Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nicolas Roeg

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

For a brief time in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Nicolas Roeg embodied a very particular notion of a glamorous modern director. As a very properly spoken Englishman, born in 1928, the man was always an interesting counterpoint to the myth. But the coolness factor was overwhelming. After a respected career as a cinematographer (including on Lawrence Of Arabia) he made Performance with Mick Jagger (co-directed with Donald Cammell, who deserves his own article one day), and then a series of strange but sexy works in glamorous settings. Don’t Look Now is still cited for having one of the best movie sex scenes between an on-screen married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). The Man Who Fell To Earth had David Bowie, and lots more sex.

Right at the time I was seriously getting into movies, it was widely reported that Roeg would direct Flash Gordon; I seem to remember Debbie Harry was going to be in it. In the end Mike Hodges directed it, very unmemorably, instead, but then Roeg met Theresa Russell, who at the time (Roeg’s career, more than most, seems very much a matter of how things were at the time) was one of the hottest actresses, with a wanton quasi-cultish aura about her. They made Bad Timing and several other films, and despite their 29-year age gap, they got married (and later split up).

Humbling Years

In the early 80’s, Roeg made Eureka, my favourite of his films, but a big flop, and his work never had the same prominence again. For a while he continued working in his familiar style, but with declining material, and then he started to go where the work took him, all the way down to a TV version of Samson And Delilah, starring Elizabeth Hurley. His profiler on the Senses of Cinema website puts it as follows: “As someone for whom Nicolas Roeg was and remains a favourite director, the last few years have been humbling.” Roeg’s last credit was a mysterious 13-minute work, unenticingly titled The Sound Of Claudia Schiffer, but he apparently has a new film in post-production, a thriller called Puffball.

I watched four of his films again recently – Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing, Eureka and the later Cold Heaven – and generally found them as fascinating as ever. Even when you know they’re basically silly and crummy – like Cold Heaven in particular – they’re alluring. But what does it all amount to? The Senses Of Cinema writer says Roeg is one of his favourite directors, but remains vague on the rationale: “When I first became enamoured of Roeg's work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the '70s, I called him a ‘romantic nihilist.’ I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.”

Human Complacency

He also lists the raw materials of this project: “the intricate use of flashback, the unapologetic use of jump cuts and zooms, the far-flung settings, and the obsessive characters.” Roeg’s films can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s – they feel dense and tightly packed, disrupting the progress of their own narratives in myriad ways. BFI Screen Online says they operate like “experimental visual machines, bent on puncturing human complacency.” Roeg’s stories are often explicitly or implicitly supernatural, or at least based on behaviour lying outside normal parameters, and the films’ intense montage seems to reflect their extremity.

But in looking through various appraisals of Roeg, even the positive ones, it seemed to me that other writers too found it hard to pin down their enthusiasm for his films. If Don’t Look Now is the most fondly remembered overall, it’s probably because of the strong emotional pull of its central couple – a couple grieving for a lost child – against the lush Venetian settings. As well as that iconic sex scene, and its effectiveness as a creepy mood piece. But nothing about that, to cite the BFI again, “(shakes) our preconceptions about civilization and cinema.” I've read some committed analyses of Bad Timing, but none that overcomes the sense that (as the song under the closing credits put it) it’s the same old story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (although with distinctive kinkiness, and a heightened sense of the wretchedness of it all).

The only Roeg film that seems to me truly paradigm-defying is Eureka, and I suppose the real point of this article is to point a few people to that generally unknown and unappreciated film (available on DVD). Generally regarded as marking the end of Roeg’s classic run, it stars Gene Hackman as Jack McCann, who strikes gold in the Yukon after half a lifetime of trying, and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. Years later, in the 1940’s, he lives in splendour in the Caribbean, but with no real pleasure beyond his daughter (Russell again), and he becomes embroiled with mobsters determined on extracting a piece of his land.


The theme is clear enough, that Jack McCann’s life was over as soon as he found what he thought what he wanted, and everything that followed was a mere extended death spiral. This “odd drama, even for Roeg,” as Leonard Maltin puts it, works its way to a courtroom conclusion that feels needlessly melodramatic and protracted, as well as being unusually conventionally presented for him. By this time McCann is gone from the movie, obliterated with the mobsters with a glee that goes way beyond practicality, and the courtroom scenes seem to me like a wiping clean, a recourse to the institution where “truth” is identified, a new beginning that parallels the finding of the gold. Except of course that McCann’s discovery was substantial and real – shot by Roeg as a truly cosmic event – whereas the outcome of the trial is presented as laborious and little better than arbitrary (and, as the verdict is announced, overshadowed by news of the war).

This is followed by an epilogue that further establishes the theme of ongoing restlessness, and then there’s a return to Hackman years earlier, and a touching recital from Robert Service’s Spell Of The Yukon: “ isn’t the gold that I’m wanting so much as just finding the gold. It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder, It’s the forests where silence has lease; It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder, It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”

Eureka indeed exposes human complacency and punctures it, but also has the vision to present a dream of something finer, however fleeting. It’s the only major Roeg film I think that closes on a note of genuine happiness, even if from a dead man, as such suggesting the director may been limited by his attraction to elegant despair. I’m sure Roeg found the life he wanted, at least for a while, but if he found joy in it, he excluded that from his art. When you’re a moody teenager this seems rather cool, but later on – if you’re lucky - you realize the limits of nihilism, however romantic.

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