“It’s something that obsesses me: the idea of where, how we approach, and where we finally reach our personal death scenes. Nowadays, when people talk of the Gothic cinema, they’re really talking about camp. It’s very sad, because the Gothic is a tremendous cultural influence, not a funny thing at all.”
—Nicolas Roeg

A LONG-TIME cameraman (since 1947) on some unique projects, Petulia for Dick Lester and The Masque of the Red Death for Roger Corman, Nicolas Roeg is an elegant if arty director with an imposing record: a fast, brutal, junked-up action film about perverted sexuality as the key to violence (Performance, a collaboration with Donald Cammell: “It’s impossible to sort out who did what”); a shrewd reading of child behavior done with a documentarist’s eye, proving his career-long idea that the world, whatever its faults, is visually breathtaking (Walkabout); and his most complex film to date, a Henry James-like maze built around Donald Sutherland’s brilliantly sombre acting of a careful, practical man in an uncontrollable city (“Don’t expect too much, Mr. Baxter,” says the police inspector of Venice’s ancient maze, which finally destroys Sutherland and his willfulness in Don’t Look Now).

Always involved with this against that, the co-existence of contradictories, Roeg’s very athletic films are filled with baroque strategies—jumpy and jazzy editing, a topsy-turvy scale, an aquarium-like space in which hush is a major effect along with the sense of people floating dreamily toward the front of a stretched out, sinister vastness—and the feeling that people don’t love life enough; they’re either too rigid or willful to get as much out of life as they could.

His extremely faceted film is very ingratiating, but the charm—the cute animal shots, impeccably trim cosmopolitans and pretty sunsets—counts much less than the astute use of the medium. Each film starts with a minimal plot idea—three children adrift on the Australian outback; a gangster hiding from the syndicate in an erotic manipulator’s haze of drugs, transsexuality and literary references; a church restorer receiving a message from the grave that his life’s in danger (“My daughter does not send messages, Laura . . . she is dead, dead, dead!”)—and then is built into an intricate, semi-slick, absorbing blend of the ominous and lyrically sensual.

While the radical Germans were picking up the transsexual banner and facetious attitude from Warhol, it would seem that England’s big three—Losey, Boorman and Roeg—were fastening on Muriel, its princely craftsmanship and Leftist fervor. Talking about the way the French handled themselves in Algeria and World War II, Resnais’s movie about Boulogne, a city split by its bombed past and reconstructed postwar present, shows the marks left on its citizens by the sordid or disillusioning parts they played in two wars.

The counter-narrative devices of Muriel turn up repeatedly in the baroque British film, particularly the rapid cutting that produces a ripple of shots for each event, the disjunctive soundtrack that is situated at odd angles to the people’s presence, and the feeling of civilized, middle-class people caught in the midst of corruption that set in without their noticing it. Most of all, they respond to a landscape-person synthesis, the effect of people momentarily tied together in a subversive milieu. Terrain, potently present, becomes the main event, and the camera becomes the brains of the operation, the chief weapon for exposing social corrosion in the sterile, plastic L.A. nightmare of shiny office buildings, used-car lots and over-sized billboards (Boorman’s Point Blank), or corrosion being overturned in Roeg’s three films, where exotic terrain points out the deficiencies in a tidy miss, macho gangster, and a too sensible architect.

In Roeg’s surreal strangeness, there is always an eerie message that London, indoors and out (Performance), the desolate Australian wilderness (Walkabout) and the Gothic corridors and waterways of Venice (Don’t Look Now) existed before his people were born and will be there after they die, which happens often in three films bracketed by deaths, fore and aft. This last film, which starts with a church restorer’s daughter chasing a rubber ball into a lake and drowning, and ends with her father killed by a hook-faced dwarf wearing his daughter’s shiny red raincoat (pretty strange), creates an authentic adult terror. As the Baxter couple (Sutherland and Julie Christie) becomes entwined with a British psychic and her sister who are touristing in Venice, Daphne Du Maurier’s addlepated writing is toughened by an interesting portrait of Venice in winter, putting the spectator in contact with the city’s surfaces, heights, dampness, rats, hallways, canals.

“Oh, don’t be sad. I’ve seen your daughter sitting between you and your husband . . . and she’s laughing, she’s very happy you know.” Sutherland’s church restorer, who’s prescient himself but resists it, doesn’t pay attention to Hilary Mason’s messages from daughter Christine. But Roeg’s use of this blind, dowdy English spinster shows Hitchcock’s ability to milk terror from enigmatic secondary characters, plus his own geographic cunning for entangling a character’s possibly sinister traits in a deep, threatening space. Roeg is very inventive and likably hokey (in Hitchcock’s false-clue style) using her eerie moon-face and large halt-stepping body to animate his city’s unpredictable, unfavorable terrain. Sporting her mischievously into backgrounds, choreographing her into the most awkward relationships with beds, choir stalls, mantle mementos, bringing out her rabid, maiden-aunt benevolence with a jack-rabbit camera, Roeg’s Gothic movie has a scene-by-scene richness unique in films.

More than just a pretty, camera-minded director taking on offbeat subjects (drugs, transsexuality, the will and the supernatural), Roeg is an animist of the first-run theaters. He implies that a medieval statue, a flock of ducks flapping in a mucky canal, a red stain on a slide, a pair of white rats struggling to get out of the water, the tiny mosaic tiles stomped by a bishop’s shoe, are as alive with sinister possibilities as the forbidding city and the questionably motivated people.

Cutting sharply on people in mid-action, covering each event with one camera focus after another, from extreme deep space to a closeup, Don’t Look Now is a very active film employing the stretched effects, operatic lighting and stylish people of Mannerist art. In each shot, the blind psychic is presented differently: she is variously seen from below, as a closeup of her blue irisless eyes, or as a disturbing tiny figure running her hands across the rails of a choir stall. The look of Roeg’s cinema is wedded to extreme changes in scale and point of view. He threads every part of the medium into each situation, using such suspect devices as slow motion, zooms and stop frames to create an aquarium’s density.

If not the best scene, Don’t Look Now’s showiest set piece is a Sutherland-Christie sex act, all surface and no insides, that barely skirts fashion-magazine snobbery, but illustrates how far Roeg will move off the central content of a scene to expand its ideas and give the sense of lurking trouble. The scene is not the most lovable: its sex could be performed only by the most svelte, agile and well-heeled . . . the actors are given the full glamour treatment: shadows, elegant serpentine effects with their torsos. It is interesting that Roeg’s extrapolated material invariably toughens up the event, suggesting threat from the underworld, either spiritually or psychologically. In this case, a dot-dash sequence of shots, in which the serpentine motion of the coitus is alternated with vertical mid-torso shots of one or the other person getting dressed, (1) becomes more elegantly viewable; (2) places the people more firmly in a posh, selected social strata, and (3) underlines their ruminative, worried, even fragile connection to Venice’s ungraspable landscape.

Roeg’s attracted to tank tactics, such as fish-eyed focuses, convex reflections and skittish movement. As often as not, his people are in deep or middle space, but there is an unpredictable approaching and receding toward the camera, the way a fish moves toward an aquarium’s viewing glass. When Jagger, a bankrupt Performance singer living out his time in exotic decadence, sings his “Memo from Turner,” challenging the syndicate’s idea of masculinity, his taunting thrusts his face close to a convex lens, which splays and demonizes his features. This same lens maneuver on the children’s nap in Walkabout is supposed to suggest pulverizing desert heat.

The amount of detail and complicating delays that are woven into a single flowing line of action is astounding, probably unique in the history of action films. Resnais’s elliptical editing becomes much more aggressive and pyrotechnical through a doubling back, reassessing attitude and a Hitchcockian desire to throw you off the main forward moving plot. A simple action, Sutherland positioning a statue, three people meeting on a quay, goes forward by an infinite number of asides (you’re not sure what these signify, but you feel it’s something). A simple situation breaks up into subterranean aspects: why should the closeup of an elegant Rex Harrison–type bishop opening his overcoat to reach for a handkerchief have such an unsettling impact? Cutting across the normal flow of a mundane meeting with an enigmatic gesture that fills the whole screen adds to the growing malevolence that surrounds Sutherland. Following the overcoat gesture, the murmured words of the low-key bishop, “considering it’s the house of God, he doesn’t take care of it . . . perhaps he has other priorities,” elicit the same did-I-hear-right, did-I-see-right response.

Three events—the fall from the scaffold, the placement of the statue on the church’s outer wall, Sutherland’s interview with the suspicious, ambivalent police inspector (a strange, insolent, very effective performance)—are at the heart of this cubistically spiraling style, in which there is always the sense of an event being excavated for any potential intrigues. Sutherland is on an amateurishly built, creaking scaffold three floors up, checking some new mosaics against the originals in a wall picture. A plank breaks loose high above him, crashes down, breaking the scaffold. Sutherland and the tiny mosaics are sent flying. The smoothness of this accident is constantly sliced, so that the event is recorded cubistically from various sides. Along with the tenuous, poignant, moment-in-time quality, there is the sense of a movie spiraling on itself, revealing a great deal without appearing hokey. The scene finally ends on a canal far away from the church: the police dredging a murder victim from the canal, lifting her humiliated form by crane out of the polluted water. The grim tableau, seen from the distance, suggests a shameful, upside-down crucifixion; Sutherland, barely recovered from his fall, can hardly take in this new evidence of waste and horror lurking in the city.

Roeg’s complex Gothic style also involves:

(1) putting his handsome characters on a disorienting trampoline: the trampoline’s sensation is one of dislocation, of being in a rising-falling suspension with no secure sense of ground. The scaffold’s creaking slowly back and forth: each move to the right reveals a giant Byzantine eye staring between Sutherland’s ankles; far below, the baleful bishop watches a tense situation about to explode.

(2) screwing up the scale of the universe: when the two Walkabout children, miss clean and master cub scout, begin their test in the outback, her schoolgirl oxfords float past an eight-inch reptile; the camera zooms in to reveal a hissing, fork-tongued creature out of Bosch with a mane like a dinosaur.

(3) suggesting the quality of hush: the style constantly emphasizes the intervals between people, parts of events and sounds. The hush takes place in the no-man’s-land when the character and/or spectator are trying to digest different experiences. Two kids are sleeping peacefully alongside a waterhole. As they sleep and the night passes through five light stages, an enormous snake slithers along a branch close to their bodies, a wombat waddles past sniffing at them, neither awakening nor frightening either one, particularly the towhead zonked out and smiling in the middle of this animal crossroad.

(4) using a distinctive cutting rhythm for each section: the suspenseful opening of Don’t Look Now starts with rain on the lake and ends with Christie’s abrupt scream, at the sight of her daughter’s corpse in her husband’s arms; it is a crisscross of shots, each one slightly to the right or left of the preceding one. When the Aborigine boy first appears in Walkabout, a tiny silhouette on the horizon, advancing in a snake-like zigzag down the hill toward the exhausted brother and sister, this left-right strategy follows a slower expressionistic route (closeup of a large lizard swallowing a smaller one, stop frames of the triumphant hunter, Lucien John’s eye-blinking wonder at the black’s whirling approach) into a trademark lushness.

In Muriel, the overriding quality is the cool ecstasy about the old-new city’s physicality and the sad transience of the people, their delusions and obsessions. Walkabout is filled with sadness, in this case the divorce of Sydney’s middle-class people from Nature. Their brittle isolation is swiftly condensed in a sinister set-piece of card-like shots. This strange synthesis has Resnais’s aristocratic precision and cool: an eager-to-conform girl practicing breathing exercises in a voice class, a child standing with charming self-confidence among pedestrians at a busy corner, a shot of a brick wall that pans right to expose the desolate outback, a Hockney-esque image of the father, with cocktail in hand, gazing dyspeptically at his two kids capering in a magnificent pool fronting the sea. This staccato section is so like a sharp knife . . . as though the buildings were sucking the life out of the people.

Walkabout, which starts with one type of suicide, the children’s crazy father trying to shoot them (“come out now . . . it’s getting late, we’ve got to go now, can’t waste time”) and hitting only the boy’s tin soldiers off a boulder before killing himself, and ends with an Aborigine youngster’s ritualized willing of his death, makes you think of the basic knitter’s formula: one stitch of charm, one stitch of cruelty. The story: an antiseptic teenager (Jenny Agutter) and her toy-hoarding brother (Lucien John) are left adrift on the edge of an immense desert by their father’s suicide. A cheerfully stoic Aborigine (David Gumpilil), a whirling hunter of animals on a solitary tour to prove his manhood, discovers them at the edge of exhaustion, and guides them back to civilization, where the girl retreats back to her Bold and Ajax persona, and the black, reading her sexual fear as a death sign, hangs himself.

The movie shows its director as a sentimental R. D. Laing psychiatrist creating a wonderful enchanted kingdom of snakes, spiders, wombats . . . with an anti-capitalist twist and a sentimental back-to-Nature solution to the problems of civilization. A sort of Hansel and Gretel fairy story: cast out in the woods by parents, coming to the crone in the gingerbread house, throwing the witch in a boiling caldron, etc. The Gothically underlined, rather swank movie not only vouches for Laing’s idea that that society-perversion the nuclear family is the surest road to misery, but has the authentic exhilaration of an adventure story. It is half heartbreaking magic, like a Jr. Moby Dick, and half Kodak cloying.

Inside its sun-struck pace, lush landscape images and associative editing, Walkabout is a pessimistic impression of two Sydney children civilized to death by an alienating city, schooling and family, almost zooming to freedom through their odyssey but not making it. One of the last words the clench-faced father tells his son, chewing on a butterscotch in the VW’s back seat: “Don’t eat with your mouth full son.” Later, during their desert trek, his uptight sister reprimands him: “Look after your clothes, people will think we’re tramps.” The kid, game and willing to believe, looks around the Australian emptiness: “What people?” Where the family is all rules, the Aborigine responds directly to the need of the moment. The movie’s all about gifts: the black boy’s gift is teaching the Sydney children survival know-how, practicality, as opposed to law-abidance.

One of the movie’s gifts to an audience is a Fourth of July display of camera tricks, childhood insights, a zany piling on of details in a jammed frame. The young boy seeing the Aborigine in the distance blinks his eyes, which don’t stop popping through the next three minutes. The Aborigine is hunting a giant desert lizard: as he swirls closer, you realize his waist, encircled by a ring of dead lizards, is aswarm with 50 flies and their buzzing on the soundtrack: bzzz . . . bzzz . . . bzzz. The movie’s soundtrack is filled with many such non-human sounds mixed with silence, voluptuous music and sometimes a human voice. The little boy is often imitating car motors, airplanes: “bam . . . bam . . . ,” aiming a green plastic water pistol at an imaginary airplane, whereupon his fed-up father, in the VW, stops reading his geological report, debarks from the car, and uses his hunting rifle on the boy. Again, Roeg gives us one stitch of charm, one stitch of cruelty.

An average scene is a wondrous deep-focus experience that goes forward in a meticulous crisscross of free associations. Passing some camels (or cameras —the movie has a dozen operating on each event) in the distance, the amenable, on-his-toes kid envisions a caravan of 1900 prospectors riding the camels. The scene alternates between his daydream and his sister’s fantasy which is riveted on the tight, muscular buttocks of their Aborigine savior. The undulating, sun-struck scene is filled to brimming: vista shots of the camels that bend around the three youngsters, closeups of the children’s feet showing the difficulty of walking through the heat and sand, the boy carrying on an imaginary gallantry with his fantasized fellow travelers, by doffing his school cap each time the caravan scene catches up with him.

One thing that the movie is always saying is “be open, be open.” It’s rigidity that keeps Jenny, short for hygienic (“you’ve got to make your clothes last”) locked in her mother’s world of jobs, time, and kitchen gadgets. The director is always available to the possibility of evil. The teenaged Jenny’s authority and coolness is monstrous from beginning to end. It’s not that the girl is cruel but that she’s insensitive to anything but the world as it’s defined by radio commercials. She’s the quintessence of beauty and health, plenty of calcium and good fruit, but, despite her lush beauty, she’s rather cranky, incurious and fanatically conventional. She sits enthralled at a radio lesson in how to use a fish knife. Roeg, who believes the world’s become health-crazy, that the ideal of perfect health has replaced religion, family, consequences, paradoxically loves beautiful bodies, animals, foliage. His movies are extra sweet because of their luxury: beautiful skin, flowers, near-naked buttocks.

His forbidding, grandiloquent work rests rather precariously on a sweet-and-sour sword’s edge: on the one hand, a predilection for dealing only with the beautiful people and National Geographic photography (right now, he’s working with David Bowie in New Mexico) side by side with a talent for expressing the primordial depths erupting in the modern world. His film is that of a savoring, thoughtful, idealizing sensualist who can gunk up a movie with sex-tease nonsense and florid sunsets that drive you up a wall. At the same time, as with Resnais, he is not coercive: he doesn’t insist that you see things, people or events through his eyes. His labyrinthian movie, which keeps you entangled in its every moment, is a protest against the smooth, harmonious existence, the grayness of neighboring films. From the aggressive, propagandistic Performance (make love, not war) through the serious attempt to make Don’t Look Now a modern Gothic movie, Roeg’s message has been: the most fulfilled life is the one that advantages itself of all the signs-gifts that life throws into the individual’s path. There is more peripheral richness in the scaffold sequence than in the entire Night Moves, with its old-fashioned hawking of actors’ faces, or The Passenger, where landscapes divulge their handsome identity in an instant.

with Patricia Patterson; September 9, 1975

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