The film runs 105 minutes in colour and black and white, and in the European widescreen ratio. This screening presents the restoration by the BFI from 2004 in 35mm.

The background to the film and its handling by the industry and censors will be illuminated in the Q&A that follows with Sanford Lieberson, the producer on the film. His other work includes a number of documentaries including the very fine ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975). He will be accompanied by Jay Glennie who has produced a book; ‘Performance: 50th Anniversary Book’.

One thought on “Performance (UK 1970)

  1. Ah, Performance. What an extraordinary piece of cinema. What a fantastic occasion. For me, this is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s also one of the most written about, so I don’t feel the need to say much here. Just a few comments:
    • Sex and death, pirouetting perfectly around each other.
    • Wonderful production design, beautifully textured, really coming through in this pristine 35 mm print.
    • James Fox’s greatest performance. Of the rest of the cast many are not proper actors, all are perfectly convincing in their roles, we never doubt any of them for a moment.
    • Themes of diverse sexuality and fluid gender, radical in 1968, are newly pertinent today.
    Shown to a full audience with a wide age range including plenty of freaks, and followed by a lengthy q&a with producer Sanford Lieberson and an author, Jay Glennie, who was hawking his new book about Performance. The session, awkward at first, settled into a warm discussion. Among other things we learnt that the first act, set in the world of the Kray-like gangsters, was originally much longer. The film-makers cut it by over 10 minutes, at Warner Brothers request, so we didn’t have to wait so long to see the bankable Mick Jagger. We also heard a lot about how the screenplay was influenced by the very particular atmosphere of London at the time, with its mingling of aristocrats, counter-culture entertainers, gangsters, and plenty of drugs.


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