Outsiders: The 1970s Cinema of Nicolas Roeg

This weekend BBC Four will air David Thompson’s Arena special on the singular Nicolas Roeg, which helps to bring the broadcaster’s Genius of British Cinema season to a close. By way of celebrating, I thought I’d re-post a piece I wrote about six years ago after a first viewing of Bad Timing blew my tiny mind to smithereens.

Portrait of Nicolas Roeg

More than twenty-five years after the initial release of Walkabout, during a 1998 interview published in The Australian newspaper, director Nicolas Roeg was asked why a film produced, as it was, by an Englishman (as opposed to a ‘local’) was nevertheless capable of providing one of the most powerful visions of the Australian landscape. And in many ways, his response neatly reflects the motivations of many of his central characters during the 1970s:

I suppose I simply viewed it without preconceptions. But then, that’s always the way isn’t it…an outsider’s eye is always the most acute.

Each of Roeg’s 1970s films featured individuals trapped in strange, inhospitable places, characters which are often outsiders, seemingly unable to adapt to their new environments, plagued by obsession and stuck behind hopelessly romantic preconceptions of unattainable exotic lifestyles.

Still from Walkabout (1971)

Walkabout (1971)

Discounting Performance (1970), an intoxicating film starring Mick Jagger and co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout could be seen as Roeg’s first real foray as a director, having spent much of the 1960s working as a cinematographer for, amongst others, François Truffaut and Richard Lester. Walkabout tracks an encounter in outback Australia between two extremes of the social spectrum, a pair of precocious British schoolchildren forced to fend for themselves, and a young Aboriginal male on walkabout fending for himself as a matter of spiritual necessity. Introducing a theme that would reappear throughout his career, Roeg presented a masterful tale of outsiders forced to confront this mysterious other.

Still from Don't Look Now (1973)

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s harrowing exploration of the aftermath of tragedy, takes the idea of obsessive outsiders one step further. When a couple relocate to Venice on a ‘working vacation’ in order to recover from the death of their young daughter and rebuild their marriage, they seem unable to adjust to this new environment. The woman seeks comfort in the friendship of two elderly sisters, one of whom claims to be in psychic contact with the couple’s dead daughter. Meanwhile the man, unsettled by the sisters and suspecting their motives, is faced with his own obsessive delusions, and begins chasing a shadowy figure who resembles the young girl. Rather than repairing the negative effects of tragedy, the couple’s move to Venice brings forth their new status as outsiders, plunging them into an unfamiliar environment and resulting in these encounters with ‘mysterious others’, enhancing both their grief and their obsessions.

Still from The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The notion of the outsider is taken to the extreme in Roeg’s next film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which stars David Bowie as an alien from a drought-ridden planet who crash lands on Earth in search of salvation for his people. Interestingly, this film combines the ‘outsider’ and ‘mysterious other’ within a single character, and while the humanoid alien prospers at first, he is eventually forced to confront his past (and his true identity), losing his place in society and failing in his mission to rescue his people.

Bad Timing

Bad Timing (1980)

The dialectic between the ‘outsider’ and the ‘mysterious other’ is perhaps most evident in Roeg’s final work of his 1970s period, Bad Timing (1980). Art Garfunkel plays the outsider, an American psychoanalyst living and working in Vienna, who embarks on a tumultuous relationship with a mysterious American woman who has seemingly led many lives across Eastern Europe. Told in fractured flashbacks after the woman’s hospitalization, Bad Timing provides an acute study of the outsiders inability to adapt to new environments or comprehend the exoticism of the mysterious other. Once again, Roeg manages to coax a peculiar sense of obsession from his central characters and maintain a sense of foreboding that is unparalleled.

The five films directed by Nicolas Roeg during the 1970s are undoubtedly his finest accomplishments. But what makes them stand out as classic examples of some of the best films of that period is his ability to invoke that strange sense of obsession that wells within us all, via the experiences of outsiders with whom we can all relate.

Originally published in 2009 on Suite.io (formerly known as Suite101).

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Mystery Road at British Museum

Production still from Mystery Road

Last Friday – having already delivered a conference paper on the 1908 tour of The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) in the morning – I hot-footed it over to the British Museum to introduce an evening screening of Ivan Sen’s indigenous neo-western Mystery Road, showing in conjunction with the museum’s unmissable summer exhibition, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation.

For those who might be interested, there is a full transcript of the introduction on Academia.edu, and whilst I got the impression that most of the crowd weren’t the twittering types, there was at least a couple who were:

If you haven’t seen the film, it is highly recommended – it’s readily available in the UK on physical and streaming platforms. And if you want to read more, the intro was partly adapted from a piece I wrote over at The Far Paradise about some of the through lines intersecting this and other Australian films.

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British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2015

Production still from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Another year, and another fantastic British Silent Film Festival Symposium last Friday – a chance to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and to finally put a real face to Twitter avatars. Oh, and it was chock-full of film history goodness, as ever.

Among the most interesting papers on offer was Andrew Shail’s forensic detective work, proving that Europe beat Hollywood to the star system by a matter of weeks; Stephen McBurney’s similarly detailed work on the kaleidoscopic colour acts of Aberdeen-based showman William Walker; Lucie Dutton’s ongoing, ever-enthralling expansion of our understanding of the life and career of Maurice Elvey; Malcolm Cook’s wonderful exploration of the significance of sound in the early films of Len Lye; and, Geoff Brown’s fabulous introduction to HMV’s brief dalliance with cinema at the dawn of the sound era.

For what it’s worth, I once again sought to insert Australian cinema where it isn’t really wanted by presenting a paper on the 1908 British tour of The Story of the Kelly Gang (d. Tait, 1906).

I’ll spare you the finer details (ie. save them for a future article), but here’s the basic story, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain. The Tait’s joined forces with a British gent named John Henry Iles, best known as a promoter of brass bands, forming a touring company, the Colonial Picture Combine (although it seems as though it was just another company – St Louis Animated Picture Company – renamed). A show was assembled, the Kelly Gang film taking up about half the bill (so, probably the hour that most people estimate), with a mixture of other films and music/variety acts in the first half, and during reel changes.

The tour started in January 1908 with a week at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, before heading to Barnstaple, Southsea (Portsmouth) and Swindon. From there, they headed to Dublin, leasing the Queen’s Theatre, before taking the film to Belfast, Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol.

One particular highlight occurred in Cardiff, where the local council seemingly deemed The Story of the Kelly Gang to be a ‘theatrical production’ and therefore ineligible to play on Good Friday. This wasn’t made clear in the advertisements, of course, causing something of a mini riot when patrons realised they weren’t going to see the Kelly Gang film that had clearly drawn them in. Cue boos, hisses, etc., before the show finished with people rushing the projection booth, and throwing chairs into a large pile, requiring the police to come and clear the auditorium.

Thankfully, my paper had a slightly less hostile reception, and even garnered a few nice mentions on Twitter:

The 1908 tour certainly makes for an interesting story, and it fills a rather gaping hole in our understanding of how this film – often credited as the first feature-length fiction film ever made – circulated outside Australia, so it will be published in some form in the future. Watch this space!

In the meantime, if you’re keen to see the seventeen or so remaining minutes of The Story of the Kelly Gang (as restored by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), and shown here with live piano accompaniment), as well as learning more about its production and circulation, the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts are holding a very special event at King’s College London on May 30. After the film, myself and Dr Ian Henderson, director of KCL’s Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, will be joined on stage by Angus Forbes, grandson of Charles Tait, who will discuss how the film was made, lost, and – eventually – rediscovered. Tickets can be purchased on the ANZ Festival website.

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Morning Muse: La salle de cinéma est mort?

Big-screen HD televisions, piracy, on-demand streaming services, poorly-behaved audiences, high ticket prices, etcetera, etcetera.

At one point or another over the last decade or so, each of these factors (often in concert with one another) have supposedly conspired to bring about the death of cinema-going. And yet – in London at least – that same period has seen something of a minor boom in cinema-building, conversion and renovation.

It’s something I’ve pondered in the past, but this morning I came across a week-old RT of a relatively standard marketing message from the Empire chain’s Twitter account:

My first thought was to wonder where that leaves the fortunes of the Save Walthamstow Cinema campaign, who have been busily fighting to save the glorious old EMD/Granada building in E17 (a long overdue visit to their website reveals the great news that they’re working with Soho Theatre in the hope of creating a first class multi-use entertainment venue).

My second thought, however, was to marvel at just how many new cinemas had established in London (particularly the north-east areas), and how many older ones had been revitalised or expanded:




I’m sure there are plenty of others I overlooked this morning – the Arthouse in Crouch End has since sprung to mind, as has the Vue housed within Westfield Stratford, if you want to count such things – but this expansion of cinemagoing opportunity, in all its guises, is surely a thing to be celebrated. Isn’t it?

On a somewhat related note (as it’s more about the death of cinema as physical object, although it does touch on the decline of the cinematic experience), I will take this opportunity to very strongly recommend archivist/curator/theorist Paolo Cherchi Usai’s rather brilliant collection of aphoristic provocations and philosophical musings, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark-Age (BFI, 2001). Whilst studying for a Masters in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia a while back, I found his free-thinking approach so revelatory that I stuck a bunch of photocopied pages up in my room.

And since I ended up writing my MA dissertation on three Australian silent films – two of which are deemed very much lost – I’ll leave you with one of PCU’s little nuggets on the objective impossibility of ‘film history’ (from page 131 of the book):

PCU's The Death of Cinema (p 131)

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London Film Festival Diary (vol. 1)

When the lineup for the BFI London Film Festival was announced a while back – replete with an array of Australian films that I’ve highlighted over at The Far Paradise – I was left despairing that a lack of funds (and, lets face it, some rather extravagant ticket prices) meant that I wouldn’t be able to see much (if any) at this year’s festival. Thankfully, I managed to swing a student delegate pass and rustle up some spare razoos, allowing me to catch all the Aussie features (which I’ll skip here in anticipation of a forthcoming festival report for The Far Paradise) and a whole heap besides. Here’s the first of two entries in something approximating a festival diary, essentially just a round-up of what I caught (and ruminations on what I missed), as I endeavoured to squeeze in as many screenings as possible in between parenting, PhDing and, you know, having a life.
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