THE BLOG
12/29/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Director Nicolas Roeg Looks Back

Oft times seeming to reveal little or rather more than we realize, full of "butterfly effect" ruminations, Roeg's memoirs flow and intercut like one of his films. Like many of the enfants terribles who came of age in the '60s and directed in the '70s into the '80s, Roeg found his projects increasingly difficult to fund, and his 2007 Puffball was critically judged as not his best effort -- but Roeg especially for UK cinema, had already completely changed the rules of the game of what one could portray and inject into putatively mainstream even art house cinema. Performance (1970), Walkabout (1970), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980) and Insignificance (1985) now have the aura of classics -- as Danny Boyle promotes on the cover copy "he is British film's Picasso." (His 1982 Eureka should be added to this all-time best list but frequently isn't). Published in Roeg's ripe 85th year, The World Is Ever Changing (Faber and Faber, 2013) is a paean to the cinema and its magical properties. As a director who plied his lead actors on Don't Look Now with manuals on medieval sorcery and witchcraft, Roeg sees cinema as the very best amalgamation of "reality, art, science and the supernatural" -- "It has already, and still does, open doors of revelation which will finally show us the future. The future in the 'time conundrum' that has already happened".

Roeg found this Blakean eternity in the dubbing studios of his very first cinema job with the Editola witnessing the miracles of playback. "Running it backwards and forwards fascinated me -- life passing and then returning... this whole idea of connecting film with our minds is still unexplored". Comparing the camera with a roving "conscious/unconscious" has been done by others, but Roeg placed the wanderings of consciousness quite literally in his films -- the vocalized thoughts in Cold Heaven, or the animal shot by hunters in Walkabout that comes back to life in the imagination of the witnessing child. The extraordinary capacity if not superiority of film over other art forms for Roeg is based on this -- the overwhelming reliance on the image, not some other kind of language. Roeg writes "the image can be much more frightening than the word. Much more frightening. Much more thought provoking." Roeg is an avuncular diverting guide through this history of the movies that coincides with his own existence. He obtained his first film credit age 22 as assistant cameraman on Calling Bulldog Drummond in 1950, and before directing was camera operator or director of photography on films like Lawrence of Arabia, Fahrenheit 451, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Far from the Madding Crowd. Roeg discusses the difference between American and English actors, drops poignant and revealing vignettes of Edward Bond, David Lean, David Bowie among others and provides an account of an elderly woman who visited him out of the blue to share her intimate vision of a past life with him in the early 19th century -- "one of those secret moments of madness or coincidence that shape one's thoughts, but one hesitates to discuss" -- all woven together with the serendipity of one of his films.

These flashes of kismet were key to the brilliant impact of his films -- between the skipped synapses and precognition where life happens -- the missed confession in Bad Timing or the foreshadowing of the death of Donald Sutherland's character in the first sequences of Don't Look Now. But these issues are intertwined with sex for Roeg, and never more so than in his real breakthrough film, his first as director, albeit as co-director in a remarkably close and multifaceted manner with Donald Cammell, the inimitable Performance. Performance is a major anomaly in a host of ways -- rarely have first-time directors and other personnel commanded such a major studio budget, and for such a foray into uncharted territory. Roeg feels pictures now favor romance more than explicitly sexual scenes, and while some surveys concur a broader view might be that the wide allowance for sex in the movies has everything to do with films like Roeg's Performance that showed intimacy in an entirely new way. As Roeg is fond of saying "it's all in the timing," and Performance was made in that all too brief interregnum when alternative worlds were made palpable. Indeed it seems universes away when pop or rock stars carried political significance (when Mick Jagger's lifestyle, as art historian Adrian Henri could write, was more subversive than John Lennon's mawkish "political" songs), and in Performance Jagger lent his charisma to the combustible suggestion of an alliance between youth "counterculture" and the criminal underworld. This proposed fusion of "pop music and violent crime," Colin MacCabe has written, "is also the fantasy of the fundamental unity of the human, " a "recurring element in much mystical and magical thinking".

Despite his influence on UK cinema, this translation of conflicts through the body and the vicissitudes of all its sexualities is taken up more, possibly, by the "cinema of sensation" in France, particularly in what has been dubbed the "cinévoodoo" of Philippe Grandrieux, whose Malgré la nuit, for example, is currently in production. Such films' alternation of psychosis or shamanic trance thrive on live theater or performance that can spill over disturbingly into "reality," in a manner Performance once made notorious. Roeg was more content to remain within the frames of a beloved cinema, and rather than overcome art/life dichotomies, looks to the movies still to "hold clues to realities even bigger than Einstein or Darwin's theories." Much like Luis Buñuel who imagined one day, soon, a pill would become available one could pop and project whatever film one wished to see, Roeg foresees actually entering the past and "moviegoing will take place in a dream state and in a form of personal hypnotism." His notion of 3D includes the viewers becoming part of the tableau, becoming yet another character as they pass among them. Film's promise for Roeg remains undimmed and unplumbed in its ability to thus mediate different "realities" -- "Perhaps we are not the creatures we think we are."