Nicolas Roeg and the Transcendent Cinema of Feeling

Through the subversion of key cinematic principals, one may transcend the filmic form and enter into a hallucinatory fantasia of sounds, sights and sensuality. Given the free-flowing sensibilities of the motion picture, the possibility of cinematic transcendence presents a fascinating tight-rope for filmmakers to walk. It begs the question: how does one manipulate the silver screen in an invigorating, transformative way to fulfill an original creative vision yet still maintain the viewer’s interest through a radical subversion of the tried and tested principles of the filmic form? A typically Modernist ideal updated with an ironic edge in our current postmodern era, the revelatory act of complete abandonment of the conventional impressions of form, structure, the development of character and linear representation of abstract notions such as time and emotion in cinema is one attempted with a pernicious sneer by many auteurs. Typically, emotion is sacrificed for style, narrative rendered obsolete in favour of the snot-nosed condescension of genre and generic form. Frequently attempted yet rarely achieved with a satisfying edge, cinematic transcendence at its apex of originality and cosmic grandeur may be pinpointed singularly to one filmmaker in the last half-century, Nicolas Roeg, a dazzling stylist of the heart whose formidable back-catalogue of visionary classics both thrill and confound in equal measure.

A radical of extraordinary talent, Roeg’s cinema is one of deep complexity and profound ambition. His films express an electric fusion of generic conventions with avant-garde experimentation through their simultaneous channeling of and disregard for notions of definitive classification within any particular time frame at any one time. His work is charged with the exquisite subjectivity of the human experience and stridently abandons traditional representations of time in an act of cinematic transcendence. This allows Roeg to enter into and establish a new mode of filmmaking characterised by the free-flowing and extreme limits of human feeling and emotion. Revelling in the notions of blurred identities and hallucinogenic excess in his cult debut Performance, detailing the dysphoria of modernity in his deeply haunting and lyrical Walkabout and meditating of the awe of existence in his highly controversial Bad Timing, Roeg’s cinema blends the microcosmic with the macrocosmic sublimely. However, his masterpieces Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth are his most extraordinary works, remarkable achievements representing the height of 70s avant-garde formalism and Roeg’s most radical experiments in the establishment of the cinema of unbridled emotion and transcendence. Blurring the boundaries of past, present and future through his influential collaborations with Australian editor Graeme Clifford, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth exhibit a fluidity of time that is overwhelming to the viewer, the changeability of time and its place both thematically and narratively in both films Roeg’s key instrument in the subversion of cinematic principles and the assault on the traditional linearity of the motion picture. Both works are seemingly rendered incomprehensible at first glance as a result of this disruption of clear-cut linearity. However, upon further inspection, they reveal a swirl of sensory delight, both films deeply moving in their attempts to plunge the depths of subjectivity and articulate order through life’s imperfections. The opposing imperfections of emotion are what steer Roeg’s curious gaze: love and hate, exhilaration and exhaustion drive the filmmaking as much as the bold, impressionistic imagery cements the dreamy representation of an emotional reality devoid of logic and structure in the very core of the viewer’s hearts and minds. Singular masterpieces, these films represent a perfect fusion of concept, emotion and euphoria; passionate examples of the astonishing emotive qualities of cinema and their sublime utilisation under a master.

Rarely bettered and exquisite in execution, Don’t Look Now remains one of the greatest British horror pictures ever made. An achingly sad treatise on grief and despair from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the film is filtered thematically and structurally through the parental angst of the loss of a child and the emotional ripples it causes through the lives of a couple distraught and alone in the labyrinthine canal city of Venice. Through Roeg’s cinema, repetition breeds emphasis, the patchwork narrative of the film drawing the viewer’s eye to symbols and objects to suggestion the implosion of time and the manifestation of the aching past and the transcendent future within the present. Roeg’s scrambles the cinematic representation of the present tense in order to meditate on two searching, longing individuals in awe of their world and astonished by their surroundings. This meditation provides a cautionary warning as to the mesmeric qualities of emotion and its blinding influence on logical perception and understanding. This dazzles the audience initially, the fragmentation of narrative refusing cohesion and misleading the viewer. However, with time, through this swirl of discontinuity, the film becomes clear, the grief-stricken subjectivity of John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter reaching lucidity in the fever pitch finale. The process of misunderstanding into clarity is one mirrored by the audience and their intuitive cohesion of the film. This is an act of dazzling manipulation, a masterstroke by Roeg delivered with a visceral cinematic subversion. Up until this moment of clarity, both the viewer and the protagonists have been led down a rabbit hole of paranoid delirium and misperception, John’s claim that “nothing is as it seems” early in the drama an eerily resonant signifier of the impending doom and dread that will soon envelop the leads in a labyrinth of pained melancholy. This unease is present throughout, the film tonally flawless in its constant build and release of information and nervous, electric energy. Vividly evident in the film’s immaculate opening moments, the simultaneous fragmentation of time in conjunction with this tonal dread creates an environment of domestic terror immediately. Within this sequence, Roeg will establish his most pertinent and haunting visual motif of water, the ebbing and flowing of the tides a symbol of rebirth, resurrection and frayed reflection. Water is a constant throughout, a painful reminder of death and the illusory nature of time. Cutting from images of childish wonder to the casual mediocrity of John and Laura’s post-meal intellectual curiosities, Roeg juxtaposes time and space to reveal the minute interconnections which reside within the infinite sprawl of time. He suggests with astonishing sophistication that predestination, chance and coincidence may manifest themselves in the most devastating of circumstances and is detailing our collective powerlessness to halt such manifestations due to the mysteries of time and its irreversible consequences. This blend of intellectual theory and the raw, heightened and understandable emotions which follows Christine’s death by drowning is shattering for the viewer, the articulation of heart-broken feeling by Roeg and his performers within the theoretical framework of time and its relation to coincidence creating an air of malaise to match John and Laura’s stricken melancholy. (7)
Water as a regenerative, transcendent force in Don’t Look Now

Retreating to Venice, the couple are caught in a free-flowing fantasia of time as their dissociation from reality intensifies and their searching angst deepens. The colour red, a similarly haunting motif, becomes yet another symbol of trauma and loss through its frequent and efficient use throughout, Christine’s death casting an anxious shadow over the film and ultimately leading John astray on a dead-end journey through misunderstanding in the film’s bludgeoning, hallucinatory climax. John’s whirlwind of emotion clouds his vision and allows his death to take place as the lucidity of the work becomes clear, Roeg urging the viewer to question and meditate on the illusion of time within their lives. This is potently represented through John’s death, whereby a moment of possible transcendence becomes a nightmarish puncture wound of misperceived understanding. The finale is an extraordinary feat of editing on behalf of Clifford and Roeg, the juxtaposition of time and space, pain and euphoria, build and release exquisitely revealing the clouded subjectivity of the protagonists in heart-breaking, devastating fashion. Through their shared odyssey through grief and detachment, John and Laura fall victim to the whirl of time and are destroyed emotionally and physically as a result. Roeg presents the viewer with a dense, complex treatise on perception and subjectivity through a fragmentation of narrative structure in order to seduce the audience into a labyrinth of misunderstanding to warn them against the dangers of clouded subjectivity and the mysteries of time. (6)
The nightmarish, wrenching finale of Don’t Look Now

Internalising the transcendent experimentation of Don’t Look Now and continuing his fascination with the consequences on time on human (or inhuman, in this case) subjectivity, Roeg’s proceeding work, the cosmic cult masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth, signalled a departure from the intimacy of his previous work and the emergence of a narrative scope that would steer his career into broader, more oblique avenues. The film, rather than a camp exploration of the inner-workings of David Bowie’s hair and accent, is a touchstone text in the more human-oriented breed of science-fiction characterised wholly by Douglas Trumbull’s stunning Silent Running. The film is a moving, pained document of the alienation of existence thematically inline with Roeg’s own Walkabout several years prior. Studying the corrosion of time on the human body and notion of love, The Man Who Fell To Earth is science-fiction of the heart, an ‘AliensRUs’ parable concerning the disconnection between the body and the soul through a subjective, deliberately schizophrenic tonal and narrative lens. Bowie’s muted, agonised performance as the titular displaced, alien soul provides a heart-breaking in to the transformative effects of American culture on the mind. Similarly, it expresses a lilting, melancholy gateway into the dissolution of a relationship as a result of consumerism and the degradation of time on the self. Partnering with Graeme Clifford yet again to create a mosaic of sensory overload, Roeg refines and perfects his audacious technique of time manipulation by blurring the time frame of the work to ground the film in a perpetual present. This is characterised singularly by the visual representation of the degraded, time-ravaged bodies of his heavily made-up cast. Functioning as an act of cinematic transcendence by way of the skewing of the time frame, this defines the films genius and matches the ambition of Don’t Look Now flawlessly. Through this, Roeg, working from a stingingly satirical novel by Walter Tevis of the same name, comments socially upon the way in which humanity conquers the ‘other’ by way of assimilation, the transformation of  Thomas Jerome Newton from dispossessed alien to alienated human revealing the dangers of this process and its inhuman practices. Utilising jagged cuts and audacious jumps in time as a method of muddying the films time frame, the audience, as with Don’t Look Now, is confused and jarred emotionally to mirror Newton’s own disturbed subjectivity upon his emergence into the carnivalesque Haneyville. It is a brave new world for Thomas, a parade of absurdity cleverly represented through a deflating jumping castle in the film’s opening moments. With a threatening face and encroaching moments towards the camera, the jumping castle reveals an already decaying innocence within Newton’s psychology, the homeless drunk spewing forth a garrulous blend of insults and invitations a symbol of Earth’s intoxicating pleasures in microcosm. There is a veracity to Roeg’s direction that is incredible in its establishment of Newton’s subjectivity on-screen, the discontinuity of the film’s time frame creating a world of dispossession and confusion to align with Bowie’s subjectively pained detachment. (5)
Thomas Jerome Newton’s alienation in The Man Who Fell To Earth

The emotional heart of the film lies in the exquisitely sad relationship that develops between Newton and hotel assistant Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). The sex act under Roeg’s direction becomes a performative, simulative act of connection for both protagonists, the strobe-lit, blank-shooting sequence late in the film a wild, chaotic expression of the soul both affecting and deeply strange. Their connection ebbs and flows throughout the film, Mary-Lou’s devotion to Thomas fading as the work progresses. This reveals the damaging effects of time on human connections and worldly innocence as Newton becomes increasingly tempted into alcoholism and passivity as those around him turn against him. Roeg’s satirical jabs at the anti-intellectual values of corporate America represent this betrayal of Thomas with a hyperbolic glee late in the film, their willingness to detain and assimilate a creature as wise and intelligent as Newton pointedly expressing the misplacement of intellectual priorities within American culture. In a world of high-technology, Newton’s intentions to return to his drought-stricken home planet with water in tow go by the wayside, his only connection to his wife in this far-away land presenting itself through the intoxication of alcohol (“It makes me see things”, he claims). Thomas’ all-encompassing relationship to gin is a connection to, yet distraction from his destiny, a destiny clouded through the whirl of broken dreams and consumptive behaviour that is characteristically human in nature. Through the frequent recall of memories back to his home planet, Newton yearns for return, yet is caught in a cycle of self-abuse and passive behaviour that is impossible to be liberated from within his isolated surroundings. His simultaneous osmosis and forced adoption of earthly traits and cultural values (greed, lust, anger, the will to consume) expresses the oppressive effects of humanity on the soul and the urge to conform within a dead-end society of anti-intellectual attitudes (the destruction of Newton’s plans for space exploration) and overwrought entertainment (Thomas’ fascination with television, for example). Narratively encompassing decades, yet staggering in its intimacy, The Man Who Fell To Earth represents the extraordinary furthering of Roeg’s talent as a pioneer of the transcendent. The fusion of a subverted, unstable time scale in conjunction with the haunting thematic meditation on consumptive American values and their relationship to the dispossessed present an astonishing entryway into Roeg’s cinema of feeling, the film a euphoric expression of what it means to be alive in the present moment, in shock and awe of our place in the world, a euphoria short-lived as the melancholy truth of our own transient selves through the whirl of time sets in and our alienation to others deepens. (9)
The mesmeric, corrosive effects of television in The Man Who Fell To Earth

Melancholy and transcendently true, the cinema of Nicolas Roeg pushes the boundaries of narrative storytelling within a visual form and expresses an extraordinarily idiosyncratic vision of the world as an imposing, mysterious, euphoric emotional landscape unbound by notions of time and objective comprehension. For over 40 years, Roeg’s impassioned plunging of the depths of the soul has confounded audiences and established a consummately original mode of narrative and visual representation that has proved as influential as it is incredible. Through his masterworks Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth, Roeg pioneered a filmmaking career of feeling and reached the apex of artistry in the process, the agony and ecstasy of existence painted in streaks of gin and blood through his vibrant, wholly transcendent cinema. Nothing is as it seems, pass the warning indeed.

Written by Joel Fantini

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