It can be easy to overlook the spectacular hot streak that began Nicolas Roeg’s directorial career. Not many filmmakers start out their careers with five consecutive four on the floor drumbeat classics, but Roeg did.
Before taking to the director’s chair, Roeg was a brilliant cinematographer. A skill that served him well once promoted to director. He beautifully lensed such 60s films as The Masque Of The Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, Far From The Madding Crowd, and Petulia.
It wasn’t until 1970 with Performance, that Roeg began his career as a director. Brought on initially as the cinematographer for director, and noted British wild man, Donald Cammell, Roeg soon took over much of the direction while forwarding Cammell’s vision.
Performance was a landmark in decadent freeform filmmaking. The story of a rock star – embodied by a never better onscreen, Mick Jagger – housing a London gangster on the run is as electrifying as it is impenetrable. The fact that the movie makes little sense is no matter. It stands alongside Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Hopper and Fonda’s Easy Rider as a cinematic testament to new wave cinema. Some have argued that Jagger’s rendition of the fabulous rocker Memo From Turner midway through the film is the first “music video”.
Roeg then went out on his own for his next four masterpieces.
First came the remarkable Walkabout. An elliptical tale of a 14-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother stranded in the Australian outback after their father goes berserk on a picnic. The two siblings are kept alive by an aboriginal boy on his ceremonial rite of passage that the film’s name comes from. As with all Roeg movies, explaining them does them little justice. Walkabout is so well composed visually that it would have worked as a silent film. In fact, it often does.
His most celebrated film would follow. The terrifying psychological horror film Don’t Look Now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as grieving parents in Venice. Noted as much for its groundbreaking sex scene between the leads as for its pervasive tension and dread, Don’t Look Now is not only frightening, it is a heartbreaking examination of loss built upon the greatest of fears.
He then made the most perfect casting decision in the history of the medium by selecting David Bowie to play an alien come to earth in the hopes of finding a water source for his drought-ridden planet. He becomes a Howard Hughes-like celebrity due to bringing his planet’s technological advances to ours. Earth is a sad, prescient film. It is rife with commentary that can be applied to our current questions about fame, the environment, and even immigration.
At this point it is worth mentioning that no one distilled the personas of Bowie and Jagger on film better than Roeg. Which seems like a sizable achievement in and of itself. Let us continue.
The final classic of Roeg’s first five is also his most under-appreciated. 1980’s Bad Timing (subtitled A Sensual Obssession). It’s his first – and best – film with his muse, Theresa Russell. Told through fragmented flashbacks, the story of a young woman’s (Russell) apparent suicide attempt and the investigation around the circumstances is highly experimental. But what it lacks in conventional narrative flow it more than makes up for in dark, seedy melodrama. Given a X rating upon its release, the film died a quick death. It’s own distributor called the film “a sick film made by sick people for sick people.” I’m not sure they were entirely wrong, but that criticism does not bend the will of the film’s artistic expression. Which is mighty.
Roeg continued to make films on into the mid-nineties. With rare exception, they were either forgettable or worse. Almost all of them were largely unseen. It is a brutal fact to see his name attached to a film called Full Body Massage, but there it is. Starring Mimi Rogers. Getting a full… oh, never mind.
There were two quality exceptions in this final fallow period of his career. The 1985 oddity Insignificance starring Russell and Tony Curtis is a curious, if largely effective, treatise on the nature of celebrity. Using Russell, Curtis, Gary Busey, and Michael Emil as stand-ins for fictionalized versions of Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein, respectively, Insignificance finds all four characters in the same hotel room musing on their lives. It’s a minor film, but a good one.
Better still was 1990’s The Witches, starring Anjelica Huston in full prime as a high witch in this completely successful version of the Roald Dahl book (although Dahl himself too issue with many of Roeg’s artistic liberties). Sadly, despite many a critical rave, the studio botched the promotion and release of the film, and this dark, modern children’s classic fared poorly at the box office.
The Witches was Roeg’s last hurrah. A fantastic one that should have lead to better opportunities. Sadly, little of merit would follow.
That’s not how one should remember Nicolas Roeg. Roeg was an innovator, an experimenter, a darkly lustrous visionary whose visual compositions knew few equals. From 1970 to 1980 he made five great, historic films. During the fabled auteur era of directors he was one of the finest.
That should be his epitaph.
Nicolas Roeg died yesterday. He was 90 years old.