Friday, 7 February 2014

A Mars for Performance

Performance: The Biography of a 60's Masterpiece, Paul Buck's excellent study of Cammell and Roeg's seminal film was the first book I read this year, and I enjoyed it so much I gulped it down in four short sittings. I must admit I initially approached the book with some trepidation - the film had already been extensively written about by Colin McCabe as part of the BFI Film Classics line, and Mick Brown for the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, and the film was given considerable coverage in Rebecca and Sam Umland's excellent 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side. Was there anything left to say about Performance ? Well, yes as it happens. Paul Buck's overview of the film from a sketchy storyline written in 1967 entitled The Liars through to the film's final edit in late 1969, is fresh and exciting, the author evidently well placed to discuss the film - he's been watching Performance for the past 40 odd years and witnessed a pre-release version of the film which included a scene where Chas (James Fox), ambushed in his flat savors a masochistic moment when a dying Joey Maddock's draws a straight razor across Chas' shoe, a scene Buck reveals was a reference to the eye-slitting shot in Un Chien Andalou

A treasure trove of information for Performance fans, the real jewel of the book is Buck's scene by scene examination of the film in which he decodes the myriad of obscure references Cammell injected into the film. I'll leave it for interested readers to discover them for themselves, but I'll mention one memorable revelation, which is virtually impossible to spot on home video. At the 36.24 mark there's a point of view shot of Chas looking down at the doorway of 81 Powis Square, and among the items placed in the shot are some milk bottles, a carton of cream and four Mars bars - the Mars bars being a subliminal reference to the Redlands drug bust in February '67 and the apocryphal story that when the police entered Keith Richards' home, the arresting officers found Marianne Faithful with a mars bar inserted in her vagina. By the time Performance was released this ludicrous and thoroughly untrue story had been well planted in the public consciousness as the kind of routine hedonism the Stones and their entourage engaged in. Still, the story caused Marianne Faithful much distress at the time and the placing of the mars bar in the shot was rather cruel. Of course no one actually knows who was responsible for this, whether it was Cammell or a mischievous set dresser, so this is one secret it seems Performance is not willing to give up...

Final word on the film: I can't match Paul Bucks' long association with the film but I've been obsessed with Performance for 20 years now. I can actually point to the exact date, day, even hour when I first saw the film. On October 2nd, 1993 BBC2 screened the film in a late night slot (11:35pm) as part of a season of films entitled Hollywood UK. The BBC2 screening I subsequently discovered was slightly cut, with some violence trimmed from the sequence where Chas is attacked in his flat. Later I found the film as a sell-through Warners VHS tape (packaged as part of a generic line of gangster films), but sadly the film was even more cut than the BBC2 screening. Worse still, some of the cast members had their lines poorly dubbed. Performance then returned to BBC2 on May 28th 1995 as part the Forbidden Weekend, a program of censor-baiting films, and this edition of the film restored the violence removed from the previous BBC2 screening, making it the longest Performance seen since the film's initial release. Warners issued this version on VHS in 1997 as part of their Mavericks line, and while the film was now essentially uncut, the irritating dub job remained. Thankfully, when Warners rolled out the film for DVD in 2008, the film played uncut and with all the original cast members voices re-instated. At the time of writing, this is still the best version of Performance available although it comes with a caveat - during Memo From Turner, Mick Jagger's line "Here's to old England" is inexplicably missing from the soundtrack (the line can be heard in this lo-fi clip, at the 2.47 mark.) 


  1. I really need to revisit Performance, I haven't seen it since that exact same BBC2 showing in 1993. It too was my first time, and I'm sorry to say it didn't do it for me at all! I picked up the dvd release not long ago, but haven't felt like the time was right. You've set me up nicely for it with this post Wes.

  2. Mart, you're the second friend who doesn't dig Performance - what is it with you guys ?? Seriously though, I'm hoping to catch a screening of John Boorman's Point Blank which was an influence on Performance - I haven't seen the film in a few years, and I grabbed it off BBC4 recently.

  3. Now you're talking, I love, love love Point Blank. Eagerly awaiting a blu release. I'll let you know when I see Performance again!