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Remembering Nicolas Roeg, The Director Who Fell To Earth
Adam Scovell , November 26th, 2018 09:26

Nicolas Roeg, the director of some of British cinema’s most innovative and provocative films, is remembered by Adam Scovell

Photograph courtesy of Nicolas Roeg

The IMDb page for Nicolas Roeg has one particular sentence trying to summarise the director’s array of endlessly complex yet incredibly watchable films. It states very simply, “Fragmented, non-linear narrative style.” Whilst it is true that Roeg is perhaps the most innovative British director of his generation, one who tore apart form and restructured it with as much confidence as any of his art house peers, it lacks the true sense of what lies behind even the most experimental of Roeg’s films and why, on the 24th of November, so many were saddened by his passing. Beating behind every shard and every fragment, there was a heart.

It was in summer this year when Roeg’s films once again came back into the spotlight. They’re the sort of films that rarely fade or disappear anyway but the director turned ninety on 15 August, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of filming his first joint directorship, Performance in 1968. His back catalogue was, therefore, back in circulation and discussion. It’s not difficult to understand why his work influenced and affected so many people or why such discussions continued. He is one of the very few British directors of the post-war era to maintain his own vision whilst successfully using the greater filmmaking support and apparatus supplied by Hollywood without sacrificing everything that made his films his own. He won his creative battles with the moneymen more than most.

With Roeg’s death, a very particular movement of British cinema is in a sense closed off. Post-War British cinema is as colourful and vibrant as any other world cinema, one built on the legacy of Powell & Pressburger more than the straight-edged period drama that still unfairly defines our national cinema and character. As a nation, we have so often talked ourselves down in regards to our cinema, content to let its most conservative examples represent us. But Roeg was the highpoint of an industry that consistently threw such visions to the wayside, choosing vibrant colour, vivid imagery and a dismantling of the norms over tradition: Hammer Horror, films by outsiders (The Servant, Blow-Up, Deep End), the British New Wave, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson et al. Roeg epitomised a cinema built on these new visions.

Roeg started modestly on the lower rungs of the film industry with a variety of technical jobs. Working as a focus puller and camera operator for various British films of the 1950s, he slowly made his way up the ladder, becoming an accomplished cinematographer. His mark is left in the most surprising of places but undeniably there even when working for the most idiosyncratic of auteurs. His rich images are there in François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) with its flaming reds, the moody shadows of Clive Donner’s The Caretaker (1963) or the luscious green fields of John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd (1967); colours so vibrant you wanted to reach out and touch them. The structure may often be simpler but the palette is Roeg’s.

Perhaps most famously, his visual influence is clear on two of David Lean’s behemoth projects: Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Though Roeg is listed as assistant director in the former and was fired from the latter in spite of working on the film, his trademark colour and shimmer appears variously. Freddie Young, the cinematographer who eventually picked up various awards, including two Oscars, cannot hide Roeg’s clear eye; the strong, confident composition flashing up momentarily. But Roeg’s interests grew in other directions, and certainly far from the Sunday afternoon spectacle of Lean’s vision for British cinema.

If Lean, with his straight-laced quality, was one half of British cinema, then perhaps Roeg is the other, showing what it can do when ignoring the rules. The difference between Roeg and other experimental directors, however, is that he had worked for decades developing the cinematic craft of image making which he could subsequently subvert; the raw material for his collages was better than most. Dizzying flurries of image and sound were created from cut-ups and fragmentation. Even when glimpsed for a second – sometimes at such a rate as to question ever having experienced it – the quickly fading light was undeniably always projecting a precise and composed image.

From working with many big name directors, Roeg eventually had the buying power to direct. Few directors in any period or any time have had such a run of growing creative ambition, least to say one so well realised, as in Roeg’s first decade of directing. In 1968, he worked on Performance, with Donald Cammell; a subversive, violent maelstrom that mixed together East End gangsters, dark psychedelia, labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges and gay subculture among other things. Roeg shot and blocked the film whilst Cammell took care of the actors. What they produced together would be another chapter in rewriting the British cinema rulebook, perhaps looking too far forward for the time. With Warner Brothers unhappy, the film was shelved until 1970, innovatively but forcibly re-cut by Cammell, and with Roeg having taken his directorial credit off the bill. The two artists separated but Roeg’s visual eye is there, realising Cammell’s typical blend of intellectual provocation, occult dalliances and overt sexuality.

From Performance, Roeg would go on to make a string of classics: Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980). All use increasing fragmentation and dreamlike aesthetics to turn unusual narratives into humane and heartfelt experiences. In Don’t Look Now, the grief of a couple is built into the narrative from the off via connections haunted by the colour red; in fact its opening five minute introduction draws connections at such a silent yet lightening rate that it provides a key for understanding the rest of the film. Equally, Roeg uses the science-fiction of The Man Who Fell To Earth (as well the presence of David Bowie), to address addiction, loneliness and melancholy in the modern world. Whereas other directors became hypnotised by the sparkle of their own bag of tricks, Roeg never forgot what they were being used for; to create a visceral emotional response.

With Bad Timing, Roeg realised his true vision in spite of the film’s troubled production. It follows a relationship but via a deeply authentic nonlinear chaos. The director charts the toxic love between two troubled leads, played with startling commitment by Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell, but upends almost every potential connecting factor within the narrative in terms of time and emotional trajectory. The viewer is left to pick up the pieces and yet the very act of connecting all of these fragments together provides an emotional resonance that few other films from the period really possess. When the film’s final abstract landscape appears, it’s almost as a sigh of emotional relief, coming up for air. Roeg knows that life is not as linear as we think in terms of perception; that it’s filled with dreams of the future - perhaps even an awareness of fate - and shards of memory that revisit us from the past in the ever slipping present. Through this single belief, he broke cinema apart to reflect a closer stylisation of reality, far more in tune with how we emotionally witness, remember and foreshadow our own lives. Through such abstraction, Roeg expresses a sense of co-existence, the feeling that lives are mapped from the start and that its moments happen simultaneously. The majority of Don’t Look Now is predicted early on, as is the trauma of Walkabout and the tragedy that haunts the future of the successful gold digger in his brilliant 1983 film, Eureka. Simultaneity, rather than being a cold academic treatise stuffed into his films, heightens the emotional reactions of the characters, partly aware that fate is hanging heavy over their lives and that how they deal with it is the only true progress that matters. In other words, how does one deal with the inevitability of mortality?

Ultimately Roeg presents growth through his films, a growth that comes from the smashed time of his editing and one that is not always positive. Sometimes this can be explicitly personal as in The Man Who Fell To Earth as Bowie’s character of Newton is left ageless, drunk and depressed while those around him age to death. His is uniquely a character removed from the usual questions of death, and the emotional weight of outliving everything around him turns him to drink; ironically becoming more human in only the most tragic of ways. Simultaneity in Roeg’s films often spells tragedy and the director never loses sight of how a more true perception of human reality must also contain emotional consequences.

Perhaps his most beautiful realisation of tragedy is Insignificance (1985), a film that surreally follows a night where Einstein (Michael Emil) and Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) discuss the world in a hotel room. Its final sequence is one of Roeg’s strongest, a nuclear explosion ripping through the furniture, burning the image of human culture and beauty, before reversing it all and allowing Monroe one of her trademark sultry goodbyes. It’s as if the director earnestly tried to contain the tragedy and melancholy of the last eighty or so years in one scene, causing it to combust with a broken-mirror bad luck.

Aside from being a powerful finale to his film, it’s really a metaphor for his whole creative philosophy; for he treated cinema just like that hotel room. He was a nuclear force that tore things to shreds and burnt up celluloid yet miraculously reformed it all back into a beautiful whole time and time again, finished of course with a wry smile at the end. It was always a gamble, breaking apart such spectacular images, such complex narratives, such monumental performances. But, more often than not, it paid off wonderfully. As Roeg once said, “I like the idea of chance. What makes God laugh is people who make plans.” We may not see his like again but we have his films, playing endlessly and simultaneously as if he was always here, as if he never left.