Chas is a brutal enforcer who is really good at his job. Played with a bluntly arched eyebrow by James Fox (recently seen as Mr. Salt in Tim Burton's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), he works for a homosexual East London crime boss named Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas is the guy Harry sends round when he wants to convince other people to his way of thinking, because Chas has a knack for getting his point across. When the thug goes against Harry's instructions and deals with a business matter in a personal way, though, he finds there are some situations he can't talk or shoot his way out of.
On the run, Chas overhears a conversation about a basement apartment that he can con his way into leasing. Things aren't as clear-cut once he is inside the house, however. It turns out that the landlord is a faded pop star named Turner, here played by Mick Jagger. Turner is a recluse, creating a pansexual hideaway with his drugged-up girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, the real-life girlfriend to Mick's guitarist, Keith Richards) and a few other androgynous moppets. Before long, it's not clear who is running a con on whom, as Chas is suddenly on the same psychedelic trip as everyone else in the house, searching for Turner's "demon," the artistic muse that once drove him.
Performance was made in 1968 and held back for two years while Warner Bros. tried to figure out what to do with it. Co-directed by two first-time directors, Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout [review], also the D.P.) and writer Donald Cammell (The Argument), Performance is a classic of the trippy midnight movie genre. I'm not normally a fan of Roeg's, I find his weirdness to be meandering and pointless for the most part, but something about the collaboration with Cammell gave their artistic vision a laser-like precision. Performance is really the clash of several genres. Chas' gangster society has tints of kitchen sink drama while also playing with the conventions of classic British crime pictures. Cammell saw a kindred spirit between the swaggering street toughs of old films and the new outlaws of rock 'n' roll. Performance grows from the thesis that if you pushed these cultural rebels toward one another, you'd suddenly have mirror images in the center.
This is something that the directors make great visual use of. For a drug-fuelled movie of the late '60s (Pallenberg openly disperses chunks of magic mushrooms, and there is no mistaking those funny shaped cigarettes), they avoid the usual pictorial cliché of other hallucinogenic flicks. There are no lava lamps or fish-eye lenses. The surreal journey of Performance is an existential one, it's all about identity. The first act sets up a dicey world. Focusing entirely on Chas' brutal routine and flight from the same, it's edited in a choppy fashion, juxtaposing attacker and victim, and messing with time. This is said to be the uncredited work of editor Frank Mazzola, who would go on to make this his signature style and influence the entire video music genre in the process. In this outing, it keeps the action moving while putting the audience on shaky ground. The blood and the sex and the violence come like a rapid assault we are powerless to stop.
Yet, as Turner's introduction approaches in the story, the filmmakers are already inserting him in the mix, giving us quick tastes of what is to come, already breaking down any separation between gangster and idol. This melding begins in earnest once Chas is in Turner's home. Mirror images, double exposures, and other visual tricks are employed to start to suggest that Chas is Turner and Turner is Chas. They even engage in a bit of dress-up, most notably in the "Memo from Turner" music sequence where Chas' earlier drama with Harry is replayed with Jagger in the lead, instructing his underworld minions through song. Here Jagger moves from slinking panther to something more forceful, just as the events leading up to it show James Fox losing his edge and drifting in a narcotic haze.
Where both men end up is the subject of much debate and probably a matter of personal preference, but suffice to say there are curves on the path to complete fusion. Chas needs Turner's house to protect him from those that would do him harm, whereas Turner needs Chas' visceral lifestyle to break him out of the constipated mental funk that has arrested his creative process. Roeg and Cammell may end the movie by showing a lot of doors being closed, but from a plot standpoint, they leave many open to interpretation. Some of you out there may find the trickery maddening, but if you put yourself in Chas' shoes and let Performance slip you a mickey, you might find the experience...well, I wouldn't go so far as to say transformative, but how about inspiring?