Ni­co­las Roeg

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Deaths And Obituaries -

NIC Roeg, the film direc­tor who has died aged 90, re­vealed a highly in­di­vid­ual vis­ual style in such films as Don’t Look Now, Per­for­mance, Walk­a­bout, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Witches.

Re­signed to be­ing de­scribed, even in his 60s, as “promis­ing”, Roeg did not fall com­fort­ably into any tra­di­tion of film-mak­ing and did not en­joy a mer­cu­rial ca­reer, but his im­pact was un­mis­tak­able: di­rec­tors such as Danny Boyle, Christo­pher Nolan, Ri­d­ley Scott and Steven Soder­bergh have all en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ac­knowl­edged his in­flu­ence.

Hav­ing worked his way up from clap­per-boy, he di­rected his first film at the age of 40. His films fre­quently baf­fled, shocked and alien­ated. Sadly, his au­di­ences of­ten ar­rived long af­ter his films were ini­tially re­leased. The crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess of Don’t Look Now, his macabre mas­ter­piece of 1973 in which Don­ald Suther­land ex­pe­ri­ences dis­turb­ing pre­mo­ni­tions in a win­try Venice while mourn­ing, with Julie Christie, the death of their daugh­ter, proved the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule. De­spite be­ing pe­ri­od­i­cally hailed as the sole con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish film-maker of last­ing sig­nif­i­cance, Roeg made only 13 fea­ture films, most of which made no money.

Roeg was a man with an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for lit­er­a­ture and thought, and his fas­ci­na­tion for the frag­ile boundaries of iden­tity, sex­u­al­ity and time led him to elide the ex­ter­nal world of events with the psy­chic world of his char­ac­ters, and to evolve a style in which con­ven­tional meth­ods of nar­ra­tion were es­chewed in favour of flash­backs, dizzy­ing mon­tages, prophetic glimpses and ab­stract im­ages of great po­etic po­tency.

Ni­co­las Jack Roeg was born in Lon­don on Au­gust 15, 1928. His in­ter­est in cin­ema be­gan at Mercers’ School in the City of Lon­don, where he at­tempted to run a film so­ci­ety, and con­tin­ued dur­ing his Na­tional Ser­vice in the Army as a unit pro­jec­tion­ist. Cer­tain that he wanted to make films, he ob­tained a job at Maryle­bone Stu­dios across the road from the fam­ily home.

In 1950 he ap­plied for a job work­ing on The Miniver Story at Bore­ham­wood Stu­dios, and be­gan his long haul up­wards from clap­per-boy.

Roeg spent the next decade as a crew mem­ber on good, bad and in­dif­fer­ent films be­fore grad­u­at­ing to direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy. Among the sig­nif­i­cant films were The Care­taker for Clive Don­ner, The Masque Of The Red Death for Roger Cor­man, Fahren­heit 451 for Francois Trauf­faut and Far From the Madding Crowd for John Schlesinger.

All these were dis­tin­guished by ex­cep­tional pho­tog­ra­phy, and Roeg be­gan to be sin­gled out for praise.

In 1967 Roeg pre­pared to make his di­rec­to­rial de­but with Walk­a­bout, scripted by the play­wright Ed­ward Bond, the story of two white chil­dren saved from the desert by an Abo­rig­ine child but the project was shelved, and Roeg’s de­but was Per­for­mance in 1968, which he co-di­rected with the artist Don­ald Cam­mell.

The fate of this film es­tab­lished the pat­tern for his ca­reer. Hated by its dis­trib­u­tors, Warner Broth­ers, it was only fi­nally re­leased in 1970.

An ex­plo­ration of iden­tity, and a fusil­lade over the grave of the 1960s, it depicted a reclu­sive pop icon, Mick Jag­ger, and a fugi­tive crim­i­nal, James Fox, trapped in a deca­dent web of nar­cotics, sex and nar­cis­sism in a West Lon­don den in the com­pany of Anita Pal­len­berg. The film earned a caus­tic re­cep­tion but it was ad­mired for its vis­ual flair. As with much of Roeg’s work, it as­cended, via cult sta­tus, to be recog­nised as an im­por­tant de­par­ture for Bri­tish cin­ema; an art film aimed at the young, and the work of a direc­tor for whom style and con­tent held equal sig­nif­i­cance.

Walk­a­bout, fi­nally made in 1970, was in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent vein. Thought­ful, com­pas­sion­ate and suf­fused with a child­like sense of won­der, its evo­ca­tion of the Aus­tralian land­scape has of­ten been seen as a spur to di­rec­tors such as Pe­ter Weir, who were to re­vi­talise the Aus­tralian film in­dus­try.

It was not a cheer­ful film, how­ever, and Roeg’s bur­geon­ing rep­u­ta­tion for el­lip­ti­cal gloom was en­hanced in strik­ing fash­ion by Don’t Look Now, one of the most stylish Bri­tish films of the last 50 years. The plot, adapted from Daphne du Mau­rier’s short story, hinges on the pos­si­bil­ity of se­cond sight, pro­vid­ing per­fect fod­der for Roeg. Open­ing with an un­for­get­table se­quence in which a young girl drowns in a pond, Roeg used mo­tifs, re­peated im­ages and elab­o­rate cut­ting be­tween past, present and fu­ture to cre­ate a ver­tig­i­nous uni­verse and a rarely equalled sense of fore­bod­ing.

Three years, and many tra­vails, later came The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). Again mak­ing use of the iconic po­tency of a pop su­per­star, Roeg cast David Bowie as the alien who wants to take wa­ter back home to save his race but ends up an earth­bound al­co­holic. Like most crit­ics on its re­lease, Roger Ebert was mostly dis­mis­sive, de­scrib­ing the film as “pre­pos­ter­ous and pos­tur­ing”, but when it was re-re­leased in 2011 he had soft­ened, writ­ing: “Con­sider this a quiet protest vote against the way projects this am­bi­tious are no longer pos­si­ble in the main­stream movie in­dus­try.”

It was to be 1980 be­fore Roeg made an­other film. Bad Tim­ing, now ac­corded the sta­tus of a mi­nor clas­sic and com­pared with Hitch­cock’s Ver­tigo, was so hated by its dis­trib­u­tors, Rank, that they re­moved their fa­mous man with the gong from the pre-cred­its se­quence. A bleak and char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally oblique med­i­ta­tion on ob­ses­sion and self-knowl­edge, it fea­tured an­other pop star, Art Gar­funkel, as a pro­fes­sor of Freud whose smug com­po­sure is de­stroyed in the course of a tor­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship with a young woman (played by Theresa Rus­sell, who be­came Roeg’s wife).

In a scene of supreme bad taste, Rus­sell’s char­ac­ter at­tempts sui­cide to es­cape her lover’s psy­cho­log­i­cal at­tri­tion; find­ing her dy­ing, he rav­ishes her be­fore call­ing for help. The icy logic of the piece, its necrophil­iac un­der­tones and in­tense voyeurism, added to what the New States­man called “a style that plays merry hell with chronol­ogy” and did not make com­fort­able view­ing. “It deals purely in de­spair,” wrote Va­ri­ety.

Roeg’s pre­cip­i­tous ca­reer slipped over the brink when, the fol­low­ing year, the dis­trib­u­tors of his next film, Eureka, star­ring Gene Hack­man, fu­ri­ous at the pes­simism and lack of clear plot, were re­luc­tant even to let the film be shown.

The ex­pe­ri­ence dev­as­tated Roeg. His next two films, In­signif­i­cance (1985), and Castaway (1986), showed signs of in­se­cu­rity. Al­though they were more com­pre­hen­si­ble they were less en­dur­ing. The for­mer, per­haps Roeg’s most in­ten­tion­ally hu­mor­ous piece, was an adap­ta­tion of a play by Terry John­son which brought to­gether a group of mythic fig­ures loosely based on Al­bert Ein­stein, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Joe DiMag­gio and Sen­a­tor Joseph McCarthy for an un­likely de­bate on time, fame and mor­tal­ity. Castaway (1986), based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of Lucy Irvine, who spent a year on a desert is­land with the writer Ger­ald Kings­land, con­tained one of Oliver Reed’s best per­for­mances.

Track 29 (1988) was prin­ci­pally no­table for an elec­tric per­for­mance from Gary Old­man as the fan­ta­sised son and lover of an un­happy al­co­holic house­wife, played by Theresa Rus­sell. Though writ­ten by Den­nis Pot­ter, it was not an ex­cep­tional film. The ma­te­rial seemed too fa­mil­iar, the daz­zling tech­nique sim­ply tech­nique.

The Witches (1990), adapted from Roald Dahl’s dark fairy tale, fell some­where be­tween adult al­le­gory and child­ish night­mare. It had the most lin­ear nar­ra­tive of any of his work and was one of his hap­pi­est com­mer­cial ven­tures, with­out re­sort­ing to stylis­tic apos­tasy. Dahl hated it.

Things never be­came eas­ier. In 1992, Cold Heaven, Roeg’s ver­sion of a Brian Moore novel, was shown as one of the high-points of the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val, still lack­ing a com­mer­cial dis­trib­u­tor, an ex­tra­or­di­nary po­si­tion for some­one of Roeg’s pres­tige.

Grandly ro­man­tic and drenched in im­ages that sparked off un­ex­pected as­so­ci­a­tions in the viewer, Roeg’s best work was coura­geous, pi­o­neer­ing cin­ema. In spite of his dif­fi­cul­ties, and the lack of sup­port he re­ceived from the in­sti­tu­tions of his home coun­try, he was never pub­licly bit­ter. “I haven’t had an easy ride,” he said, “but at least I’ve had a ride.”

Ni­co­las Roeg, who died on Novem­ber 23, was ap­pointed CBE in 1996. He was mar­ried three times. First, in 1957, to the ac­tress Su­san Stephen, with whom he had four sons. The mar­riage ended in divorce, and in 1982 Roeg mar­ried Theresa Rus­sell, with whom he had an­other two sons. They di­vorced in 2004. In 2005 Roeg mar­ried Har­riet Harper, who sur­vives him.

IN­FLU­ENCE: Jenny Agut­ter and Ni­co­las Roeg at the Evening Stan­dard Film Awards at The Movieum in County Hall, Lon­don

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