Quad Cinema presents a Roeg's gallery
Like George Stevens and Jack Cardiff before him, Nicolas Roeg was a director of photography before he was a director, so his way of visualizing a story—painting pictures with the camera—hasn’t changed beyond hiring cameramen to execute it.
“I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography,” he once said. So, hedging his bets a bit, he decided to start off wearing both of those hats. “I was very glad later when I was directing that I wasn’t in the hands of a cinematographer and hoping that he would do it well. I would know what he was doing, and we could discuss how that scene would look. It was just lucky in a way I didn’t go to film school and just learned all this on the flow.”
Unlike Stevens and Cardiff, who have been retrospected to death, Roeg is only now—at 89 and a decade into his retirement—rating a serious second look at his edgy, frenetic, nonlinear, sensual brand of filmmaking. The newly refurbished Quad Cinema, a four-screen multiplex in Greenwich Village, is spending the first seven days of September celebrating a real movie maverick by unspooling 11 of his best.
“Look Now: The Universe According to Nicolas Roeg” embraces seven films he directed, two films he shot for other directors and two more—his first two—where he double-dipped as director and photographer, not knowing any better at the time.
Performance, filmed in 1968 with scripter Douglas Cammell assisting the direction, got things off to a flying stop. Warners was expecting a conventional head-butting conflict between mob enforcer James Fox and rock star Mick Jagger and got a calamitous mix of sex and violence that took two years to edit into a comprehensible whole. The footage between Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (then Keith Richards’ main squeeze) was so obscene the film-processing lab refused to develop it, and Richards wouldn’t contribute to the Rolling Stone’s “Memo from Turner” for the soundtrack.
While all this was being sorted out, Roeg struck out for the Australian Outback to do his only solo as director and photographer, 1971’s Walkabout, a survival drama where an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) saves two British children (Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s own son, Luc). It had Roeg’s two favorite things: nudity and wilderness.
Prior to taking up the megaphone, he logged up 23 years in the British film industry, starting out in 1947 as an editing apprentice and putting in another dozen years as a cameraman. Both those skills, jointly, created some memorable scenes—most notably, Terence Stamp’s sword-swinging seduction of Julie Christie in 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Roeg had a quite literal field day photographing the rough, agrarian terrain of “Thomas Hardy Country” in North England, and all of its serene, severe isolation was eloquently echoed in Richard Rodney Bennett’s score.
That music was the movie’s sole Oscar nomination. The problem was that too much of the madding crowd stayed far from Far From the Madding Crowd, thus dashing MGM’s hopes of having a prestige roadshow to peddle. (The Quad, by the way, presented the film in true roadshow fashion: two parts, as God and L.B. intended.)
Hardy’s classic did have heft—George Cukor once wanted Vivien Leigh or Olivia de Havilland in it—but by the mid-’60s the golden girl was Julie Christie, who struck Oscar gold with Darling, thanks to director John Schlesinger and adapter Frederic Raphael, and box-office gold with Doctor Zhivago, thanks to director David Lean.
Schlesinger and Raphael—not Lean—were put to work on the Hardy material, and they achieved an extremely realistic facsimile of mid-19th-century bucolic life while Christie did amorous do-si-dos around Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Stamp. Roeg’s camerawork created a ravishing backdrop for these overlapping triangles to spin.
But it was too sedate a civilization to catch the attention of a public attuned to civil wars and Russian revolutions. Lean and Roeg worked on vastly different canvases, although they did come together once when Roeg’s second-unit work on Lawrence of Arabia pleased Lean enough for him to tap Roeg for Doctor Zhivago, but their artistic arguments came to the fore and Freddie Young took over the filming.
Even more striking is the contrast between Lean’s Venice (Summertime) and Roeg’s Venice (Don’t Look Now).Whereas the former was sun-kissed and romantically soaring for a spinster Katharine Hepburn to fall for a married Rossano Brazzi, the other was a dark, brooding horror show where murdered prostitutes litter the canal.
Don’t Look Now may be Roeg’s masterpiece in the way he connects tension, story, characters and performances. Donald Sutherland, an art restorer, has come with his wife (Julie Christie) to Venice to work on flood-damaged mosaics. Both are privately grieving over the drowning of their daughter in a red raincoat, which he sees scurrying about the murder scenes. The tragic explanation is a real kick in the head.
Another nasty little surprise caps one of Roeg’s more recent Venetian “holidays,” 1980’s Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession. Right down to The Big Reveal, a psychiatrist Art Garfunkel dangles between guilt and innocence under Harvey Keitel’s interrogation as suicidal, alcoholic Theresa Russell hovers between life and death.
Christie wanted to work with Roeg as a director because he had already photographed two of her films: One is in the Quad salute (Richard Lester’s 1968 relentlessly mod and decidedly peculiar Petulia), and one isn’t (François Truffaut’s 1966 antiseptic sci-fi Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which books burn). In both, Roeg is slavishly on the same page as his directors, capturing the pervading mood.
The years have not been kind to Petulia. It’s a-clutter with kooky deportment, both funny and depraved. Lester seems to be coasting on the patience and talents of a very cool cast (Christie, George C. Scott, Richard Chamberlain, Arthur Hill, Shirley Knight, Pippa Scott, Kathleen Widdoes, Roger Bowen, Richard Dysart and Joseph Cotton). Not one of them seems to know what to do except to stir the cauldron fast.
There’s a similar kind of try-anything desperation infecting Roeg’s chaotic science-fiction, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Amazingly, in his last days, David Bowie went back to this piece and somehow pulled together a stage musical called Lazarus. Among his MIA co-stars are Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry and Bernie Casey.
The movie ratings for Roeg films have been known to vary over nine or ten frames of film. He’s an equal-genitalia employer, and many a star has given his or her all.
Rounding out Quad’s Roeg slate: Castaway, Eureka, Insignificant and The Witches.