The 100 Essential Directors Part 8

Jean Renoir to Douglas Sirk

by PopMatters Staff

25 August 2011


Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg
(1928 - present)

Three Key Films: Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), Insignificance (1985)

Underrated: The Witches (1990) At their core, almost all fairytales are cruel. They cater to the cautionary tale torments of parents and guardians, the desire to warn children away from the given horrors of the rapidly approaching real world. No one was better at this thoroughly modern means of underage education that Roald Dahl, the man responsible for such contemporary classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and this tale of a young boy beset by a gathering coven of frightening female evildoers. Roeg relished the chance to play nasty with the elements of childhood fear, and with the help of Jim Henson and his puppeteers, created an intriguing back and forth between reality and magic. While his former flourishes were always evident (a last act transformation allows his flair to truly flower), The Witches was proof that Roeg had not lost his moviemaking mettle. Instead, he just needed the right outlet for its bizarre bravado.

Unforgettable: The nude swim in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Toward the end of the film, government “fixer” Bernie Casey, a huge, athletic black man, takes a nude swim with his naked blond Caucasian wife. As he rises from the water, glistening and muscled, the couple caresses in a slow-motion embrace meant to make the blood boil in any bigot buying a ticket. Casey’s casual glance toward the camera (and later comments about the children) creates a kind of middle finger to anyone still debating such “should be settled” issues as race and place. It’s pure Roeg—a combination of ideas and incitement, style and a slap in the face that has highlighted his entire career behind the camera.

The Legend: There was never really a time when Nicolas Roeg wasn’t a part of the British filmmaking industry. After a relatively sedate childhood and the mandatory bout of national service, he quickly entered the lowest echelons of the then burgeoning UK scene. He started out as a tea-maker and clapper boy before advancing to editor’s apprentice. He eventually became a camera operator and a second unit cinematographer. It was here where his unusual and often stylized approach was first noticed, working on such endearing titles as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1965) and Petulia (1968). While he excelled at polishing the images being captured, he really wanted to guide them as well, and got his first chance with an unusual project which saw him paired with writer and painter Donald Cammwell on Performance (1968). The story of a gangster (James Fox) who meets up with a pop star (Mick Jagger), it would introduce the rest of the world to Roeg’s complex combination of visual experimentation and emotional rawness.

Yet it was his solo follow-up, 1971’s Walkabout, which truly announced his ascension into the ranks of great UK filmmakers. Performance had not been well received (the studio delayed its release for nearly two years), but few could deny the power in Roeg’s visually arresting Australian travelogue. Even the story, centering around an aboriginal boy who comes across two Caucasian children lost in the Outback had the kind of personal yet prophetic elements that he enjoyed. The heady horror film Don’t Look Back was another brave step in the direction of cinematic deconstruction, Roeg specifically playing with narrative and situational logic in order to achieve a more dream like, reactionary approach. All of this came together in his 1976 masterstroke The Man Who Fell to Earth. Part sci-fi spectacle, mostly coarse social commentary, it proved that, like fellow countryman Ken Russell, this was one auteur that could take on any genre and make it his own. With this string of successful turns, Roeg was able to make any movie he wanted. His decision would seal his fate for the rest of his otherwise illustrious career.

Like Carnal Knowledge in 1971, Bad Timing: A Sexual Obsession (1980) offered a frank and often flummoxing depiction of human relationships and their sometimes brutal physical components. Starring Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell (who would become Roeg’s second wife), it’s surreal juxtaposition of sexual perversion and fragmented storytelling left critics and audiences cold. From then on, the filmmaker would pursue an uneven catalog, from the true life story of a gold prospector Sir Harry Oakes (Eureka! , 1982) to an oddball Dennis Potter Oedipus riff Track 29 (1988). While he did have a “hit” of sorts with his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990), his last two official films—1995’s Two Deaths and 2007’s Puffball are considered minor and more or less insignificant. Today, again like Russell, he is revered by some, reviled by just as many. In some ways, Roeg’s initial success continues to dog him. Fans want him to merely repeat his early efforts. However, like most great artists, this is one director who always followed his moviemaking muse, wherever it would take him. Bill Gibron


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