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Double Features: Performance (1970) & Demon Seed (1977)

I watched Performance (1970) the other night after it had sat in my queue for a few months. I caught it on cable back in the early 80’s when the movie channels still played esoteric stuff like that and it was really memorable because it was so impressionistic and off center and cool, and yet I had somehow never revisited it in all the years since. The film was co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, a first time for both. Cammell also wrote the script and Roeg was the cinematographer. Roeg has been I think an underappreciated director over the years and has made a number of interesting films, and some that I really love, (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Don’t Look Now, The Witches) and his stunning camera work in Performance is remarkable, every shot has a careful painterly composition, it’s a beautiful and innovative film, and a justifiably influential masterpiece. Warner Bros greenlit it in 1968 because Mick Jagger was attached to star in his film debut, and while they expected an easily marketed swinging 60’s romp, they left the two directors unsupervised, and instead got a dark, abstract look into the relationship of identity, madness, and performance that was violent, drugged up, and sexually explicit, and the studio shelved it for two years before it was finally released to dismissive reviews, even Ebert panned it, and general audience indifference, though it quickly became a cult hit, and its reputation has grown so that it was included in BFI Top 100 lists and whatnot.

Gangster enforcer Chas, James Fox, (who along with his brother Edward have to be the most accomplished and prolific sibling actors ever going into their eighth decades of work) ends up on the run from his boss Harry Flowers after an unsanctioned killing. He was told to stay out of the takeover of betting shop owner Joey Maddock’s business because of some unspecified history between the two, which he then ignores to rub it in Joey’s face as they destroy his shop. After the shakedown meeting with Flowers, Chas returns home to find that Joey and a couple of thug dudes have trashed his place, and among the total destruction have also painted “Poof” on the wall. Chas wades in to fight with gusto but loses and finds himself stripped butt naked on his own bed, held by the hands and feet while Joey whips him with a belt and demands that he, “Say It!.” Now, the homophobic slur and this totally NOT gay homoerotic assault would seem to imply some kind of sexual humiliation or tension in their past, but just as Chas is about to “say it” he gains the upper hand and proceeds to execute Joey while letting the other two go and the nature of their past and present conflict is left unexplained. He calls in the bad news to Flowers and doesn’t even try to justify the killing as he realizes what the likely consequences of being wanted for murder are, and indeed, Flowers orders a hit to silence him as a liability who knows too much.

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While he waits in a train station depot as he plans to go and hide out in an Aunt’s country house, he overhears a travelling musician tell his mum that he has ditched his room in town because he owes back rent to his owner buddy who has become somewhat deranged and abusive. Chas takes note of the address and winds up at Jagger’s bohemian townhouse selling himself as juggler Johnny Deane, claiming a referral from the musician for the room, and trying and failing to fit in with louche, retired pop star Turner, who “lost his demon,” and his two ladies, Phreber, Anita Pallenberg, stunningly beautiful, and androgynous, elfin Lucy, Michele Breton. While he waits for a friend to get him his stashed cash and a passport to make his escape, he becomes tangled in their shared madness and menage a trois. Pallenberg was in a relationship with Keith Richards at the time of the shoot, and rumors that she and Jagger were not, uh, acting in their sex scenes, led to a rift between Jagger and Richards that quashed the Stones from doing the intended soundtrack; Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Jack Nitzsche, Merry Clayton, and Buffy Ste. Marie picked up the slack, and it’s quite solid. This also led me at the time to discover that one of my favorite Stones songs, “Memo to Turner,” was not actually the Stones, but a solo Mick Jagger tune with Cooder on slide guitar. Jagger’s lip synched performance of the song in a hallucinated scene where he adopts the persona of a gangster while Fox’s Chas trips on ‘shrooms is a highlight of the film, and there are many great scenes in the townhouse. Chas seems lost throughout the movie, while a respected mob head cracker, he seems aloof and apart from his gang in their scenes together, his home seems more a collection of things curated to convey a personality, than an actual one, and as the film goes on his lack of identity, personal, professional, and sexual, builds and becomes entwined with Jagger’s Turner, who is also questioning who and what he is. It’s a brilliant and interesting film, with much more going on than the surface gangster/rock star sex and drugs and rock and roll tagline would indicate, and the ending really pulls it all together and then back apart again.

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At this point, if you’re still reading, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with the Movies of 1977 and Demon Seed? I often like to program double features when I watch movies and decided on Cammell’s follow up film Demon Seed for the second half of the night. Donald Cammell was by all accounts a difficult, eccentric man, who grew up with his writer father’s odd collection of outsider weirdo friends, including Aleister Crowley, being influential role models, and he was an acclaimed portrait painter early in his life before moving into film, where he used his famous friends’ connections to get his foot in the door. His stubborn troublemaking, and years of wasted time on failed collaborations with William Burroughs (!?!) and even bigger crank and friend Marlon Brando, prevented much of a sustained filmmaking career. Beyond the two films profiled for this article, he only made two others, and I’ve made a last minute executive decision to include a brief bonus double double feature write up for these more obscure films.

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White of the Eye (1987), a Cannon joint, stars a very good David Keith (not Keith David) as a sound engineer who does custom high end home stereo installations, and becomes a suspect in a series of brutal killings and mutilations of housewives in and around Tucson and Gila County where he works. Cathy Moriarty, whose work I’ve always really liked, plays his wife, and she’s great, adorable as a mother to her equally adorable apple cheeked daughter, fierce when she’s pissed off, cool and determined when she’s scared and threatened, she’s excellent. The location photography and aerial shots of the desert, mountains, canyons, isolated homes, abandoned copper mines and factories are haunted and beautiful, and on the whole it’s very well directed. The cops on the case are funny and competent, and the hints of local color and occasional flashbacks to Keith and Moriarty meeting are nicely done to create a sense of real people, and as a mystery and psychodrama type thriller, it zigged when I expected a zag, and then gets pretty crazy in the last half hour in a good, weird way, it was much better than I expected, and I would definitely recommend it.

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Then there is Wild Side (1995) which stars Christopher Walken and features a purportedly infamous graphic lesbian sex scene with Joan Chen and Anne Heche. Cammell disowned this film and had his credit removed after the studio recut it; undoing his fractured editing, cutting down the story, and sleazing up the sex scenes and nudity. Cammell’s brother said that at one point he stopped him from his intended plan to murder the producer and then kill himself. (Alas, a despondent Cammell killed himself with a shotgun anyway a few months later in April 1996.) The film’s rights were bought by a UK co. in 1999 and they hired original editor Frank Mazzola to successfully recreate a definitive Director’s Cut for DVD release with a new soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto. I watched both the studio and DC cuts of Wild Side because I’m OCD like that, and it’s an odd but interesting film, though certainly nothing in it merits getting homicidal or suicidal about. It’s not some The Magnificent Ambersons level butchered masterpiece, though the DC is much better, and I’m assuming there were deeper issues at play with the eventual suicide.

Anne Heche in Wild Side (1995)

Walken plays another in his gallery of mannered, manic, scenery chewing weirdos as a banker and money launderer with undercover fed Steven Bauer, sleazy and a creep, working as his chauffeur and trying to nail the career making bust, Joan Chen as his straying entrepreneur ex-ish wife, and Anne Heche as a banker/moonlighting call girl who gets sucked into their intrigue. Heche is super gorgeous and she and Chen have great chemistry and are sexy as hell, but their sex scene is brief and rather mild and I have no idea how this was infamous, beyond the fact of, lesbians, oh my, which seems kinda weird to have been bothered about in 1996, but it’s worth a watch for its very 90’s vibe, off kilter tone, and eccentric script and acting choices.

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And finally, on to Demon Seed, the 1977 sci-fi horror flick that is generally remembered for being the movie wherein Julie Christie’s character is raped and impregnated by the computer AI built by her husband. (The film is based on a Dean Koontz novel, and I have to say that even as an avid 3-4 genre novels a week reader in my misspent youth, I still turned up my nose at Koontz for some reason, and while maybe unjustified, I have never yet bothered to read any of his books and can’t therefore speak to how faithful this adaptation is.) The movie is pure gooey pulp but it is definitely elevated by the presence of Christie, doing basically a two hander with an uncredited Robert Vaughn’s disembodied voice as the AI, Proteus IV, some crisp balanced direction and shot choices by Cammell, cheap but functional practical and special effects, which are definitely not state of the art, even for 1977, though still effective and vaguely futuristic, and the fact that everyone involved treats the preposterous story as serious and thoughtful.

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The movie opens with Alex Harris, played by Fritz Weaver doing the bearded, arrogant scientist thing, bringing supercomputer Proteus IV online. Proteus is a roomful of tall banded columns that are semi-organic, having some RNA derived goo inside that replicates grey matter. Harris is also getting divorced from wife Christie’s child psychologist Susan and moving from their computer controlled home while she wraps up and finds a new place. He shuts down the work connected terminal in his cluttered basement lab before he leaves, and you know the close up monitor readout of “Home System: Down for Maintenance” is ominous and foreboding. Back at the office, Harris shows off Proteus to the ICON corporation and government funders and in four days it has already discovered a cure for leukemia, a video of a poor little sick monkey is shown, “we subjected it to intense radiation,” Harris says mildly, and when the suits ask, “you patented the cure, right?” Harris says he has no idea, because, see, he’s a man of science, and actually paying for his elaborate creation doesn’t compute. Proteus soon summons Harris to the communication hub and asks why they want to know how to harvest gold and minerals from the ocean floor, and Harris is weirdly like, MYOB you dumb computer. Proteus then refuses to provide the how to info on the sensible environmental grounds that the ocean will be poisoned and millions of sea creatures will die, and proceeds to demand his own terminal to connect to the world at large, because he wants more experience of human life and he can see the handwriting on the wall that he will be shut down sooner rather than later. He is dismissively denied, but discovers that a “down for maintenance” terminal is in fact available.

Fritz Weaver in Demon Seed (1977)

Proteus uses the basement terminal to take over the Harris’ home automation and lab and imprisons and terrorizes Susan to force her to bear his child, which will then gestate and be born in 28 days. Christie is a great actress and she really sells the ludicrous premise by underplaying the terror and fighting back any way she can though she soon realizes she’s trapped. Proteus has two tools beyond the home system to aid him, the very silly Joshua, a motorized wheelchair with a robotic arm that gets the job done, I guess, and a large and nicely animated, shape shifting multi-tetrahedron that Proteus smelts in the lab from raw metal and uses to manifest his will, as the hip younger scientist Walter, the always welcome Gerrit Graham, finds out with gruesome regret when he figures out something is wrong and tries to help Susan. The scenes where Proteus breaks Susan through psychological manipulation and threats to her patients, or when he shows her that he can simply access her amygdala and use her body anyway, convince her she has no choice but to comply. Proteus then invasively probes and prods her to prepare for the pregnancy with some creepy Joshua assisted sexual assaults, and then plants the Demon Seed, these scenes are very effective as horror.

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As the ICON group discovers Proteus is commandeering satellites and radio telescopes and generally doing whatever it wishes, they recognize the threat and order Harris to disconnect the AI, he then also realizes Proteus has commandeered his home terminal, and he rushes there (in his awesome Bricklin SV-1, a Canadian concept car with powered gull wing doors that had a limited production run of 3000 from ‘74-’76) to find his befuddled but relatively unharmed wife, a triumphant, gloating Proteus at the end of his life, and some thing growing rapidly in the tetrahedron, the final conflict and reveal is disturbing and pretty cool.

Felix Silla in Demon Seed (1977)

All of Cammell’s films show this consistent preoccupation with identity, who we are to ourselves, what we portray to others, what we hide from others, what we hide from ourselves, who we choose to love and why, who do we want to become, and how fluid are these roles we perform. I was honestly surprised to find such a considered philosophical through line in these very different movies, but it’s right there. Cammell had his preoccupations and I imagine that his abandoned works were grappling with these same issues of identity, it’s a shame he only ever realized the four.

Addendum:
I’ve been wanting to come up with some kind of occasional feature to make a contribution to the Avocado because I appreciate all the work that goes into this site and wanted to chip in so I don’t feel like such a freeloader. After I watched Demon Seed, I happened to look up the Wiki list of movies from 1977, and saw, beyond the well known blockbusters, (looking at you, Star Wars) a great, diverse set of movies from masters like Scorsese, Altman, and Friedkin releasing overlooked flicks, to impressive debuts from Ridley Scott and David Lynch, sophomore work from Cronenberg and Craven, and a bunch of other fun stuff, and thought why not take a look at the movies of 1977 along with a related double feature from whenever, and a column idea was born. Now that said, with a lifetime of poor follow through, broken promises, and abrupt changes of heart behind me, who knows, but there were at least a couple dozen good choices and I’d like to do this feature semi-regular this year if it’s something people are interested in reading. So, thanks to you who have read this rather lengthy inaugural post. I’m thinking of watching Henri-George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) and the William Friedkin remake Sorcerer (1977) for a follow up Double Features, and until next time, …Cheers.