The set-up for the movie is the encounter between an East End gangster, Chas (James Fox) and a fading bohemian rock-star, Turner (Mick Jagger). The movie was financed by Warner Brothers who thought they were going to get a Rolling Stones version of A Hard Day’s Night. Filmed in 1968 it was shelved by for two years as they had no idea how to market it. Most of the preview audience at a test screening in 1970 walked out in disgust at the violence and the sexual content and it is claimed that at one stage Warner Brothers wanted the negative destroyed. Today it has a cult status and is ranked among the top ten British films. Co-directed by Nick Roeg and Donald Cammell it was ultimately the vision of the latter which took centre-stage. This reading will explore the movie as an expression of Cammell’s interest in the theme of transformation and a depiction of the influence of the counterculture on the period.



The motif of mergers and take-overs is announced from the opening scenes and recurs in various forms throughout. We see a lawyer defending an establishment figure who is accused of illicit financial activity and who intends to make his co-partner, Harry Flowers, an underworld crime boss, take the fall.


Gentlemen of the jury, I would solemnly suggest to you what are really on trial here today are the ethics of a community. Our national economy, even our national survival devolves upon the consolidation by merger of the smaller and weaker economic units with the larger and lustier pillars of our commercial context… Business is business and progress is progress…It is alleged, by the prosecution, that the dividend of 15%, which was declared on the non-voting B-shares, was, indeed, fraudulently designed solely to expedite this admittedly bold, but in no way unethical, merger. I say merger, gentlemen, not take-over! Words still have meaning even in our days of the computer. The question is: Was my client a party to that fraud? Innuendo is a method I despise. Therefore I say bluntly that already, you have heard sufficient to point to the responsibility and guilt of another party. A guilty man, gentlemen, whose identity I shall not shrink from establishing in the course of my presentation of the case for the defence.



The lawyer uses eloquent rhetoric and legal loopholes to defend his client from the consequences of his crime, while Harry Flowers defends himself by using Chas (James Fox) to physically intimidate the lawyer. One of the numerous subtexts in the movie is the post-war position of the British Empire and its merger into the cultural and financial hegemony of the United States. The decline in prestige and the post-colonial backlash, along with the loss of national identity and national sovereignty  is alluded to by the frequent negative references to ‘foreigners’ and the evidence of cultural colonisation by the movie and music industries of America.





There is a short scene depicting the transformation of the jury watching the court proceedings into the customers of a porn cinema where Chas is extorting protection money. During this transition we hear the lawyer beginning his argument for the defence:

In the fluid state of business ethics pertaining today we must protect the inalienable right of the smaller businessman to be conjoined in commercial union….

This imagery neatly fuses the legal sanctioning of corporate coercion and economic strangleholds over the less powerful nations with the psychological fascination inculcated by the ‘permissive society’ of the period, the ‘sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ culture. These were the psychological opiates which anesthetised the transition of ‘Old England’ into the junior partner in the ‘special relationship’.








The corrosive effect of the counterculture which the movie explores is symbolised by the acid which Chas pours upon the lawyer’s Rolls Royce. This is Chas performing one of his signature acts of controlled violence and nihilism within the gangster subculture. Turner, as bohemian acid-head, performs on an intellectual and spiritual level the same destructive activity.


The mind-games that Turner and Pherber play on the tripping Chas, in the second half, are a microcosm of the social order of the period depicted in the first half. The emergence and promotion of proscribed, sub-cultural elements into the mainstream culture is connected with the economic and political merger of Old England into the post-war consensus of free trade and free movement of people. The dissolving of the boundaries of personal and sexual identity which occur in the latter half of the film parallel the social and political mergers referenced in the court scenes and in the violent take-over of a bookie joint by the underworld. The language of Harry Flowers is a parody of the lawyer’s defence of corporate and political manoeuvring:

Took over? No, Joey. The word is ‘merged’. You was merged, my son…. You’re on the firm now, Joey! One of me own! United we stand, divided we’re lumbered!


The merger of the underworld with the new world of private capital, becoming the shadow to the economic dominance of America, has no place for the old-fashioned style of a performer like Chas, who is liable to sabotage the transition of the firm into semi-legitimate status.

Harry:  Who do you think you are? The Lone Ranger?

Chas:  I know who I am, Harry

Harry:  Of course you do, son. You’re Jack the Lad. I’ve known a few performers in my time, but I tell you this, he’s got the gift, boy. Right, Denny?

Dennis:  He enjoys his work. That’s the half of it.

Harry:  Do you think he does, Denny?

Chas:  Oh I do. I get a load of kicks out of it

Harry:  Which can be a good thing, Chas.

Chas:  Putting a little stick about. (looking at Joey) Putting the frighteners on flash little twerps

Harry: But it can also be a tricky thing and I’ll tell you why. Because you can get to enjoy your work too much, my son. And it can slip your mind that you’re bloody working for me you berk! And when I say me I mean – tell him what I mean, Jack.

Jack:  You mean you, Harry

Harry:  No

Dennis:  The business

Harry:  The business

Dennis:  That’s what he means

Harry:  Correct in one Den

Dennis:  In which you’re a cog, boy. A cog in an organ.

Chas:  You go to hell Dennis. I know what I am.

Dennis:  And it’s the business of business to push the buttons

Chas:  And I’m alive and well. You push the buttons on that thing.

Harry:  Right. We push them. Us. This terrific, democratic organisation. Right, Joey? The world’s a dodgy place my friends. I can’t help that. But we’ve got progress. Look at the Yanks.

Dennis:  The New World

Harry:  Organisation


Much of this dialogue will recur in the psychodrama with Turner, Pherber, and the stoned Chas.

When Chas kills Joey Maddocks on his own initiative he realises that he has outlived his usefulness to the firm and will be disposed of like an out of date machine. He has to go into hiding until he can get a fake passport and a new identity and this leads to his encounter with Turner and the bohemian subculture.


The term Bohemianism emerged in France in the early nineteenth century when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent, lower-class Romani neighbourhoods. Bohemian was a common term for the Romani people of France who were mistakenly thought to have reached France in the 15th century via Bohemia (the western part of modern Czech Republic) at that time a largely proto-protestant country and considered heretical by many Roman Catholics. Wikipedia

The term carries connotations of both alienation and transgression. In Paris especially, the bohemian artist comes to be seen as an unconventional and anti-social individual (Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gaugin) whose life articulates the alienation effected by the industrial and urban transformation of society in the 19th century. In the secular age of scientific and materialistic dominance the artist is assigned an almost hieratic function. Their aesthetic pursuits take on a sacramental and liturgical quality while their eccentricities and transgressions are overlooked. It was Jean Cocteau who first defined artistic celebrities as ‘sacred monsters’, performing their function in the imagination of the populace as a debased vestige of the role played by Saints and biblical characters in the medieval era of the mystery plays.



French poets such as Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud embraced the role of  poéte maudit and typify the involvement with the transgressive and the irrational in the pursuit of a transformative experience. In the nineteenth century drugs such as opium and laudanum were in vogue among a segment of the bourgeois literati in the same manner as dropping acid became a rite-of-passage for some middle class college students of the late sixties. Rimbaud in particular was widely read (or at least name-dropped) by the counter-culture (Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison) and his work has influenced earlier movements such as Surrealism and the Beatniks. Rimbaud himself drew heavily on the occult ideas of alchemy which have run like a sub-current through the arts of Europe from the Middle Ages onward and much of his poetry, particularly Les Illuminations, is filled with alchemical images and references. There is an exuberant energy at work in these prose poems which seems to exceed the form in pursuit of an impossible transmutation. ‘The Alchemy of the Word’, as he termed his poetic method, is the breakdown and mixing of the conventions of language and syntax; the division between prose and poetry is effaced, while scientific and lyrical terms and images are forged together into a compelling new form. Performance has a similar audacity and intent.


 The occult level of alchemy was concerned with the inner psychic transformation of the practitioner as described by Gurdjieff:

The whole of alchemy is nothing but an allegorical description of the human factory and its work of transforming base metals (coarse substances) into precious ones (fine substances). Quoted in In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky

Gurdjieff was explicit in his warnings of the perilous nature of these esoteric notions outside of the framework of a communal institution with strictly regulated guidance. The psychological and spiritual dangers inherent in any uncontrolled experimentation with this level of experience are foreseeable in Rimbaud’s reckless poetic credo whereby:

 The poet makes himself a seer by a long prodigious and systematic disorganisation of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness: he searches himself; he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come: they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed.

His subsequent complete rejection and repudiation of the artistic lifestyle and its spiritual pretensions is outlined in his prose work Une saison d’enfer. Despite this chronicle of withdrawal from addiction to the bohemian mystique, the iconic status of Rimbaud as the epitome of the poéte maudit and the enfant terrible is enshrined in the culture.




The bohemian scene Chas finds himself in is described by him with contempt:

It’s a right piss-hole. Long hair. Beatniks. Druggers. Free love. Foreigners. 

He sums up Turner with the great line: Comical little geezer. You’ll look funny when you’re fifty


This mockery of the bohemian culture by the working class creates an unusual tension. Most movies about the counterculture tend to present the hippies and the beatniks as above and superior to the everyday reality of the society and even today the sixties is venerated as a cultural milestone and invested with a halo of lost innocence and the fantasy of cherubic youths challenging the authoritarian establishment. These class-based tensions between Chas and Turner add to the overall impression of the movie as an attempt to present and unite opposites. The film itself is divided into two halves. The first part is a mostly linear plot-line involving East End gangsters and the second is a more experimental style exploring the issues of identity. The move from drama to psychodrama is another form of merger and the second part recapitulates much of the previous events and dialogue in a manner that conveys the idea of transformation.

The film is saved from being a facile relic of the ‘swinging sixties’ because it is far more explicit about the radical roots of the countercultural movements. The spoken poem Wake Up Niggers by the Black Power collective The Last Poets is playing on the sound system as Chas meets Turner. This transatlantic import of the racial tensions of America, exacerbated by the civil rights movement and the drive toward forced integration, is another example of the tension created by the merger of post-colonial England into the progressive paradigm of egalitarianism. At the time the film was made (Autumn 1968) the countercultural revolt was possibly reaching its peak. The civil-rights conflicts in America and the general strike in France have since generated iconic images of the period which have effaced the corrosive and polarising effects which are still playing out in European and American culture




Turner is a ‘sacred monster’ of the counterculture which was a channel for subversive and nihilistic energies to enter into the mainstream culture. The parallels with Chas and Turner, within the movie, underscore the negative, anti-social parallels between the bohemian subculture and the gangster underworld circles. The tabloid enshrinement and prurient fascination with the figures of Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the ‘swinging sixties,’ is echoed in the social circles within which the painter Francis Bacon and Donald Cammell moved. The connection is made explicit by the homage in this closing scene at the end of Turner’s performance of the song Memo from Turner.


Francis Bacon was fascinated by colour plates in a medical work on diseases of the mouth and the quality of revulsion and corruption pervading his work, lacerations and distortions of spectral figures on dark backgrounds reflect this fascination with the negation of the normal and a self-destructive, pathological excess which transformed him into another ‘sacred monster’ within the art world.

Emile Cioran has some relevant insights into this area:

Whereas a thinker requires – to dissociate himself from the world – an enormous labour of interrogations, the privilege of a flaw confers from the start a singular destiny. Vice – bestower of solitude – offers the man marked out by it the excellence of a separate condition. Consider the invert: he inspires two contradictory sentiments: disgust and admiration; his ‘failure’ makes him at once inferior and superior to the others, he does not accept himself, constantly justifies himself, invents reasons, torn between shame and pride….In the depths of his naiveté, the thinker envies the possibilities of knowledge open to whatever is contra naturam, he believes – not without repulsion – in the privileges of ‘monsters’. Vice being a suffering and the sole form of celebrity worth the trouble, the’ vicious’ man has to be deeper than the common run, since unspeakably separated from the rest; he begins where the others leave off…..Vice attains the highest degree of consciousness – without the intermediary of philosophy; but the thinker requires a whole lifetime to arrive at this affective lucidity by which the pervert begins. Yet they resemble one another in their propensity to wrest themselves from the others, though the one strives to do so by meditation while the other merely follows the wonders of his inclination. (A Short History of Decay 1949)




Performance is unafraid to depict the violence and sadism within the homosexual underworld of the period, and to connect it with the bohemian counterculture and its fascination with transgressive behaviour. The iconic figures of the artistic avant-garde became representatives of subversive and nihilistic energies which undermined the foundations of the cultural institutions of society with a corrosive and reckless abandon. Their transgression of artistic boundaries, hailed as a breakthrough or transcendence of convention, were often mocking or sardonic reductions of the form to its elemental structure, a dissolution informed by a hostility rooted in a socio-political sphere as much as an aesthetic. The artistic manifestos of Futurism and Surrealism are instances of the intertwining of the political and the artistic realms and the serious revolutionary intentions of the originators.

The almost obsessive attack on the bourgeoisie which many of these movements indulge in is a form of vehement self-loathing and hypocrisy since it is from a disaffected sector of the bourgeoisie that their ranks are filled. Since the bourgeois class typify a certain complacency with and support for the status quo they are seen as impediments on the road to the revolutionary transformation of society advocated by the apostles of the avant-garde. To compound the irony, the image of the artist as an anti-social, unconventional, amoral, and hedonistic individual is promoted and exploited by private capital to sanction its own right to function free from any social responsibility or concern for the common good. The incorporation or merger of the avant-garde with this financial sphere is clearly evident today in the function of artworks as part of an investment portfolio. The aftermath of the countercultural influence is the stagnation and impotence of the arts to offer any constructive opposition to or critique of the processes of dissolution operating in the wider society.

456c6177169a31a2db8b6ef2a4563ed351ac9cc5MARCEL DUCHAMPS 1917



 The anti-establishment pose of artists firmly ensconced within the establishment is evident in the recipients of the Turner prize in England. The stale reiteration of Marcel Duchamp’s subversive gesture of installing a urinal in an art gallery to question the concept of ‘art’ has become a yearly event with media-generated controversy, academic ‘fluffers’ to guide the viewer toward penetrating the cultural significance of the work, and the spectacle of the avant-garde advancing nothing but an insipid egalitarianism.




During a sequence of costume changes while Chas is looking for a change of image, Turner emerges as an incarnation of the early ‘Teddy boy’ of Rock and Roll subculture, with leather jacket sideburns and slicked back hair, to pronounce in an East End accent:

I’ll tell you this: the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Right? Am I right? You with me?

This recalls Rimbaud’s credo quoted above. Turner’s idea of personal transformation through the performance and experience of art is derived at least partly from Antonin Artaud’s ideas concerning a Theatre of Cruelty. Another poéte maudit, with a manifesto influenced by alchemical ideas, he wanted to achieve through stage performance the revival of a spiritually numb culture:

In the anguished, catastrophic period we live in, we feel an urgent need for a theatre which events do not exceed, whose resonance is deep within us, dominating the instability of the times. Our long habit of seeking diversion has made us forget the idea of a serious theatre, which overturning all our preconceptions, inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten. Everything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theatre must be rebuilt. Imbued with the idea that the public thinks first of all with its senses and that to address oneself first to the understanding as the ordinary, psychological theatre does is absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty proposes to resort to a mass spectacle, to seek in the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other, a little of that poetry of festivals and crowds when, all too rarely nowadays, the people pour out into the streets. The theatre must give us everything that is in crime, love, war, or madness if it wants to recover its necessity. (The Theatre and Its Double 1938)



Within this longing for a more vivid experience of life there is a memory of both the Catholic mass and the mystery of transubstantiation occurring in the Eucharist, as well as the public performances of the medieval morality plays. The pathological, obsessive nature of so many of these avant-garde artists testifies to an inordinate emphasis on the role of art as somehow being capable of effecting changes in the material realm, which ultimately is the role of magic, the manipulation of matter by the human will. Their spiritual hunger is displaced into the political and social sphere and the crowds, the masses of the age of mass production, are the object of the magician’s megalomania. There is a disconnection in the Occident from the sacred art of the Orient which Artaud discovered in Balinese theatre and of which he writes:

In the Oriental theatre of metaphysical tendency, contrasted to the Occidental theatre of psychological tendency, forms assume and extend their sense and signification on all possible levels; or, if you will, they set up vibrations not on a single level, but on every level of the mind and spirit at once.

The reason for this difference is de-sacrilisation; the dislocation from traditional life effected by the technological shift of modernity which produces the neurotic and deracinated consciousness typified most acutely by the bohemians such as Turner.


Chas is told by Pherber why Turner is ‘stuck’ artistically:

Why? Because he’s lost his demon, that’s why. Yeah, he thought he had it under control. Juggling all those balls – millions of them. Until one day he was looking in his favourite mirror, admiring his image, see? When suddenly he saw, a little too clearly, it was just a beautiful, little, freaky, stripy beast, darling. So he thought, maybe it’s time for a change, he thought. Then, immediately, as he watched, the image faded. His demon had abandoned him! Pluff! It was gone! He’s still trying to figure out whether he wants it back.

That description of Turner can be applied equally to Chas: he claimed to be a juggler when he rented the basement room; he used a mirror to observe himself during sex in the opening scenes of the movie; his violent acts have a quality of fastidious showmanship about them; he tells them that his agent suggested it was time for a change; he also becomes a little too aware of his role as a cog in the machine during the bar scene; and at this point he is not sure whether or not he wants to stay in the business, the ‘firm’.





These motifs of symmetry and mirroring come from the influence of Borges, whose image and writings appear explicitly in the movie. The confusion and merging of gender and personalities, and the infinite reflective capacity of mirrors is suggestive of the indeterminacy of identity and has become rather clichéd since the movie was made. A mirror is a surface with the illusion of depth and much of Borges’ work leads the reader into speculative labyrinths with no other end in mind. In Performance however these mirror games are merely a prelude to a far more sinister game.



I just want to go in there, Chas. You see, the blood of this vegetable (the magic mushroom) is boring a hole. This second hole is penetrating the hole of your face. The skull of your bone. I just want to get right in there, know what I mean? And root around like a mandragora… We just dismantled you a little bit that’s all. Just to see how you function. We sat through your act. Now you’re going to sit through ours.

The desire of Turner and Pherber to root around in Chas’s ‘dismantled’ psyche and find the source of his ‘gift’, his ‘demon’ is illustrative of the alienated bohemians that project onto the working classes an instinctive, unconscious quality which they themselves lack. The bohemian artists of the 19th century often praised the peasants as being somehow closer to the sources of life and vitality from which modern city-dwellers had become disconnected. This romantic vogue for the peasant life is evident in the works of Van Gogh and Millet, as well as Tolstoy and Yeats. Yet the very self-consciousness of the move toward a more authentic, natural existence renders it a type of performance, a play-acting which can never bridge the gap opened up by the break with the past which constitutes modernity. In the bohemian sphere the twin strands of hedonism and utopianism become entangled with the ancient thread of occult ideas which hold out the promise of restoration and transformation.


This occult/magic level of the movie has generated much of its fascination. What exactly is occurring here is far from clear but on one level it is the transference of Chas’s ‘demon’ to Turner. In order for this to happen Chas has to kill Turner, hence the reading of the story of the hash-inspired assassins and the placing of the gun in Chas’s hand by Pherber. Turner is also seen strumming a Robert Johnson blues about meeting Satan, invoking the legend of Johnson meeting the devil at a crossroads and selling his soul for the ability to perform.


There seems to be an attempt by Cammell to bring together the artistic and occult threads surrounding the idea of creative inspiration, possession by the muse, and the transcendence of bourgeois morality. The dissolving of boundaries and the merging of identities on personal and cultural levels is seen to have a resonance with certain occult doctrines around spiritual rebirth. Turner alludes to the perennial fascination with death and violence within human civilisations:

Pherber: He wants to know why your show is a bigger turn-on than his ever was.

Turner: His act? They never get fed up with it do they? Been on the road a million years. A million years people have been coming in, dragging in to watch it…. We push the buttons. He’s the horror show. He’s an old pro. He can take it. He takes it. He dishes it out too. You bet your sweet fucking life he does. He’s a mean bastard.

Chas: I’m the Lone Ranger

Turner: He’s a striped beast. You enjoy your work, eh? You’ve got the gift!

Judging by the life of Donald Cammell it seems that he was deeply involved with the contemporary fascination with social and personal transformation which permeates the counterculture. His sensibility is informed by a wide knowledge of the avant-garde movements and their relation with occult doctrines, a perspective not shared by many of the participants for whom the hedonistic and egalitarian strands appeared to predominate. From his wider perspective the themes of inversion and subversion can be glimpsed amid the diffusion of ideas in that period. The anti-social energy of the criminal elements is combined with the utopian idealism of the bohemian class to break down boundaries and limits constructed by tradition and experience. In the aftermath of this assault it is the more aggressive and unscrupulous criminal elements which will predominate in the redrawing of the boundaries.

The movie captures the atmosphere of imminent conflagration and collapse envisaged by the revolutionary rhetoric which pervaded the subculture toward the end of the sixties. The flirtation with the paraphernalia of the demonic/diabolic by the Rolling Stones and The Doors among others is an expression of the lurch into psychic and social disintegration consequent upon the energies released through the subculture into the mainstream. Mick Jagger had his own moment of confrontation with the darker energies unleashed by the Summer of Love when the psychedelic atmosphere of the Altamont Free Concert was invaded by a moment of psychotic violence captured in the documentary Gimme Shelter. This occurred less than a year after the movie was made and, along with the Manson family murders and the failure of the general strike in Paris, marked the end of the sixties experiment for many people. The miasma of decay which pervades the exterior shots depicts a London in the process of transition, engaged in the dismantling of the Empire in the post-colonial period. This mirrors the interior hedonistic retreat enacted by Turner. The same decay and dismantling is occurring here on a deeper level but veiled, perfumed and eroticised

In 1970, Cammell and Jagger, in an attempt to save the film from being censored, sent a telegram to a Warner Brothers executive reading

This film is about the perverted love affair between Homo Sapiens and Lady Violence. It is necessarily horrifying, paradoxical, absurd. To make such a film means accepting that the subject is loaded with every taboo in the book.

The violence in the work is carefully controlled and directed, aimed at representing the processes of transformation within the plot. The culmination of all the psychodrama is the performance of Memo from Turner where the gangster firm merges with the world of show-business in a striking sequence. Long before the advent of music videos this anticipates the genre and encapsulates many of the themes informing the previous scenes, distilling them into one powerful transformative event.



Didn’t I see you down in San Antone on a hot and dusty night?

We were eating eggs in Sammy’s when the black man there drew his knife

Aw, you drowned that Jew in Rampton as he washed his sleeveless shirt

You know, that Spanish-speaking gentlemen the one we all called Kurt 

Come now, gentleman, I know there’s some mistake

How forgetful I’m becoming now you fixed your business straight 

I remember you in Hemlock Road in nineteen fifty-six

You were a faggy little leather boy with a smaller piece of stick

You’re a lashing, smashing hunk of man your sweat shines sweet and strong

Your organs working perfectly but there’s a part that’s not screwed on 

Weren’t you at the Coke convention back in nineteen sixty-five?

You’re the misbred, gray executive I’ve seen heavily advertised

You’re the great, gray man whose daughter licks policemen’s buttons clean

You’re the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine 

Come now, gentleman your love is all I crave

You’ll still be in the circus when I’m laughing, laughing in my grave 

When the old men do the fighting and the young men all look on

And the young girls eat their mothers meat from tubes of plasticon

Be wary please my gentle friends of all the skins you breed

They have a tasty habit they eat the hands that bleed 

So remember who you say you are and keep your noses clean

Boys will be boys and play with toys so be strong with your beast

Oh Rosie dear, don’tcha think it’s queer so stop me if you please

The baby is dead, my lady said, you gentlemen, why, you all work for me


In this sequence Turner merges with Harry Flowers. This shift from bohemian artist to gangland boss suggests the conception of the artist as outlaw and transgressor, a concept which nineteenth century artists projected onto mythological figures like Prometheus and even Lucifer. In the context of this interpretation it could refer to the absorption of violent and nihilistic energies into the entertainment industry. The incorporation of transgressive ideas into the mainstream and the marketing of rebellion as a fashion statement and a mark of individuality are the cynical containment and control by the economic and political sphere of energies which were initially directed toward liberation. The lyrics in part reference the criminal past of the business gentleman and remind them that even though they have now gone ‘straight’ they are still the same and are still working for the same ‘demon’ which Turner has recaptured.  The term ‘soft- machine’ refers to the title of a work by William Burroughs which is concerned with the invasion of control mechanisms into the human body. Just before this sequence Turner is assailing Chas with fluorescent light, loud music and screams. The camera passes through the inner ear of Chas and emerges into the boardroom where Turner begins his performance.  The transformative updating of the bohemian recluse into a swaggering business executive is a merger of the establishment with the forces of the anti-establishment that we witness today in the institutionalised ‘soft-machine’ of the corporate media, not the least of which are the movie and music industries.





Performance still has a powerful impact fifty years on, achieved in part by the introduction of dissonant elements into the soundtrack and the editing. The use of a moog synthesiser in the opening scenes to produce a strange disconcerting pulse over the background of gospel and blues; electronic whirrs and beeps which accompany the lawyers speech; the sounds of machinery and urban noise; the off-key piano notes when Chas is on the run.  Although Nick Roeg was co-director and cinematographer, the final edit was the result of the combined efforts of Cammell and Frank Mozzolla to produce a version acceptable to Warner Brothers who wanted Mick Jagger to appear earlier. Mozzolla has spoken about the creation of a poetic rhythm and meter in the visual and audio elements of the opening scenes through the process of editing. Almost every scene is filled with elliptical cuts and flashbacks, lights and colours and sounds to impart a nervous, kinetic energy which accompanies the plot development. Chaos, bewilderment, dissolution and union, the work manages to orientate itself within all these swirling currents of thought and coalesce into a unique creation.





There is a definite subtext of magic rituals sprinkled throughout the movie which suggest that the creation itself was perhaps a kind of enactment by Donald Cammell of his personal obsessions in this realm. The interest in the world of magic by bohemian artists can be seen as a stage in the disintegration of sensibility occuring in the industrial, technological transformation of life. The pursuit of a fugitive beauty in the sepulchre of an alienated, urban existence drove some artists to the margins of society, often the criminal underworld, to escape the soul-destroying conformity of a mechanistic and materialistic era. But this adoption of a vagabond, deracinated lifestyle strangely mirrored the growth and influence of a mobile and irresponsible private capital in the process of transmuting social values into economic values: the alchemy of high finance.

His move from high-society portrait painter to avant-garde director announced by this work seems to have been followed by a series of abortive projects and jinxed collaborations with Marlon Brando. From his suicide and his connections with black-magic figures like Crowley and Kenneth Anger and his other films Demon Seed, about a sex mad computer and White of the Eye, about a serial killer, it would be easy to assume that he was a sort of modern poéte-maudit: a jaded eroticism fused with the aesthetic impulse in a species of nihilistic intoxication. However Performance has a sparkling humour and energy created in large part by the undercutting of Turner’s bohemian pretensions by Chas’s more grounded perspective. The celebrated ending where we see Turner dead yet somehow taking the place of Chas certainly produces an uncanny thrill and is probably meant to leave us in a state of indeterminacy. Watching the movie again you notice many smaller echoes and repeats and the impression grows of a very carefully crafted whole with concealed layers of meaning. It is a remarkable work, dazzling and compelling, but with a definite whiff of sulpher somewhere.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s