For all his renowned skill as a cinematographer, his famed use of symbolic colour and his rare ability to tease beautifully understated lead performances from iconic rock stars-turned-thespians, film director Nicolas Roeg is perhaps best known for a counterintuitive, non-linear approach to film editing that plays fast and loose with orthodox notions of narrative time. It is, arguably, the key ingredient that renders his most celebrated films, Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Eureka… so uniquely compelling. Here, David Sheppard examines Roeg’s signature “cubist” use of the editor’s razor, and wonders why more film directors haven’t adopted his innovative methods.
I once had the privilege of interviewing the American avant-garde musician and producer (and sometime Sonic Youth bassist) Jim O’Rourke in a South London pub. Nominally there to discuss his new album in order to pen a short feature for a monthly music mag, I found O’Rourke to be beguiling company and the usual interviewer/interviewee mazurkas were soon jettisoned in favour of a good old-fashioned chinwag. To the consternation of Jim’s press officer, our allotted half hour rendezvous eventually spiralled off into a marathon five-hour pow-wow, fuelled by nothing more intoxicating than coffee and sparkling water. The drawn-out nature of our encounter was certainly nothing whatsoever to do with the acuity of my interview questions; nor was it down to Jim being particularly predisposed to talking about himself endlessly (au contraire, in fact), or because we bonded over a love of obscure, and not so obscure, ’70s pop records (although, I admit, we did, the early singles by Sparks in particular). No. Most of those five hours was spent not talking about music at all. Instead, the February afternoon unravelled in convivial, free-raging dialogue eventually turning into an impromptu symposium on our favourite films and filmmakers, prompted by self-confessed cineaste Jim explaining why he eulogised the work of Nic Roeg – a film director I also adored and about whom I had, many years previously, penned my undergraduate dissertation. Jim’s veneration was reflected in the titles of his previous three albums, each named after one of the great director’s films, namely Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance (he would later release one called The Visitor – an homage to the album that the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, played by David Bowie, produces in The Man Who Fell to Earth). “It’s all about the editing”, Jim vouchsafed, going on to hymn Roeg’s ability to fracture the conventional, chronological sense of narrative time by almost wilfully flashing forward and backward, sometimes violently intercutting past, present and future into an all-encompassing now, in a vivid attempt to evoke true human sensory and emotional experience.
French film auteur Jean-Luc Godard, famously, once said: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”. It is a dictum that Nic Roeg’s films, and, it could be argued, Jim O’Rourke albums, wholeheartedly embrace. One of the most celebrated cinematographers of the 1960s before he became a director (his credits include everything from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd to Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death and François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), Roeg was steeped in the artistry of cinema before he ever sat in the director’s chair, and he would go on to become an auteur filmmaker uniquely equipped to deploy its technical tools (particularly the Steenbeck editing machine) to create a signature visual language, all shifting angles and planes, reimagining, and intertwining the cinematographic and narrative possibilities of the medium. As I averred in my now curling at the corners degree thesis, Nic Roeg is a veritable ‘cubist of the big screen’.
In 1980, Roeg was interviewed by American Cinema. “I believe film is an art,” he told them. “I truly believe that. Thought can be transferred by the juxtaposition of images, and you mustn’t be afraid of the audience not understanding. You can say things visually, immediately, and that’s where film, I believe, is going. It’s not a pictorial example of a published work, it’s transference of thought.”
In the same article the director is rightly hailed for this ingenious approach. “More than any living director, Roeg makes an audience feel that his film is not so much taking place on a flat screen, in finite space and time, as exploding multi-dimensionally around them.”
Of course, by its nature, filmmaking is tampering with time, and different directors have their tricks; as A&M’s resident film critic, Peter Wix, puts it: “Welles spreads time like a magician; Altman gives you a slice that represents the whole clock; Fassbinder abstracts it; Tarkovsky slows it nearly to a stop; Michael Powell makes you feel it grinding to a halt; Ingmar Bergman locks it inside you until it struggles to get out; Hitchcock turns it into a bomb; Peter Weir stretches it; Alain Tanner goes on holiday with it… Every director must do something with it.”
All the same, it’s surprising that, contrary to Roeg’s optimistic prediction, subsequent generations of filmmakers have largely spurned his psychologically potent approach to the big screen (and non-linear editing in particular), preferring instead to concentrate on various shades of orthodox narrative, or on potentially transcendent, yet routinely banal and soulless, CGI technology. What Roeg, unlike most of his successors, understands is the pliant quality of film as a human storytelling medium, its unique ability (although it is one partially shared by literature) to convey events, actions and, most crucially, thoughts, not in some orderly, ‘logical’ procession but in a kind of mobile mosaic of light, a flux of backward and forward projections and visual feedback loops, reflecting and refracting the apparently scattershot randomness of our daily internal monologues and intimate personal interactions.
Some critics have accused Roeg of being a darkly cosmic fantasist or romantic nihilist, and chided him for making films full of jump cuts that deliberately bamboozle mainstream audiences, but this is to underestimate the latent potency of his best work, some of which (Don’t Look Now most notoriously) seems to burn deeply and permanently into the psyches of all who are exposed to it for the first time, chiming with an almost atavistic veracity. It feels like Roeg is always in pursuit of a kind of existential and psychological truth (an impression reinforced by so many of his lead characters being thrown into ‘alien’ environments where they are forced to confront themselves) that is the polar opposite of the formulaic, escapist illusionism of modern Hollywood ‘entertainment cinema’ – something that, in itself, ought to be cause for celebration.
Inspired by the labyrinthine novels of Jorge Luis Borges, the Flash Gordon strip cartoons of Alex Raymond (which Roeg once confessed to relishing for their spicy background detail, especially the vicious women disporting whips and chains that Raymond favoured) and Alan Resnais’s 1964 cine-masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad (a film co-created with Nouveau Roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet that boasts an elusive, liquid sense of narrative and an ambiguous use of all things spatial and temporal), Roeg’s first half dozen films lose none of their power with the passing of the years and remain, in more than one sense of the word, timeless. Indeed, repeated viewings simply throw up new narrative subtleties, previously overlooked details of cinematography and fresh nuances of meaning (and I say this as someone who has seen Bad Timing more than 20 times).
While 1970’s Performance (Roeg’s debut as director, although much of the film’s realisation was down to his collaborator Donald Cammell) offers a fuzzy, delirious kaleidoscope of mutable identities and endless demimonde afternoons (where time, like daylight, seems shut out), it is in the following year’s Walkabout that Roeg’s visionary style was first given free rein.. The time-chopping, Dreamtime odyssey of two abandoned children (played by Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s young son, Lucien) and a young Aborigine (David Gulpilil) through the red-in-tooth-and-claw, heat-hazed Australian bush, it’s a retina-burning film whose temporal narrative is constantly accelerating forward, then rushing back, granting the audience a kind of experiential intimacy with the protagonists, just as the imagery oscillates between, and juxtaposes, feral wilderness and superficial ‘civilisation’ (as in the scene where Gulpilil eviscerates a kangaroo, intercut with images of a city butcher going about his work).
A critical hit, Walkabout announced Roeg as a unique stylist and a thought-provoking poet of the screen – a reputation that the aforementioned psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, which followed in 1973, would only build upon. Starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and set in a wintry, hallucinatory Venice, it is an essay about psychic visions of the future and an exercise in the potency of film editing, including one celebrated scene in which Sutherland and Christie make love in their hotel room, their throes of passion intercut with quotidian scenes of post-coital dressing, hair smoothing and crease straightening. It is remarkably touching and universally relatable – arguably, the most ‘realistic’ love scene in movie history. When Don’t Look Now was first aired on BBC television the censors demanded, much to Roeg’s chagrin, that this key scene be taken out. “Without that love scene, you never see them get happy together; they’re always rowing, Julie’s always grumbling and running beside this tall chap saying, ‘You don’t understand'”, Roeg recalled in American Cinema. “They seem so miserable all the time! But most people do seem miserable: love is a very miserable affair. And when I put that scene back in, suddenly you can’t get confused about them. They’re like a married couple. They are a proper married couple.”
Rather than being a ‘cosmic fantasist’, then, Roeg is quite capable of deploying his non-linear approach to time in order to establish very traditional, ‘theatrical’ narrative effects, like establishing character and summoning lived verisimilitude. Even in his next film, the sci-fi fantasy The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg uses editing to point up an emotional truth, with the earthbound alien Thomas Jerome Newton repeatedly flashing back to domestic life on the distant planet from which he has come. The otherworldly Bowie, a piece of perfect casting (as was Mick Jagger as the counterculture maven Turner in Performance) is a wonderfully diaphanous, exotic presence, at once both youthful and mature, apparently impervious to the passing of time. “I’m fascinated by the interchange between ageing and time”, Roeg once said of the film. “People age at different speeds. Bowie didn’t age at all. Perhaps ageing begins when people betray themselves in one way or another, when they start living by other people’s lights.”
1980’s Bad Timing, starring Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel and Roeg’s then wife, Theresa Russell, was another psychological thriller, this time set in Vienna and overlaid with an intense blanket of Freudian psychoanalysis and voyeurism with a rich, mosaic-like mise-en-scène that recalls paintings by the city’s artistic sons, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Here again, a temporally fractured lovemaking scene is central, as bedroom intimacy between Russell and Garfunkel is intercut with scenes of Russell on an operating table after a suicide attempt. Elsewhere, the action shoots forward to Keitel’s police inspector surveying various locations in the story – Russell’s apartment, Garfunkel’s car – all woven into the narrative’s present tense. “The effect is to show that human experience is never shackled to the merely chronological or geographic”, opined American Cinema. “Different times, different places intersect in human thought, and it is that existential mobility that is the impulse behind Roeg’s work.”
While successive Roeg films, Eureka, Insignificance, Castaway, Track 29, Cold Heaven et al, contain flashes of the same editing methods, there is a sense of diminishing returns, and increasing cinematic orthodoxy, about them. Perhaps Roeg’s art is too subtly challenging for modern cinema audiences, and certainly pressure from a succession of financiers and distributors, increasingly paranoid about the dubious commercial efficacy of the director’s unorthodox approach, inexorably resulted in a bevelling off of Roeg’s more provocative angles. Not that interference from producers is a new problem for Roeg – it started with Performance, which was delayed for two years before exhibition while the backers insisted on cut after cut, and has plagued his entire professional life. These days, his films are greeted with little fanfare, and sometimes go straight to video or are made for TV. His last outing, Puffball was, by Roeg’s admission, “mauled” by the press. Timing, it seems, is everything. “Well, one of my films was called Bad Timing, after all,” Roeg told The Guardian recently. “Eureka was very bad timing. The early 1980s: Reagan and Thatcher were in, greed was good, and here was a film about the richest man in the world who still couldn’t be happy. Politically and sociologically, it was out of step… Of course, The Man Who Fell to Earth was bad timing, too. Came out around the same time as the George Lucas one…”
In his 2013 autobiography, The World is Ever Changing, Roeg offers a series of amusing anecdotes about the world of film, his apprenticeship in it and the honing of his unique cinematic style. The latter part of the book, however, is partly an exploration of the notion of time, prompted by an encounter, itself like something plucked from the screenplay of Don’t Look Now, with an old psychic who tells Roeg that he was a “past-life medium”, a notion that the director is more than happy to entertain. Roeg was also a friend of the late ‘outsider novelist’ Colin Wilson and admits to concurring with Wilson’s prediction that “one day the sixth sense will become part of the purpose of life”. Certainly, you suspect, it will take time for the rest of humanity, at least the part of it that watches films, to catch up with Nicolas Roeg.