‘There’s not a right way of doing something and a wrong way. There’s a right way – and another way. So let’s take a chance on the other way.’ Nicolas Roeg
Nicolas Roeg’s opening run of films – Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980) and Eureka (1982) – wipes the floor with that of pretty much any other director out there. Certainly, it wipes the floor with that of any other director similarly out there.
And Roeg’s career offers plenty more besides. Before sitting down on the director’s seat himself, Roeg worked as cinematographer to Corman, Schlesinger, Truffaut and Lean. And while his films of recent decades haven’t received wide acclaim, there is still much of interest in works such as his adaptations of The Witches (1989) and Heart of Darkness (1993), if perhaps less so in the unambiguously-titled Full Body Massage (1995).
The World is Ever Changing records this long and rich life in film. But, of course, Roeg wouldn’t do anything as staid as write an autobiography. So, instead, what we get is part memoir, part back-catalogue guide, part history of film, part ‘how to direct’ manual, part manifesto for cinema, and part musing on the space-time continuum.
The entire book is written in a conversational style (in fact, there’s a reference to Roeg having dictated the text). Stories and thoughts shoot off in all directions. Even if it is rambling, repetitive and, at times, downright barmy, The World is Ever Changing stands tall as a wildly entertaining and informative read.
Roeg, now 85, emerges as a warm, modest and generous man. Despite the dips in his career, he retains an admirable decency about the vagaries of the film business. There’s next to nothing in the way of the score-settling, self-justification and ‘it was better in my day’ moans that mar so many memoirs.
Of course, this friendly-uncle persona seems at odds with a mind that created such dark and taboo-busting pieces as Performance (that supposedly contributed to its lead actor James Fox having a nervous breakdown) and Bad Timing (described by its own distributors as ‘a sick film about sick people for sick people’).
But the naturally-curious Roeg displays such a disarming view of the world that it’s clear there is no contradiction here at all. With Roeg, there’s a sense of wondrous excitement at everything around us, warts and all. Jump in, he seems to say. The World is Ever Changing is required reading for those wanting to jump in to see things through his wide eyes. Roeg discusses his favourite themes – sex, death, identity, time and memory, amongst them – and his famous motifs – the flashes of red, the mirrors, the water, the artworks – with reference to his own utterly-mesmerizing films and to much else.
Roeg quotes Yeats in saying that sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind. Suffice to say, Nicolas Roeg has a serious mind. Sex gets its own chapter. ‘I did a love scene that has become very well known – the one in Don’t Look Now‘, Roeg says in understated fashion. Roeg reveals here, for the first time, that he told Julie Christie that her character Laura became pregnant as a result of her exertions and those of husband John (Donald Sutherland) in a Venice hotel. This explains the mystery of Laura’s famous smile at the film’s end.
Sexual permissiveness is, of course, at the centre of Roeg’s hedonistic crime drama Performance, a film described by critic Mark Cousins as ‘as radical in form and meaning as The Godfather was conservative.’And who could forget the voodoo orgy of Eureka? Or the gun-fuelled sex of Newton (David Bowie) and Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) in The Man Who Fell to Earth?But it is the dark love story Bad Timing, with Art Garfunkel as psychoanalyst Alex Linden and Theresa Russell as Milena Flaherty, that offers the most disturbing vision of coitus. This is a work that led critic Alexander Walker to ask what was it that Roeg was into: ‘compulsive sadism, infatuation passion, irresistible necrophilia, or existential exhibition?’ The film is a brilliant, but, at times, troubling watch. ‘There’s weird and then there’s Bad Timing‘, Roeg quotes a review as saying. ‘Nobody could say I was a prude’, he adds later. Quite.
Death hovers over many of Roeg’s most famous films, not least for the lead characters. Don’t Look Now is entirely framed by the tragedy of a young girl’s passing. And, of course, it builds to the death of the father. Walkabout begins with a father’s attempted murder of his children and his own suicide. The children then travel through the outback, guided by a young Aborigine (on his rite of passage), who is hanging from a tree by the film’s end. Gold prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) is blow-torched into oblivion in Eureka (an uneven film – part hard-as-nails, part schmaltzy – that is perhaps ‘the turn’ in Roeg’s career). And, of course, let’s not forget the killing, and the killing to come, at the ambiguous ending of Performance.
Mirrors get their own chapter. Amongst other purposes, Roeg uses mirrors in his films to explore notions of identity. ‘Mirrors are really fascinating … seeing the scene through a mirror somehow sets up a mystery or a revelation … There’s a certain truth to mirrors … Mirror shots are the very essence of cinema.’ These words make us think of Newton checking his eye disguise and, later, removing his lenses in front of the mirror to reveal his true self before terrifying Mary-Lou. And we think of the endless reflections – in the water, the windows and mirrors – of Don’t Look Now. And we think of Chas being dressed up in a new image in front of the mirror in Roeg’s most obvious exploration of identity, Performance – the entire film a Borges-like tale of dreams, mirrors and opposites.
That the concept of time and the nature of memory are particular interests of Roeg’s is easily gleaned from his films. So, it is unsurprising that The World is Ever Changing explores the way that humans interpret the past, the present, and the future. Roeg says ‘that’s how I always imagined how people feel about time, how they review their lives: moving between memory, the present moment and their hopes or fears of what’s to come.’ Relating this directly to film, he adds ‘I loathe the term ‘flashback’ – it has come to mean a cinematic gimmick … but our memory and our thoughts are constantly going backwards and forwards like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.’ This helps explain the fractured narrative of much of Roeg’s work, including, as the name might suggest, Bad Timing. There is the rapid cutting across time periods of many of Roeg’s most famous scenes, not least the sex and dressing again of Don’t Look Now and Jenny Agutter’s character remembering her naked swims in the outback while in her kitchen at the end of Walkabout.
The World is Ever Changing includes many passages about what we might call ‘the supernatural’. A sense of foreboding brings the ‘Roegian’ feel to his most famous films. We think of John Baxter’s premonitions in Don’t Look Now. And of the same film’s blind clairvoyant. We also think of the alien Newton and his higher intelligence. What’s clear from The World is Ever Changing is that Roeg believes in the power of intuition, or, should we say, the sixth sense? Or second sight? Or should we say – and to use John’s phrase from Don’t Look Now – that Roeg believes in ‘mumbo-jumbo’?
At its softest, this reveals itself in Roeg’s championing of chance and coincidence – ‘or is there such a thing?’, he questions. His mysticism goes much further in his musings on the untapped potential of the human mind and when discussing reincarnation. Roeg is deeply optimistic (if that’s the right word) about what the human mind is capable of. Even on the first page, he is already telling us: ‘My belief is that we are a lot closer to some giant changes in understanding the Blake-like meaning of life and the time conundrum than we can recognise.’ Some of his views are wacky, but it’s intriguing to read them in light of the subject matter of his films. Does Roeg feel there’s more ‘realism’ in his films than the viewer might?
When discussing his central interests, Roeg always relates them back to his main obsession: cinema itself. There may be no greater advocate for the power of cinema: ‘The motion picture is … perhaps even the first clue in solving the puzzle of what we’re doing here on this world’, he suggests, and it’s easy to believe his tongue was nowhere near his cheek.
What shines through is Roeg’s insistence on the uniqueness of the medium. In particular, he wants film to move away from the narrative conventions of literature: ‘This whole idea of connecting film with our minds is still relatively unexplored. We’re still connecting it in some archaic way with the structure of the novel’.
This comment brings to mind the striking – deeply cinematic – scenes that Roeg has created. Images that are utterly unforgettable. The child’s drowning and the glimpses of red in the alleys and canals of Don’t Look Now. The pairing of Gustav Klimt and Tom Waits in the opening of Bad Timing. Jack McCann striking gold and his repeated bawling of ‘I never made a nickel from another man’s sweat’ in Eureka. And the ‘Memo from Turner’ and bathroom play of Performance. And the children trekking through the wide expanse of the outback in Walkabout. Few have shot landscapes and dark beauty better than Nicolas Roeg.
Roeg talks interestingly about his film-making process. Again, his faith in chance is to the fore. He dispenses with rehearsals (‘a hangover from the theatre’) and lets scenes drift on before shouting cut in order to ‘see what happens’. Roeg believes in the power of the unexpected, the unlikely, the other way. This free approach helps explain why Roeg’s films have delivered us three impressive lead performances by musicians: Jagger, Bowie and Garfunkel. Roeg dares to do things differently.
Roeg includes chapters on the methods of ‘sound’, ‘script’ and ‘editing’ (hardly surprising the editor extraordinaire calls this ‘the final and most daring moments of making a movie’) that are fascinating reading for any fan of his and that are required reading for any aspiring film-maker.
The World is Ever Changing has been released as an e-book, complete with film clips. The print edition is of surprisingly poor (near print-on-demand) quality, so the e-book will be the better option for the technologically-minded.
As ever with a director’s book, ultimately, The World is Ever Changing’s greatest worth comes in taking us back to the films. Roeg’s standout works glow brightly in the history of cinema. They have left indelible marks on their viewers, not least, the current generation’s filmmakers. The sainted Danny Boyle calls Roeg ‘British film’s Picasso’. Christopher Nolan has spoken of the debt he owes Roeg, most obviously seen in his backwards Memento (2000) and the mind-trip that is Inception (2010).
But it is perhaps unkind to talk simply of Roeg’s back catalogue and influence. As his book makes clear, Roeg is still very much up for working. His mind, no doubt, continues to race this way and that. Roeg is not one for wallowing in nostalgia. Out with the old and in with the new, he will say, even as time comes to let go of the baton completely. Onwards and upwards. Roeg believes in the future, for film and for the world:
‘I love seeing what these young film-makers are now doing. I see how all our senses are up for investigation all the time and are changing. I had a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth and it really sums it up:
The world is ever changing, Mr Farnsworth, like the universe.