23. April 2020 · Comments Off on Through the Looking Glass Menage a Trois · Categories: Film & TV Reviews, Performance 1968 · Tags: , ,

Performance, 1968 film by Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell

A critique by Alice Gebura

Cecil Beaton, Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, October 1968. ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Running from his mob boss and the law, sadistic thug Chas falls down a rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland style. His exit from a seedy and gratuitously violent world into a psychedelic and gratuitously sexual one projects two fantasy experiences for the straight, adolescent male. As such Performance is a typical film pandering to the male gender. It’s a man’s man-world with lots of creative torture on the streets. The two women who inhabit the wonderland mansion serve up sex fantasies in the favored prototypes blonde bombshell and pubescent nymph. Pherber, the blonde, also tends to Chas’ wounds. How convenient when your sex priestess is also a mother figure, at the ready to kiss your boo-boos. The au courant counter culture embellishments that gave the film its cache can’t disguise its underlying service to the hormonally-driven male persona. 

I suppose it’s admirable that the actors were so dedicated to their “deep-method” craft.  They say James Fox spent time with real London criminals to perfect his character. Too bad the film didn’t otherwise extend its authenticity. Since when does Uncle Mobster read Borges? Performance tries to be Warhol Factory cool but the sanitized bodies, all glamour and no grit, are more in the spirit of Playboy Magazine. Also, those were not psilocybin mushrooms. The red aminita muscaria will kill you within 48 hours.

The duality-themed reveal when Turner and Chas reverse identities is foreshadowed with mirror shots and pretentious dialog.

“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way is the one that achieves madness.”

[Guffaws in the room]

Lots of food for Freudian analysis, I suppose. What a nightmare for some poor schmuck psychiatrist. Performance is a postmodernist journey into the male psyche on a quest to aggrandize its ordinary propensities.  As a female viewer I experienced it as a singularly effective sleeping pill.











While enjoying Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite I was reminded, surprisingly, of Kiss Me Deadly – a brutal noir from 1955 shot on location in Los Angeles.  In Parasite, Ho uses elevations as a metaphor throughout the film: from a subterranean shelter to a high-ground wealthy enclave reigning over a below-the -sewer-line slum. The protagonists move up and down in a vertical world that mimics their aspirations as well as their attempts at survival.

               Kiss Me Deadly also sets up a vertical world. Dana Polan noted, “The hard-boiled detective is a cartographer, who finds that the spaces of the city are not random but are traversed by networks of class, power and privilege.”  In Kiss Me Deadly the networks negotiated by Mike Hammer are signified by various stages of decay or luxury: a marble floor in an upscale art gallery or classical statuary flanking slate steps contrast with cracked wall plaster lit by a single light bulb in the ceiling. 

A prominent architectural feature throughout is the staircase.  Sixteen distinct stairways, interior and exterior, are seen in Kiss Me Deadly.   Staircases exploit all the spatial characteristics of cinematic space (landscape within a frame): width, height, depth, elevation, and density.  In Kiss Me Deadly, they run the gamut from the softly curved concrete steps that lead from hospital to street, to the worn-out wooden stairs that crisscross the façade of a boarding house to narrow, interior stairways deep in shadow.  They are stylish, softly curved, physically taxing, steep and dangerous, dark and sinister.  They go up, down, across, and reverse direction.  Where a staircase begins and ends is rarely visible.  For example, the stairs at the base of 121 Flower Street are hidden by shrubs.  In the cheap hotel where Lily Carver lives, camera work suggests the deeply shadowed, turning staircase leads to an infinite abyss. 




The first staircase we encounter is a treacherous set of multi-story concrete steps leading out of an alley down which Hammer throws an assailant. That perilous tumble foreshadows Hammer’s own downfall and the implied fall of humankind building throughout the film.

Staircases are a metaphor for the twists and turns in Hammer’s quest, the physical and psychological spaces that must be navigated from one witness or clue to another.  The physical attributes of each staircase match, of course, the social status of its location.  More importantly, as David Hockney noted, “The way we depict space is connected to the way we behave in it.”  Staircases become locations for controlled and intentional action vs. uncontrolled actions based on fear and panic.   Camera work and lighting intensify these experiences. The dangerous stairways that stitch together Hammer’s movements across Los Angeles are metaphorical conduits through a psychic landscape in hell. Human life emerged from the sea and so the cycle closes there as a nuclear fire sends Hammer and Velda down the rickety steps of a criminal hideaway and into the surf.









Kiss Me Deadly Inventory of Stairs

Cue Description Int/Ext Notes theme
Hammer throws his assailant down steep concrete stairs that descend from an alley EXTERIOR
Night, deep contrast, shadowy, almost infinite, spiked posts Urban squalor, danger
28:11 Ray Diker’s boarding house – the beginning of the steps are hidden by shrubs, wooden steps emerge EXTERIOR
Traversing across
The stairs twist around and up in one direction, then reverse direction, ornate but the paint is old and rough  Genteel
urban decay
31:20 Cristina’s apartment building, beautiful white, carved balusters and a dark rail  



Deeply shadowed by overhead landing Genteel middle class
33:01 Short set of brick steps to the street, full view of Victorian façade EXTERIOR    
33:40 The stairs between storefronts (Aldezma shoe repair) are straight up, steep  and narrow, leading to Lily Carver’s decrepit apt. INTERIOR
shot from above we see Hammer’s shadow grow larger, the staircase turns 3 times with 2 landings Poverty and crime, sinister
45:47 Camera follows black man descending wooden stairs to the street as Hammer ascends INTERIOR
vertical transition
transition into a boxing gym Violence as a vocation
51:00 Slate and stone stairs to Evello house, flanked by statuary EXTERIOR decorative Upper class, pretentious


Stone staircase from back of house to pool, wrought iron railing EXTERIOR
vertical transition
decorative Upper class, fashionable
55:28 We see the curved staircase inside Evello’s mansion INTERIOR decorative Money for luxury
56:00 Hammer parks his car underneath Angels Flight, twin concrete stairs lead up to Hillcrest Hotel EXTERIOR
trashy Urban decay
56:51 Inside staircase of Hillcrest Hotel, painted, simple balusters INTERIOR
vertical transition
Functional but not fashionable or modern Cheap construction
1:00:06 Back to the stairs at Lily’s apartment, views through bannisters and landings INTERIOR
creepy, twisting Poverty and crime, sinister
1:00:55 Overhead shot as Hammer descends Lily’s apt. stairs to street INTERIOR
Surreal camera work menace
1:01:07 Shot looking up as Lily descends those stairs INTERIOR
The shot reverses 3 times vertigo
1:14:51 Beach house stairs – wooden, utilitarian, no balusters, unfinished unpainted EXTERIOR
Rickety, unsafe Criminal hideout
1:26:25 Behind Hammer we see a modern staircase at Hollywood Athletic Club INTERIOR
Mid-century modern Upscale modern, members only
1:29:05 Short set of concrete steps under an awning of the Athletic Club lead to the street EXTERIOR
The protective awning ushers members in and out of the club privilege

Back to the stairs of Flower Street



The stairs twist around and up in one direction, then reverse direction, ornate but the paint is old and rough 

Genteel urban decay

1:36:20 The stairs of Mist Modern Art Gallery


Stairs not shown, we see only Hammer’s movements upward and the fantastic modern art

For the wealthy consumer

1:44:44 Stairs inside the beach house lead to an exit


back lit by nuclear fire


Extreme mortal danger

Final scene

Hammer and Velda struggle down the wooden stairs of the beach house




the culmination of greed, violence, lust for power

On Location in Los Angeles

Hammer’s investigation takes him to the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, a turn-of-the-century prosperous neighborhood that had devolved into a slum of rooming houses by 1940. In the 1960s urban renewal razed Bunker Hill and rebuilt it as a civic area. The Los Angeles Times has an excellent timeline with photos here.

Bunker Hill in 1901. By 1955 most houses had become rental units for immigrants.

Bunker Hill today.




Copyright 2020 Alice Gebura All Rights Reserved

Cinematic stills are copyrighted by their respective owners.

_1928,_by_Frans_van_RielThis post is dedicated to all my friends in the dance world.

In 1905 Mikhail Fokine, choreographer for the Ballets Russes, created the choreography for Le Cynge, composed by Camille Saint-Saens for cello and two pianos, specifically for the great Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, also of the Ballet Russes.  It depicts a swan’s struggle with death, inspired by the Greek myth of the Mute Swan (an actual species) who could not utter a sound until just before it died (the myth, but like all myths tells an archetypal story; this one a parable about what is inside).

The work of Fokine, Pavlova, and the Ballets Russes marks historically and artistically one of the greatest turning points in dance (also for art and music), but that’s an interesting topic for another moment.  What I want to write about today is how my appreciation for the art of dance has been tutored by watching how great dancers interpret a work.
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A lot of people really like the PBS series Downton Abbey so  I’ve been curious to know what all the fuss is about.  Tonight we watched the first season on DVD.  I was sorely disappointed when the rat poison didn’t make it to the dining room table in the first episode. They missed a great plot opportunity there. I’m also sorry to say I find the characters too well starched. And, I don’t buy the benevolent, all-wise Earl of Grantham bit – history shows the lord is more lech than liege.

As the story minces along we see the earl right wrongs and the menials learn from his example. Spare me. If the conceit were indeed true, the house staff would be a crew of entitled loafers by season’s end.  Downton Abbey perpetuates the myth that the upper classes deserve their bastion of superiority  and  the rest of us who benefit from the philosophical wisdom, moral leadership,  and puny wages dispensed from on high are meant to accept the status quo.  There’s a scene in which  Grantham tells Cawley letting the help wait on him is actually a kindness to them (“everyone has a role to play”),  a  self serving sentiment if ever there was one.

Every installation of privilege dispenses this propaganda to justify a lopsided state of affairs.  We all know the reality:  the 1% are more debauched and fraudulent than exemplary, and trickle down of anything is unlikely, except maybe syphilis.


The Help at Curraghmore House, 1905, National Library of Ireland

A more interesting set of characters than the Edwardian paper dolls at Downton Abbey are the flesh and blood Brontes of Haworth.  I recently read Juliet Barker’s meticulous biography of the famous authors and their father.  In addition to writing a compelling, multi-dimensional narrative and character study of creative genius, Ms. Barker provides social and political insight into the first half of 19th century England. We learn, for example, that in the 1830s the Haworth mill owners were in a twist  when new laws were passed to prevent children 6 years old working more than 48 hours per week, and children 12 years old working more than 60 hours per week. (Now we know how the Granthams made their money.)

child labor

Oyster shuckers, Port Royal, South Carolina, or as today’s GOP would say “the good old days.” Photo by Lewis Hines

Having already read Emily and Charlotte’s wonderful books, I was inspired to pick up Anne Bronte’s novel “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”  In contrast to Emily’s deep soul haunting and Charlotte’s feminist angst, Anne’s prose is charmingly domestic with delightful phrases such as  “in correction for his impudence, [he] received a resounding whack over the sconce.”

So next Sunday will find me reading in my chair in front of the woodstove, instead of watching Downton Abbey.

bronte sisters

The Bronte Sisters as painted by their brother, Branwell


Posted by  Alice Gebura, Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved.