Nicolas Roeg rarely talks about his films. He prefers to let his films speak for themselves, as many filmmakers do. Film director and producer David Thompson examined Roeg’s remarkable vision of cinema filming Roeg where he is happiest: his own house. The reserved British filmmaker counts many acclaimed masterpieces under his belt, including Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980).
The career of the auteur started several years before his first film was completed, the documentary reveals. He worked on François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1966. He fesses up: “Truffaut guided me into film”; that was when he began to distinguish between the work of a photographer and of a cinematographer.
Later Roeg developed some concepts that followed him in many films and influenced filmmakers such as Mike Figgis (Suspension of Disbelief, 2002) and Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, 2015), also pictured in this documentary. The idea that the chronology within a film is not linear is one example. It is possible to obliterate time. He explains that “in film we can put the clock back”.
In Bad Timing, the montage plays a key role in this story build up in flashbacks and flash forwards. The film barely has a plot, and sponsors at the time dismissed it as “very sick”. It is a psychological thriller involving a professor (Art Garfunkel) and his lover (Theresa Russell). Garfunkel plays a repressed academic and professional voyeur in Vienna who finds in Milena (Russell) a chaotic force to drive his libido. The montage mixes scenes from the past and the present: it shows Milena suffering a tracheotomy after a suicide attempt in the present interspersed with an orgasm in the past. The film is considered very risqué because portrays emotional manipulation and rape.
British filmmakers before Roeg were usually very shy about graphic display of sex. Sexuality in Roeg’s films is very open. He likes to show destructive relationships. His former wife and actress Theresa Russell explains that for him “nobody ultimately knows anything about the person they love”. One is alone, even when loved.
Roeg cast many rock stars in various films. Mick Jagger is Turner, a fading musician in the Swinging London of the 1960s (Performance), while David Bowie is an alien who comes to Earth in search of water (The Man Who Fell to Earth). Plus Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing.
More than just using rock stars in order to boost box office takings, Roeg understood pop culture like nobody else. His films are visual pictures of the second half of 20th century, just like Warhol’s paintings. Performance is a film about identity and what is behind the masks we wear daily. The Man Who Fell to Earth is more than a sci-fi picture; it is a movie about alcoholism. In It’s about Time, Bowie confesses he was “living two lives in his mind. It was easy for me not to relate with other people”. At the time of the shooting, Bowie was just coming out of a life-threatening drug problem.
At last, Thompson talks to Roeg’s son, Luc, who remembers that his father filmed at location in the very distant corners of the world. Eureka tells the story of the richest man in the world who gets lost in Alaska, and Walkabout is probably the “best film about Australia made by a non-Australian”, declares Luc.
You can buy the documentary Nicolas Roeg: It’s about Time and watch it online at the BBC Store – just click here. You can watch Bad Timing (1980) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) anytime on BFI player. Or you can also catch Walkabout this Tuesday evening at Somerset House. It is a tale about the pivotal encounter of two white schoolchildren and a young Aboriginal boy in Australia’s outback. The film will be screened as part of Film4 Summer Screen – just click here for more information.