Saturday, April 20, 2013

Moves Like Jagger

Film: Performance; Gimme Shelter
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on laptop.

Performance is not one film, but two. That these two films have the same characters and that one ends specifically when the other begins is of little importance. That the two films eventually meet and merge at the end, though, is of very great significance, and it’s equally significant that the two experiences placed under this single name are packaged as a single entity.

Let me explain. At the beginning, Performance is a fairly standard British crime drama. We’re introduced to Chas (James Fox), who works for a man named Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas is a foot soldier whose main job is intimidation. We get the sense that Chas is in it for both the money and the violence. The trouble starts when Harry decides to take over a bookie joint owned by a man named Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine). He expressly forbids Chas from being involved in the takeover because Chas and Joey have a rocky history.

Of course, because Chas loves violence and is something of a loose cannon, he messes with Maddocks. Maddocks retaliates by breaking into Chas’s place, trashing it, and beating Chas up. Sadly for Joey Maddocks, Chas manages to get hold of a gun. He then shoots and kills Joey, packs a bag, and heads out on the lam. It’s clear that Chas is done in Harry’s gang in a permanent, “he needs to be dealt with” way, which makes Chas’s departure all the more important. He overhears a chance conversation about a small apartment being available, and using the information he overhears, he disguises himself by dying his hair red, changes his name to Johnny Dean, and rents the apartment. And this is where the second film begins.

The apartment is in the basement of a house owned by and lived in by a man named Turner (Mick Jagger), a former musician who has retreated into a sort of hermitage. Turner lives in a polyamorous relationship with two women—Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton) and isn’t really happy with “Johnny Dean” moving into his basement.

The relationship between the two men is initially antagonistic. Chas/Johnny doesn’t have a great deal of respect for Turner or Turner’s way of life and Turner wants Chas/Johnny gone (since it was Pherber who took the rent in the first place). As they stay around each other, though, they start to influence each other more and more. Chas begins a relationship with Pherber, and while he washes the red dye out of his hair, he becomes more and more like Turner and more and more androgynous.

This androgyny is critical to the film, I think. Jagger as Turner has some feminine traits in the film, and Michele Breton was almost certainly chosen for her role as Lucy for her boyish appearance. It is Pherber, though, the one character who at the end of the film is the most of a specific gender, who seems to be the most interested in this sort of blending of gender.

It’s just as evident, though that Chas is greatly influencing Turner as well. In what is the key scene of the film, Turner becomes a combination of Harry Flowers (duplicating an earlier scene) but in the guise of Chas. “Memo from Turner” is arguably the first music video as music video ever produced. (Yes, I recognize the influence of A Hard Day’s Night and Head, but really, this is a music video.) It’s a couple of minutes that need to be experienced. Check it out here.

Ultimately, the second half of the film, or the second film, if you will, is about the recapturing of Turner’s “daemon” and is return to performing. Ultimately, this means a sort of merger between Turner and Chas, a union of the two. Just as the two films that make up Performance are separate but also part of the same whole, the point of everything that happens at the end is a union of Chas and Turner.

Performance is a fascinating film. It’s completely experimental in its structure and completely successful in what it does. This is yet another film in a collection I’ve watched recently that bears careful study and careful thought as well as repeated viewings. I typically watch and review films on the same day. In this case, I’m really happy that I waited a few days between watching and writing, because it allowed me to be a little more concrete in my thoughts on the film. In fact, it wasn’t until sitting down now that I made the connection between the two films becoming one and Turner/Chas becoming one.

I’m not a huge Mick Jagger booster, and while I respect the Rolling Stones, I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fan. For folks of my and the previous generation (and possibly subsequent ones), I think there’s really only enough room in one’s heart to love either the Stones or the Beatles. I like the Stones fine, but my musical heart belongs to the Fab Four. Nonetheless, it’s Jagger who makes Performance worth watching. It’s also Jagger who stands much at the center of Gimme Shelter from the same year. I knew when I saw that two films featuring Mick Jagger sitting consecutively on The List that I would review them as a double feature, but it would have been just as worthwhile to have paired Gimme Shelter with Woodstock. The two concerts both occurred in 1969, Woodstock in August and the free concert at Altamont in December. But they could not have been further apart in how they were perceived. Woodstock was three days of peace and love, and Altamont? Well, not so much.

Gimme Shelter focuses on the Altamont concert, but it includes footage from the Rolling Stones’s tour of the United States in 1969. The idea was to create a free concert in San Francisco and attract other acts, a sort of Woodstock West, as the culmination of the tour. In its way, the film shows the emptiness of the philosophy of the Flower Children in action. Peace and love are great ideals, but they don’t work in terms of logistics. Any group of people in large mass is going to cause any number of problems. Throw in music, alcohol, drugs, and the Hell’s Angels as stage security, and those problems quickly become compounded.

For me, the story of Gimme Shelter is not that things turned ugly, but how quickly and how completely everything spiraled out of control. Opening acts go on, and from the acts we are given to see, each stops the show at some point and asks for an end to the violence. At one point, Marty Balin from Jefferson Airplane is knocked unconscious, allegedly by one of the Hell’s Angels working security. Repeatedly, the performers attempt to quiet the crowd.

But there’s something ugly going on. Giving the Hell’s Angels free reign to drink as much beer as they want and arming them with pool cues probably wasn’t a good idea in the first place, but over and over it becomes evident that while they are more than a little enthusiastic in their suppression of anything going on in the crowd, they are frequently provoked into action.

And then there’s the murder that happens on camera, at least in part. One concertgoer, a young man named Meredith Hunter, appears brandishing a pistol and is taken down and stabbed. We see the beginnings of this, including the pistol and the first knife attacks. It’s sobering, and while I typically object to showing someone’s actual death in a film, in this case, it’s critical to understanding what really happened.

Wisely, the three filmmakers responsible (the Maysleses and Charlotte Zwerin) don’t offer a great deal of commentary on the events. Instead, they simply let it ride, allowing the footage and the actions of the people involved to dictate how we eventually view the events, the concert, and the personalities involved. It’s a smart move, and no one comes off well.

Music documentaries are often barely worth the medium on which they are printed. Gimme Shelter is different because it’s not really about the music or the band, or even the idea of the free Altamont concert. Instead, it’s about the sort of darkness that lives in a small percentage of us and what that darkness can lead to. It’s a powerful film, but I’ll humbly suggest that it’s easier going down if you love the Rolling Stones.

Why to watch Performance: One hell of a mind trip.
Why not to watch: There’s a disconnect in the middle.

Why to watch Gimme Shelter: Great concert footage and Rolling Stones performances.
Why not to watch: Entropy and chaos.

6 comments:

  1. I really, REALLY love your point about the androgyny in Performance. It's been several years since I saw it, but I remember being fascinated by the psychological mind games in it. When I watch it again in order to review it, I will *definitely* remember your comments as I take it all in again.

    I find it interesting that James Fox is the star of two British psychological mind games films in "1001 Movies," this and "The Servant." Those two might make an interesting double feature... hmmm...

    I definitely agree that Gimme Shelter goes down easier if one loves The Rolling Stones. It's good, it's interesting, but more captivating if you're into the music. Which I'm not.

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    1. Yeah, with Gimme Shelter, I'm not that into the music, either. My favorite rockumentary is I am Trying to Break Your Heart about the creation of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and everything that went around it, but part of that is because I love Wilco. It's not that awesome for non-Wilco fans.

      I had forgotten that Fox was in The Servant, and that one is a mindscrew and has some weird identity things going on in it, too.

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  2. Gimme Shelter is the rare documentary that doesn't really have an overt message. I am not a huge fan of Performance because of the disconnect you mention. It's as though Roeg, Cammell, and Jagger took a break in the middle to drop acid and then filmed it.

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    1. It does take a hard left turn, doesn't it?

      I appreciate what Gimme Shelter did for exactly the reason you say. It's a document rather than a statement.

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  3. I saw Performance a few weeks ago. I saw Gimme Shelter just now because I saw you had reviewed the two together.

    Performance didn't work for me at all. To me it was just another self-indulgent psychedelic movie from the 1965-1975 period that is made by and for people on mass quantities of drugs. Having said that, I do have to compliment you on what you wrote about it. Even though I've seen it you still made it sound to me like it was a movie well worth watching. (Did you pick up on the fact that it was Jagger playing Fox's character at the very end? That adds a whole other layer to the blending of the two that you wrote about.)

    Now, Gimme Shelter. I literally just got done watching this less than 10 minutes ago. I have never seen it before. I consider it nothing less than a document of the end of the entire hippie ideal of peace, love, and understanding.

    Once again, I compliment you on how you wrote about it. It is indeed about the dark nature that is within people and how fast it can come out.

    I happened to really enjoy the music in this film and not just the Stones, but Ike and Tina Turner and others. It would have gotten four stars from me just for that.

    I felt the reaction shots of the Stones watching the rushes of the footage added a whole other layer to the film. When combined with the raw concert footage we see Mick's reactions both as it is happening and he knows something really bad is going on, but not what it is, then we can contrast this with his somber reaction some weeks later as he is viewing the footage.

    I have to say that I learned something, too. I knew about the Hells Angels stabbing a man to death, but I never knew that that man had first pulled a gun and then got stabbed when the Hells Angels took him down and took the gun away from him. That brought a whole new dimension to the event for me.

    I will also say that I had seen around 520 of the films on the list when I decided to try to see all of them a little over a year ago. I've seen about 450 list films since then and this is the first film from the list among those 450 that I have rated five stars. I've rated several of the first 520 at five stars, and I've rated several since then at 4 stars, but I had long ago given up hope that I would encounter another truly great film from the list that I had not already seen. I would have gotten to Gimme Shelter at some point, of course, but thank you for reviewing it now and consequently pushing me into seeing it sooner.

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    1. I didn't really get that he was playing Fox's character at the end, because the scene was from earlier and almost a straight replay of a scene where that role was Fox's boss. I can see it, but it might have worked more clearly for me if he'd been in Fox's part in the scene. I did like the "music video," though. And I did overall like the film, despite no drugs.

      It sounds like you enjoyed Gimme Shelter more than I did. I'd certainly have liked it more were I more than just a marginal Stones fan. And you're right about Jagger's reaction in particular. He knows there's something going on at the concert, but it's not until afterwards that he really understands the gravity of the situation.

      It does cast a whole new light on the events, though, doesn't it? I always figured that one of the Angels had gone off half-cocked, but it wasn't the case. And, for what it's worth, the Hell's Angel in question was acquitted, so I guess the legal system agrees.

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