Performance Anxiety

Midway through Keith Richards's largely genial Life, he uncorks a sudden barrage of invective against the film director Donald Cammell: "He was the most destructive little turd I've ever met. Also a Svengali, utterly predatory, a very successful manipulator of women. . . . Putting people down was almost an addiction for him." Only the narcs and his frenemy Mick Jagger (mocked for his now infamous "tiny todger") come in for comparable slagging off. Why Richards should harbor such animus against this relatively obscure figure will puzzle anyone unfamiliar with the seedier precincts of late-1960s cinema, specifically the sexed-up, drugged-out background behind the notoriously lurid freak-out film Performance.

Cammell was a louche society painter–turned–aspiring filmmaker who circulated freely through the London underworld and the hip bohemian Chelsea set. It was through the latter circle that he managed to persuade Jagger, then the hottest rock star on the planet, to sign on for his fledgling film, which Warner Bros., smelling youthquake dollars, agreed eagerly (if ignorantly) to finance. The female lead in Performance was Richards's girlfriend, the witchy Anita Pallenberg, who plays the consort of a burned-out and reclusive rock star named Turner, incarnated by Jagger at the height of his androgynous beauty. Barred from the set, Richards could only imagine what was going on in that decaying mansion on London's Lowndes Square where much of the shoot took place. Judging from a ménage à trois sequence featuring Jagger, Pallenberg, and the boyish French actress Michèle Breton, what actually was going on must have exceeded the guitarist's worst nightmares.

The La Ronde–like particulars of the making of Performance obscure the fact that, in classic late-'60s fashion, the film celebrates the liberating effects of madness, violence, and polymorphous perversity in a cerebral, even bookish manner. Cammell conceived this psychic collision/trans-migration between the Mob enforcer Chas—played with an unnerving authenticity of accent and demeanor by the upper-class James Fox—and the "stuck" rock star Turner as a work of Pop Artaudism, drawing on sources as diverse as R. D. Laing (the higher sanity of madness), Jean Genet (the superior existential morality of the criminal), and William S. Burroughs. (drugs as life, the hidden designs within randomness and accident). The excellent book Mick Brown on Performance [1999] spells out in fascinating detail just how consciously Cammell drew on literary and high-art sources—including explicit visual quotes of such painters as Magritte, Bacon, and Brion Gysin—to frame his guerrilla raids on the uncanny and the irrational and illustrate his thesis that art and violence draw from the same source.

In particular, Performance is larded with references to the work of Jorge Luis Borges. Turner name-checks "Orbis Tertius," from one of Borges's most famous stories, a parable of the imagination's triumph over reality. Still later, Turner reads from the climactic scene of Borges's "The South," in which a mild librarian seemingly chooses his own death in an unlikely knife fight—a situation mirrored in the film's climax, in which Turner invites Chas, who has been hiding from his employers and going to ground in the rock star's apartment, to execute him rather than live on in artistic sterility. As the bullet tunnels into Turner's brain, we get a brief glimpse of none other than . . . Borges.

I've watched Performance more than twenty times since it premiered in 1970. I've played the incomparable rock score assembled by Jack Nitzsche countless times, always succumbing to this potent aural packet of bad juju. I've read the books and the articles and the numerous critical interpretations of a film whose dense, jump-cut palimpsest teems with subliminal clues and ambiguous images and juxtapositions, lending itself to all manner of tortured hermeneutics. And every time I've tried to laugh or shake the film off—as an exercise in the higher narcissistic mystification, a moral train wreck, a loathsome, preening, and exploitative piece of detritus broken off from Swinging London—I've failed. All of that is true, but the film's consistently mesmerizing effect proves that Cammell's every dark and septic intention was realized and that he—and, to be fair, his codirector and cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg—produced a diseased masterpiece.

At considerable human cost. The set was a legendary snake pit of sexual and head games, all cunningly orchestrated by Cammell, and few escaped unscathed. Fox was so spiritually depleted by the trauma of the shoot—in particular, the constant guying by his friend Jagger and the mischievous Pallenberg—that he ceased acting for the next decade to join a Christian evangelical movement called the Navigators. Pallenberg began using heroin in earnest during the filming, initiating her own lost decade of addiction, paranoia, and domestic disarray. She went on to have a stormy, horrific, and sometimes tabloid-worthy relationship with Richards, all of which is fully detailed in Life; the couple had three children, one of whom died. The most pathetic casualty of Performance was Breton, only seventeen years old when she was recruited into the film's ménage. Perpetually stoned on and off the set, she disappeared into oblivion after the shoot and was thought to have died. But Brown tracked her down in Berlin in 1995 and learned that she had traveled the hippie drug trail, eventually bottoming out and cleaning up in Kabul, Afghanistan. Seeing Performance for the last time in 1987, she testified, "I was feeling kind of sick looking at this. It was a feeling of death." Jagger, as usual, seems to have escaped unscathed, but one reading of his career suggests that the bill for his flirtation with the demonic in this film and "Sympathy for the Devil," recorded in the same period, came due at the disastrous 1969 Altamont concert, where ritualized violence and make-believe evil succumbed to the real thing.

In an almost Faustian manner, Cammell himself would fall victim to his own morbid romance with death. After Performance (which so unnerved Warner Bros. that they ordered a full re-edit and kept it on the shelf for two years) was released, he stayed on in Hollywood for decades, managing to make only one other film of note, Demon Seed, starring Julie Christie. His stalled career led to depression, disassociation, and eventually, in 1996, suicide by gun, a 9-mm Glock pistol that he fired into the top of his head, à la Chas and Turner. Faithful to the last to his inspirations, he asked his wife, China Kong, to hold up a mirror in the final minutes of his life so he could see his face as he died, a visual trope straight from Performance. His last words were, "Do you see the picture of Borges?" Art can be a dangerous and even mortal business.

Sometimes I feel like I myself just escaped being collateral damage. At one point in faraway 1974, my cinephile friend Grigoris Daskalogrigorakis decided that the residue of Catholic school starch needed to be rinsed out of me, and the blotter acid he'd scored was just the ticket. I had avoided tripping all through college and after, fearing that I was not psychically constituted for such a perilous inner voyage. But Greg was a reassuring soul, so I acceded. It was to be an acid test I would comprehensively fail.

One Saturday morning, he came to the downtown loft I was living in. As per instructions, I had fasted so as not to impede my psychedelic liftoff. Tripping of course required the proper musical background, so we put on the sound track to, yikes, Performance. Bad idea. Really fucking bad idea. Just as the rush came on me, Nitzsche's sinister synthesizers and Merry Clayton's siren moans and Ry Cooder's slithering slide guitar darkened the mood horribly and I was swept out from under my feet and carried to a place of utter helplessness. It was the worst moment of my life, and I have no problem whatsoever understanding why that poor bastard whom the CIA dosed with LSD threw himself out the window. Luckily, my gentle guide had some valium, and between that and his soothing reading of Blake's Songs of Innocence from my Norton Anthology I paddled my way back to sanity and could taste the colors for a couple of hours. But I was shaky for days afterward, in quiet terror of the acid flashbacks flickering on the edge of my consciousness.

I'd been warned—Rolling Stone had cautioned that Performance was not a film to be seen while tripping. Like the poisonously beautiful Amanita muscaria mushroom that Pallenberg feeds Chas to accelerate his breakdown and transformation, Performance is a true flower of evil, promising both liberation and oblivion, cheap thrills and interior travels paid for dearly. Donald Cammell was a dodgy magus who, to quote Chas, knew how to "put the frighteners on." You'll get no arguments from me, Keith.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.