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Difficult Directors: Nicolas Roeg

Despite making high-powered films like Performance, Walkabout, Don't Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicholas Roeg remains mostly an unknown.

Nicolas Roeg may be the least difficult of my Difficult Directors. Compared to and , he might seem not difficult at all. He’s had a 40-year career directing (he started at age 40!) and 20 years as a camera operator and cinematographer, but you find the familiar signs of a difficult director in his resume.

The public has had some trouble digesting his films: a) they made little money; b) almost all would be considered the “art house” type; c) they are character- and not action-based; and d) their endings tend to be ambiguous or befuddling.

An aesthetic trait Roeg shares with other difficult directors is a rigorous adherence to a method for advancing the plot, characterization, and tension. It centers on dynamic editing, which often wipes away a linear time and creates a convulsive chronology essential to understanding what his films are about.

His first four films embody this methodology to the maximum: Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth are best known for the presence of rock n’ roll superstars, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, respectively. Jagger even plays a burned-out rocker who offers his mansion as a hideout for a gang enforcer played by James Fox. Performance anticipates the later British gangster films The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), and The Krays (1990), not to mention Guy Ritchie’s best films.

In The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie shows great acting chops, playing an alien who has come to Earth to obtain water for his planet. He starts a high-tech firm and makes billions to fund his mission but, through the greed and viciousness of humanity, ends up abandoning his mission and becoming a despondent alcoholic.

Walkabout tells the story of two children abandoned by their father in the Australian outback. The teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her brother must survive the severe conditions. They meet an aboriginal boy who, while he is going through his rites of passage, helps the two survive for several weeks until they reach civilization. In the wake of Walkabout, the Australian and New Zealand film industry grew in the 70s and 80s with the emergence of directors like Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, Jane Campion, and Peter Jackson.

Consistently at the heart of these and Roeg’s later films is a psychological fracture within an individual, family, or relationship. The relative ability or inability to deal with emotional trauma becomes the basis for the drama in his films. In Eureka (1983) prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) strikes it rich after 15 years of mining, but his unlimited wealth destroys his emotional balance. Instead of relieving his material and emotional wants, his riches create a spiritual void that leads him down a self-destructive path.

Perhaps Roeg’s best film, Don’t Look Now (1973), stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as parents who have lost their oldest daughter in a drowning accident. The couple’s pain is never elided, but they move on. John Baxter (Sutherland) is hired to restore a church in Venice, and there he meets a pair of elderly women, one of whom claims she saw his daughter beside his wife in a restaurant.

Christie attends a seance against the wishes of her husband. We are led to believe that she is the one most affected by the daughter’s death. Yet, it is Sutherland who experiences premonitions and episodes that both tap him into the spiritual world and suggest that he has overcome his grief less than he believes he has.

Several years ago, in an essay on what I termed “Disturbing Films,” I wrote:

“John [Baxter] several times has a foreboding, particularly when he sees his wife, seemingly in mourning, pass by on a boat. He calls to her but she doesn't hear him. Later, we learn the boat is a hearse transporting his body. Secondary glimpses of his doom occur when John sees the Venice police block a canal because of a murder and, later, he sees the police pull a murdered girl from the water. Subsequently, because of the episode when he sees his wife accompany the psychic and her sister on the boat, he goes to the police himself, initiating a chain of events leading directly to his own murder. Indeed, had he the insight to heed the warnings, he might have been saved.”

Roeg’s editing increases the sense of doom for his character, especially in the way it alludes to his psychological state. The most infamous scene in the movie, a long love scene with Sutherland and Christie, increases our sympathy and understanding for this couple in their state of grief as they try to reconnect physically.

Despite the intense sensuality, the scene is shot and edited in such a way—cuts to the pair dressing afterward, then returning to them in passionate embrace—to underline the fragility of their relationship and their difficulty in sustaining strong emotional attachment under anxious conditions.

Castaway (1987), with Oliver Reed, presents a similar relationship, in which the physical and emotional attachment cannot quite stay glued together. Reed advertises in a London paper for a woman (Amanda Donahue) to live with him on a desert island for a year. Although their physical relationship becomes inevitable, it is only after their physical alienation from each other becomes apparent that they begin to understand one another. Once they are disabused of any romantic notions inherent in such an arrangement, they have a better understanding of themselves.

Castaway was one of the few movies in the 80s and 90s for which Roeg didn’t cast his wife, Theresa Russell. Indeed, she is the dominant female presence in Bad Timing (1980), Eureka, Insignificance (1985), Track 29 (1988), and Cold Heaven (1991). In Insignificance, she plays a character based on Marilyn Monroe who, in one evening, is thrown together with three men: baseball player husband, a notorious Red-baiter from the early 1950s, and an Einstein-like physicist.

Roeg’s last successful film, The Witches (1990), which is based on a Roald Dahl book of the same name, deals with a plan to turn the children of England into mice. In what you can call a mature story for children, the film still manages to convey the emotional rupture experienced by the protagonist, a young boy, who has lost both his parents in a car accident.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash August 29, 2012 at 05:40 PM
I saw Don't Look Now, last nite. Roeg must come from an artistic background. His editing and shots was lush and beautiful. I never heard of him before last nite at the Collingwood Movie Club's screening of Don't Look Now. I will look him up at the library and Netflix. Also,the love making in "Don't" wasn't prurient at all.

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