Monday, July 2, 2007

Everything is Permitted


The cover of Fabulous Films/BFI’s 2006 DVD release of SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL.

WHEN Jean-Luc Godard came to London in 1968, fresh from the Paris student riots, he intended to make a pro-abortion movie, but this was abandoned after a change in legislation. The French new wave director then turned to The Rolling Stones for his subject matter, which happened to be their feature film debut. Alternatively boring and mesmerising, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL would later be re-edited by Godard as ONE PLUS ONE, after being angered by the producer’s attempts to commercialise the work so much, he punched him at the premiere. It is the director’s title version, however, that makes clearer its intention – to put together two discrete elements, rock and revolution. But these do not directly interact, nor do they sit comfortably; the black-power commune, with its eerie passive white female victims covered in blood, and a crazed, Buster Keatonesque final sequence, for example(s), are mixed with footage of the Stones working on 'Sympathy for the Devil' from its ballad beginnings to its final samba-driven form. What most strikes one about SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL is its expressive flatness; Godard’s cameras simply look at things, as though he’d rather not intervene in time’s flow at all. The filming of the Stones, meanwhile, seems to be almost autistic, as if the camera is simultaneously baffled by and unconcerned about what is going on. It doesn’t really work as a piece of cultural politics either, and has always been regarded as a lesser work in the Godard canon.

Quite where the Stones fitted into this scheme must have been beyond them. Their footage is undoubtedly fascinating, containing in itself a separate double-edged sword: the evolution of an infamous song and Brian Jones’ self-destruction. A first-person commentary from a suave and sophisticated Lucifer, 'Sympathy for the Devil' is a song that cemented fears that the band were indeed devil-worshippers and a corrupting influence on youth. It should be noted, however, that one interpretation of this song is that The Devil is in fact mankind. The lyrics are a brief history of some of the most notable atrocities committed by man against man, including wars of religion ("I watched with glee while your Kings and Queens fought for ten decades for the Gods they made"), the 1917 Russian Revolution ("I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change, killed the Czar and his ministers"), and WWII ("I rode a tank, held a general's rank while the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank"). In that light, the song would appear to be a criticism of the immorality of mankind. Jones’ estrangement from the group as the song unfolds is unforgivingly portrayed, with him spending much of his time inaudibly strumming behind a sound partition. Indeed, the most uncomfortable moment of the entire film is when Mick Jagger attempts to explain to Jones a basic chord progression, as if humouring a slow child.

Mick Jagger’s androgynous, iconic presence
on an Italian lobby card for PERFORMANCE.

Jagger would attempt to become a fully-fledged movie star in PERFORMANCE, a haunting meditation on human identity from co-directors Donald Cammel and Nicolas Roeg. This controversial film is an example of the peculiar effects generated when avant-garde or experimental practises are integrated into the Hollywood mainstream, with its innovative use of montage and mirror shots being imitated by a generation of film students. It is the story of Chas Devlin (James Fox), a sadistic petty gangster who has trouble fitting in, even with his cohorts. Chas clashes with boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) after he carries out a murder for personal - as opposed to business - reasons, and hides out in the Notting Hill basement of "retired" rock star Turner (Jagger). Turner has secluded himself in the house in order to lament the loss of his powers of "incantation," which seems primarily to mean that he indulges in a lot of drug-taking and sex with two female companions, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (the omnisexual Michele Breton). Soon, Turner – whose name can be taken somewhat literally - senses a connection between Chas’ brutally violent nature and his own dried-up creative powers, and he draws the young hood into his world.

Famously characterised by Cammell and Jagger as about "a perverted love affair between homo sapiens and lady violence," PERFORMANCE remains as provocative as ever – and one of the few truly visionary films made in the UK. The explicit sex and brutal violence was a breakthrough for British cinema, such as Chas’s oddly sexualised whipping at the hand of Maddocks (Anthony Valentine). At the time, Fox was Britain’s freshest rising screen star, but was so disturbed by his experiences here that he failed to act again for nearly a decade. Furthermore, 20th Century Fox rejected the film, delaying its release, then ordering a drastic re-edit. As Turner explains, "The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, is the one that achieves madness."

Executives sneered that even PERFORMANCE’s bath water was dirty. At least here, Jagger, Michele Breton and Anita Pallenberg save on some.

Jagger’s portrayal of Turner reinforces his stage image without copying it, and is a comment on his own life and style. Submerging himself with such a hedonistic existence, and surrounding himself with a cloying assortment of Eastern artefacts, almost every shot in his apartment is aimed past incense and tapestries. This is not the environment your everyday white-collar gangster feels at home in, but Fox’s Chas is a character who struggles to feel at home anywhere. The identities of the two men become blurred; in Turner, Chas sees his own desire for adulation, while in Chas, Turner sees his own demon, the violence needed to restore a creative impulse. When he sings Memo from T, Turner brings the two worlds of violence and the cult of rock music together, in a way much more effectively than Godard’s pretentious posturing. This song – which can claim to be the first fully-formed music video – is a sleazy post-modern blues, with Ry Cooder’s slide guitar uncoiling like a predatory snake behind Jagger’s mannered delivery of what was, for him, an unusually Dylanesque lyric, packed with references to characters we’ve never met, including a "misbred grey executive" and a "faggy little leather boy."

In the wake of PERFORMANCE, Roeg directed a number of acclaimed motion pictures, while Cammell’s career appeared to stall. The themes illustrated here – of masculinity in crisis, transformation and extreme violence – would re-appear throughout Cammell’s later work. Indeed, the artist spent four decades in the film business, but his director’s credit only appears on three further films – DEMON SEED, WHITE OF THE EYE and WILD SIDE - all of which were made in America. In their 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side, Rebecca and Sam Umland paint a picture of a life in such sexual excess that it may have been that this limited output was because professional considerations seem to take a very second place. PERFORMANCE is a scream against the hierarchy and repression that links the ruling class and the underworld that is Old England; the puzzling fact that Cammell took out French citizenship in the 1960s, and spent most of his later life in Los Angeles, perhaps starved a creativity which produced its best work under the acute observations and groundings of a society he turned his back on.