“Performance” and British cinema in the 1970s

The second in this series analysing British cinema from 1970 – 1982 continues with 1970’s Performance, produced by Goodtimes Enterprises.

Performance was produced in the 1960s, during the rise of the popular music movement, which was exported internationally, and made Britain marketable overseas as a culture. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first became popular during this time. Youth culture had broken-away to become its own sub-identity. The young adult was now understood to be a distinct life stage between teen-hood and adulthood. The Independent Television network spread away from London to establish regional channels. Older people preferred to stay at home and watch television, rather than go out to cinemas (when The Italian Job premiered on Independent Television in 1976, the British box-office grossed 70% below average). It was young people that were considered to be the future of British cinema, and became British cinema’s perceived primary target audience. Following the success of A Hard Day’s Night starring The Beatles from United Artists, Goodtimes Enterprises commissioned a slate of films that would star musicians, such as 1975’s Slade in Flame starring Slade and 1976’s James Dean: The First American Teenager starring James Dean. Performance was the first of these, produced in 1968 and starring Mick Jagger (designed entirely as a vehicle). The role of Chas was originally cast with Marlon Brando, who dropped-out and was replaced with James Fox. Director Donald Cammell began as an artist, having written Duffy. However, despite being billed as the lead, Jagger makes little more than an extended cameo; even then, Cammell had cut earlier scenes in order to eliminate the gangster subplot and arrive at Jagger’s place in the story. In The Story of Film: An Odyssey – Movies to Change the World, Mark Cousins called Performance the only film that is contemporary viewing for film students. Of note are the opening scenes, which combine contrapuntal images for dramatic effect. During a trial scene, a lawyer is making the case for Harry Flowers – this is inter-cut with an earlier scene of Flowers threatening the same lawyer; e.g., the lawyer is giving a “performance” to the jury. The visual motif throughout Performance is that of dichotomies and hidden truths. Flowers is a gangster who lives with another person and pretends to be a humble bachelor – the truth about his protection racket being investigated by the police is completely unknown to his flatmate. Flowers, as a character, is introduced with an editing style that compliments his contradictory personality: the two cars driven by the lawyers and by flowers look similar, Flower’s bedroom is designed similarly to the court room, and Flowers arranges it with the obsessed compulsion expected of a gangster. But this lust for control is also implied to be a projection of an inner repression. The supposedly “good” characters all break the law in their own, small way – this is a blurring of the lines between morality. But morality is not the only fluid concept. Mirrors are a recurring aesthetic cue that creates a theme of mirror-imaging. Everyone is reflecting a personality different to their true self; they are all “performers” (The Performers was a working title after The Liars). The car window seen at the beginning is similar to a car window seen at the end – is it the same journey, told in non-chronological order, or two journeys – the first taking Flowers to his destination at the beginning? Flowers’ attitude to women is typical of characters repressing their true sexuality. Even during sex, Flowers would appear to only be performing, though the exact nature of these scenes are difficult to understand due to how quickly some shots are inserted. Red is a repeated pattern, particularly at the end when Flowers shoots Jagger’s Turner in-which the screen fills with red. Doors closing on cars, buildings and draws are edited-together to imply entrapment, while a closing closet door has a picture of Jagger on the inside. All of Performance is a film in-which everyone pretends to be something they’re not. Though produced in 1968, Performance wasn’t released until 1971, due to internal disagreements within Warner Bros. Pictures.

Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun Times, awarded Performance 2.5/4 stars, writing:

The movie is so nervously edited that it doesn’t stay around to develop the effects it introduces. That was a tendency with many semi-experimental British films of the early seventies; they were so concerned with reminding us they’re movies that they don’t do the work movies should.

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Author: the Purple Prose Mage

I'm not Batman, but I wish that I were.

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