Monthly Muse the Fourth from guest Musette...
Eivissenca, a Pitiusan islander who operates on the boundaries of film culture and
writes about unsung talent for various film journals around the world from
her casita in the forest.
Dearest Monthly Muse,
Your latest Muse on Woolf brought to mind the late Scottish cineaste Donald Cammell, and his 1968 film PERFORMANCE, especially with regard to your themes of androgyny, duality of spirit and blurring of identity boundaries. In particular it made me think of the contrasts and similarities of the shifting dominance at different times of one identity over another within Orlando - male to female- versus Cammell's male to male confrontation via feminised regards and attitudes in Performance (to a certain degree the polar gender opposite of Bergman's character/s in PERSONA).
As a literary backdrop to the identity transfer and eventual fusion of the two male leads, Cammell visually cites Borges' "A Personal Anthology" and, in particular, one of the stories in the volume, being "The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald". Fitzgerald was an English poet of means who had translated Spanish, Greek and Persian poetry into English as a hobby. His translation of the fabled "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" having first been published in 1859, it was, with the great encouragement of Dante Gabriel Rossetti republished several times over in later editions.
Khayyam had been an eleventh century poet and astronomer who Fitzgerald came to believe was an earlier incarnation of himself through his recognition of the key themes and visions in Khayyam's writing. According to Borges, Khayyam was discouraged from a life of poetry as, in 11th century Persia, astrology had a much greater currency and was held in substantially higher regard, so his poetic identity became displaced until it found a home in Fitzgerald's mind by way of transmigration. In Borges' view, Fitzgerald's interpretation of the Rubaiyat was therefore a highly accurate representation of Khayyam's intended poetry in its purest form, and which literary fruition was only rendered possible by the emergence of the latter's unencumbered expression in Fitzgerald's mediation of the muse. In other words - a poem remembered.
It has been argued by dozens of Performance scholars that Cammell meant to suggest a Borgesian commitment to Khayyam's migrating identity by providing us with the coded message "Gone to Persia" that Chas leaves behind towards the end of the film, at a key moment in the fusion of the Turner/Chas entity, aka Vice and Versa. Certainly James Fox's Chas, or perhaps Chas's James Fox, was off somewhere from that moment in 1968, and from which he took many years to get back. According to "Spanish" Tony Sanchez: "Like many of the best actors, James was so skilled at his craft that his own identity seemed to have been lost somewhere along the way and he rapidly took on the mantle of Chas Devlin. He was so immersed in the character that he actually became him. From being a polite, charming gentleman he was transformed into an aggressive, snarling, hot-tempered tough who genuinely frightened people."
When Performance was released, to somewhat mixed reviews in 1970 - including the immortally unequivocal "[Cammell is] a man whose name does not deserve to live on even in ignominy" in the New York Times - , much was made of the sexual mores of the two main female characters (inhabited by Michele Breton and Anita Pallenberg), whose utter lack of prudery sent various American critics into conipsis. However, they are definitely secondary to the male to male trajectory which forms the core narrative, and which takes as a motif Artaud's vision, "the only performance that makes it, that really makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness." Add to this the fact that the Turner character Mick Jagger brought to life was based in his mind on a mix of Brian Jones and Keith Richards, both of whom resembled Turner way more than Jagger himself (“Brian with his self-torment and paranoia and Keith with his strength and cool. The only thing this character could not be is Mick,” said Marianne Faithfull). Add to that the fact that both Brian Jones and Keith Richards were in love with Anita Pallenberg who plays Turner's girlfriend in the film, and the identities become even more layered.
Mick Jagger and James Fox morphing in the mirror, and Anita Pallenberg watching
The result of all of this is what Adrian Danks describes as "an endlessly turning and returning world, in which characters dissolve into other characters (sometimes literally), acts and gestures are repeated, and in which the barriers between fantasy and reality, past, present and future are seriously tested (in fact, obliterated). Scenes, images and actions are often connected or joined in unexpected or uncertain ways. Seemingly disorganised, casual, atemporal and discontinuous montage and mise en scène, evolves, on repeated viewings, into a rich nexus of motifs, references (from books, as photos on the walls, on the soundtrack) and visual and aural metaphors. In some ways, the great visual metaphor of the film and its branching structure are the images that attempt to visualise the atemporal processes of memory. As the camera appears to crash through layers of time and memory, and seemingly the human brain, the film attempts to connect each of these layers, and give them to us all at once. This is one of the factors that makes Performance a fascinating if somewhat unsatisfactory film - though often brilliantly constructed and shot it reaches for a state that is largely beyond or counter to cinema's nature (essentially, atemporality and simultaneity). In general, the tone of the film is Borgesian, both circular and endlessly forking, as in the asynchronous opening shots of a screeching jet plane, which initially appear as a 'jolt' to the spectator, but find their place in the background skies of several of the film's penultimate shots."
Cammell said in an interview that he was also influenced by "Nabokov's Despair, a story which makes a kind of ecstatic exploration of a character's fatal encounter with his double or alter ego -- as in Performance. I was fascinated by the idea of murder which might also be suicide." When Cammell took his own life in the Hollywood Hills in 1996, it is alleged that he replicated the shooting scene from Performance, in which Chas shoots Turner through the head and the spectator follows the bullet's trajectory into Turner's brain to end up confronted with a photograph of Borges. He apparently even asked his wife after firing his last bullet "do you see the picture of Borges?"
Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side by Rebecca and Sam Umland (FAB Press, 2006)
Maximilian Le Cain, Great Directors: Donald Cammell, in Senses of Cinema (www.sensesofcinema.com)
What's Been Puzzling You is the Nature of My Game: Performance by Adrian Danks, ibid.
Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull and David Dalton, Penguin, 1994
I Was Keith Richards' Drug Dealer by Tony Sanchez, Blake, 2003