Roeg one

 

From www.filmreference.com

 

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.

 

 

Carry on abroad

 

© Penguin Books

 

I have a tiny sliver of a connection with Daphne du Maurier, the popular 20th century English writer responsible for novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971).  When I was at college in the 1980s, I knew her great-nephew very slightly.  I was better acquainted with her great-nephew’s flatmate, though, and a few times I visited their apartment.  Its walls were slathered with pictures of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham, cut out of popular teen magazines of the time like Smash Hits and No 1.  I assume the young du Maurier and his flatmate had stuck up these pictures in an attempt to appear ironic.  Unfortunately, it meant that thereafter when I saw his great-aunt’s name on the cover of a book, I couldn’t help but hear, by way of association, the irritatingly bouncy strains of such 1980s pop-dance numbers as Club Tropicana or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

 

Until recently the only thing by Daphne du Maurier I’d read was The Birds, a story that because of its remote Cornish setting feels even more claustrophobic and desperate than the North America-set film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.  However, over the festive season, my partner gave me a copy of du Maurier’s 1971 collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories as a present.  I’ve just finished reading it.

 

A novella about a grieving English couple who’re taking a break in Venice when they’re approached by two strange women – one of whom claims to be a medium – and told that their dead daughter’s spirit is trying to warn them against danger, Don’t Look Now has been filmed too.  Nicholas Roeg directed a movie version in 1973 and it’s now regarded as a classic, both as a horror film and as an example of Roeg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined fragmented and elliptical narratives, haunting and recurrent images and scenes of both violent and sexual intensity to unforgettable effect.  Having seen the film several times over the years, I was keen to read the piece of fiction that’d inspired it.

 

My first impression when I started reading Don’t Look Now was that film and story felt like they belonged to different eras.  The couple, John and Laura, seem more modern, liberated and chic in the film, though that may be because they were played by 1970s icons Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.  On the page, John and Laura have an old-fashioned English starchiness and they try to get over their loss with stiff upper lips and a strained Keep Calm and Carry On cheerfulness.  The literary John and Laura are also in Venice as tourists, so they seem less confident and more vulnerable.  Their cinematic equivalents are there for work reasons – John is helping to restore a Venetian church – and thus know their way around better.

 

Then there’s the presentation of the story.  Du Maurier’s novella is a briefer and more economical account of the events I was familiar with from the film.  As it stands, it could easily have been made into a 45-minute TV play.  (The film clocks in at 110 minutes.)  It begins in Venice with John and Laura encountering the medium.  The death of their daughter, by meningitis, is mentioned retrospectively.  And the suggestion that the dead girl’s spirit is urging them to leave the city before something terrible happens feels like a simple device to kick-start the main story – wherein John doesn’t leave Venice, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and further supernatural shenanigans; and then, when he tries to intervene in what he believes is the mistreatment of a child, something terrible does happen.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The movie opens with a harrowing sequence showing the death of John and Laura’s daughter – not by meningitis but by drowning in a pond in the English countryside.  Roeg and his scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant create a sense of a cosmic, all-encompassing evil at work.  Even as the girl dies, everything that’s still to happen in Venice seems to be prefigured.  We see John studying pictures of the Venetian church where he’ll be working and discovering a mysterious figure wearing a red coat in one of the slides.  When he spills water onto the figure, its redness spreads across the slide like a bloodstain.  John’s daughter is also wearing a red coat when she drowns and, later, so too is the child-figure John sees scarpering alongside the night-time Venetian waterways.

 

Indeed, in the film, John seems to make a connection between the two characters thanks to the coat – is the red-clad figure by the canals the ghost of his daughter?  But this association doesn’t appear in the original novella.

 

Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is efficiently gripping.  But I think Nicholas Roeg’s brooding cinematic version, spinning a web of portents, visions and uncanny coincidences in which John’s doom seems pre-ordained from the start, is better – a work of art.  That’s despite the fact that, by changing the girl’s death from meningitis to drowning, the film can be accused of illogicality.  As the website British Horror Films observes pithily: “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

Actually, with Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, I preferred a couple of those ‘other stories’ to the title one.  And interestingly, nearly all of them share a similar theme, in that they deal with English people going abroad and coming unstuck as they pass out of their cultural comfort zones.

 

Not After Midnight is about an amateur artist taking a holiday in Crete in order to do some landscape painting.  In a manner reminiscent of the hero of John Fowles’ novel The Magus (1966), he encounters a strange man and becomes embroiled in some equally-strange activities touching upon ancient Greek myths.  However, while Fowles’ novel is an airy and exuberant affair where a Prospero-like figure orchestrates spectacular and elaborate ‘masques’, Not After Midnight is altogether grungier and more low-fi.  The man putting the events in motion is a drunken, debauched brute and, accordingly, the myths invoked concern “Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.”  Du Maurier doesn’t say explicitly what bacchanalian depravities her hero finally succumbs to; but as he’s a teacher at a posh English boys’ school, we can guess.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

In A Border Line Case, a young woman who works as a theatre actress tries to honour the dying wish of her father.  She goes in search of her father’s long-lost best friend, to tell him that her father had wanted to “shake the old boy by the hand once more and wish him luck.”  She finds the missing friend in the Republic of Ireland, living as a recluse on an island, mysteriously lording it over a cohort of local men and engaged in activities that are probably illegal and possibly bizarre.  Unlike the hapless protagonists in the other stories, the heroine here is a resourceful type.  She uses her skills as an actress to improvise, hide her identity and talk her way out of tight spots.  However, when at one point she suspects she’s stumbled across a group of closeted homosexuals (“They were all homos…  It was the end.  She couldn’t bear it…”), you feel surprised that a London theatre actress should be so wary and intolerant of gay men.  Still, A Border Line Case is well-paced and balanced nicely between an adventure story and a mystery one.  It builds impressively to a nasty, if slightly predictable ending.

 

The book’s most humorous story is The Way of the Cross, about a group of disparate English tourists making their way to and then around Jerusalem.  The characters and plot seem slightly contrived at times – it’s unlikely that a progressive left-wing lady who’s worried about the plight of the Palestinians should be married to a materialistic right-wing businessman, and a climax where two characters are stricken by unconnected illnesses and a third one suffers a serious accident stretches credibility – but nonetheless it’s an enjoyably satirical account of English folk abroad.

 

The final story, The Breakthrough, is the exception to the rule.  Its engineer hero doesn’t leave England for another country, although he is posted to the desolate flatlands and beaches of East Anglia.  There, an ambitious experiment is underway in a scientific / military laboratory, ostensibly involving computers, but really about capturing a psychic energy that surrounds people when they’re alive and escapes when they die.  The Breakthrough’s blending of the scientific and the supernatural calls to mind the famously frightening TV play The Stone Tape (1973), written by Nigel Kneale.  Bravely, du Maurier opts for a non-sensational ending that prioritises character over action or horror.  Admittedly, some readers might find the ending a bit of a let-down.

 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, because of the author’s precise and no-nonsense prose, her ability to pack a lot of incident into her narratives without letting them get too convoluted, and her determination at all times to tell a rattling good yarn.

 

Indeed, on the strength of this, I’m now starting to think of Daphne du Maurier as being in the mould of Stephen King – and not so much in connection with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  Yes, better the author of The Running Man than the authors of I’m your Man.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films