Bugger. Just when I’ve finished penning a tribute to one genius who’s gone and died on us – see my previous entry on Stan Lee – another genius goes and dies too and I find myself in obituary-writing mode yet again. I’m referring to the legendary director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who passed away on November 23rd at the age of 90.
I’m tempted to say that Roeg, with his fondness for hitting filmgoers with random bits of narrative and elegiac but fragmented imagery that, like the pieces of a puzzle, they then had to figure out and stick together themselves, was a rare thing by today’s cinematic standards – a filmmaker who made movies for grown-up, thinking people. But actually I was hardly into my teens, with my thought processes still maturing, when I experienced his most celebrated films, i.e. those from a purple patch spanning the 1970s from Performance (1970) to Bad Timing (1980).
Films like Walkabout (1971) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) had started to turn up on TV while I went through my pimply adolescence; and I had the privilege of seeing Don’t Look Now (1973) and Performance on a big screen, courtesy of Peebles High School Film Club (which showed films in the school assembly hall every Monday evening) at the ages of 14 and 16 respectively. Seeing two 1970s Nicholas Roeg movies uncut at those ages, and on a decent-sized screen. Wow, those were the days.
And what did I make of them? Well, I found them bafflingly weird, but when I discussed them at school the next day with my mates – as we invariably discussed them – we were able to put forward a theory or two about what’d been going on. And despite being bewildered by them, we usually enjoyed them and felt that we’d seen something special. Mind you, being teenagers, we also liked Roeg’s movies because they contained such vital ingredients as violence, sex, drugs and (via the personages of David Bowie and Mick Jagger) rock ‘n’ roll.
© British Lion Films
Even Don’t Look Now, which my 14-year-old self didn’t initially like because it seemed too disconcertingly removed from how I thought a horror movie should be, remained with me because though I didn’t enjoy the sum of its parts, several of the parts themselves were impossible to forget. These included the opening sequence, both incredibly painful and creepy, in which Donald Sutherland loses his young daughter to an accident while the tragedy is foreshadowed by an incident involving blood-like red ink leaking across a photographic slide from a strange figure wearing the same red coat that the doomed girl is wearing; the sex scene between Sutherland and Julie Christie (playing his wife and the dead girl’s mother) which, while explicit, offers the viewer no titillation because it’s obviously the act of two damaged people trying desperately to achieve closure on the past and get on with their lives again; the scenes where Sutherland pursues a mysterious little figure in red – his daughter’s spirit? – through the labyrinthine, decaying streets and waterways of Venice; and of course, that ending. I should say that I’ve seen Don’t Look Now several times since then and now think it’s a masterpiece.
Conventional wisdom has it that Roeg lost his mojo somewhat in the 1980s. But when you consider the reviews (or in some cases reappraisals) that his 1980s films like Eureka (1983), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1986), Track 29 (1988) and The Witches (1990) have received, they sound like they’d make credible additions to any director’s CV. I’ve hardly seen any of them, which is a shame since they’re packed with actors and actresses whom I like, such as Rutger Hauer, Joe Pesci, Gene Hackman, Tony Curtis, Ollie Reed, Amanda Donohoe, Gary Oldman, Angelica Huston and Bill Paterson.
And let’s not forget that before he became a director, Roeg was a distinguished cinematographer on such movies as Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967). In fact, Masque, with Roeg’s camera shifting eerily from yellow to purple to white and finally to red as it follows evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) through the different-coloured rooms of his plague-besieged castle – in Edgar Allan Poe’s original 1842 short story, there were seven rooms, but obviously Corman’s budget fell three short of that – is one of my all-time favourite movies just to look at.
By way of a musical tribute to the late, great Nicolas Roeg, here’s the 1985 song E=MC2 by Mick Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite. Jones was clearly a fan of Roeg, since the song manages to fit in references to no less than five of his movies. And here also is Mick Jagger at the end of Performance serenading some hallucinating Cockney gangsters (“It’s Mad Cyril!”) with Memo from Turner, surely the best ever Rolling Stones song that isn’t technically a Rolling Stones song.