Critic's Notebook: Nicolas Roeg's Brilliant Visuals and Editing Revolutionized Cinema

Courtesy of Photofest
Nicolas Roeg

Having first distinguished himself as a cinematographer, the British director went on to make some of the most influential and deeply loved films of the 1970s.

"Somebody I never met, but in a way I know. / Didn't think that you could get / so much from a picture show." So sang Mick Jones on Big Audio Dynamite's 1985 hit single "E=MC²," surely the most elaborate and heartfelt tribute to a single cinematic oeuvre in musical history. The body of work being detailed over the track's numerous verses was that of Nicolas Roeg, who died Friday and who fully merited the term "visionary director" when Peter Jackson, M. Night Shyamalan, Guillermo del Toro and Zack Snyder were still wearing short pants.

His first four features — Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) — rank high among their protean decade's most remarkable and seminal releases. Their fractured editing and non-linear storytelling techniques, which Roeg refined further with Bad Timing (1980) and Eureka (1983), injected experimental methods into commercial cinema. His DNA is visible in the output of myriad filmmakers: Steven Soderbergh, del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Gaspar Noe have cited him as a crucial formative figure. 

The London-born Roeg worked his way up through the industry "the old-fashioned way: tea boy, cutter, focus-puller, cinematographer," and shot second-unit on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Responsible for what many regard as the greatest of all horror films (Don't Look Now), he lensed one of the most visually distinctive: Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death (1964), a symphony in lurid widescreen Pathécolor. Roeg fulfilled the same duties with distinction on such diverse projects as John Schlesinger's romantically bucolic Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Gallic giant François Truffaut's numbingly bleak Fahrenheit 451 (1966).  

While every bit the patrician-sounding Englishman in person, his name (French spelling for the first part, Dutch origins for the second) had a foreign ring and from the start he transcended national boundaries. Indeed, so wildly did Roeg depart from established modes that his perspective often seemed extraterrestrial. Performance, co-directed with and written by Donald Cammell, may be mainly set in a London townhouse, but the tale of a gangster hiding out with a rock star takes place mainly in the frenzied psyches of its protagonists.

A phantasmagoric, mind-expanding homage to Argentinian neo-fabulist Jose Luis Borges, the movie is a direct descendant of Richard Lester's Petulia (1968), the last picture on which Roeg served only as cinematographer. A graduate of the "kitchen sink" social-realist school, Antony Gibbs worked on both films as an editor, departing radically from the self-effacing style that was then the norm; on Performance and Australia-set Walkabout, Gibbs and Roeg embraced the disorienting, sharp edits associated with the Nouvelle vague of Truffaut and company. The most financially and critically successful fruit of this approach was Don't Look Now, edited by Graeme Clifford, turning a spooky but relatively minor Daphne du Maurier short story into a stunning meditation on love, loss and existence. 

Two sequences stand as spectacular highlights not only of Roeg's career but of British cinema (Don't Look Now was named the nation's eighth greatest film in a 1999 BFI survey): the piercingly tender love-making scene between Donald Sutherland and Roeg's regular collaborator Julie Christie, and the final kaleidoscopic montage as Sutherland's fatally wounded psychic visualizes all of the picture's fragments falling into place — his life literally flashes before his eyes as Pino Donaggio's score lushly surges to a climax. Singer-songwriter Donaggio had never before composed for film; his haunting themes, which match anything by his venerated countryman Ennio Morricone, elevate Don't Look Now to masterpiece level.

Roeg's risk-embracing flair for untapped talent also extended to casting: He magicked fine work from Mick Jagger in Performance (the duo effectively invented the modern music video with the "Memo From Turner" sequence); realized that David Bowie was already The Man Who Fell to Earth, the most extreme example of Roeg's favorite "fish out of water" theme; and entrusted Art Garfunkel with the demanding lead in Bad Timing. The torrid Vienna-set drama was Roeg's first film with Theresa Russell, who struck up a productive partnership with the director and appeared in most of his films in the decade after their 1982 marriage. 

Those efforts were, on the whole, less well-received than his 1970s output, though 1985's Insignificance (Russell as a kinda-sorta Marilyn Monroe) is a miniature doozy and Eureka — foreshadowing Anderson's There Will Be Blood — has an ardent, expanding cult. Roeg continued to work in films and television into the current century, but his last hurrah was an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches (1990). One of the scariest "children's films" ever made, it has proved a highly effective gateway drug into the Roeg state for myriad filmmakers, viewers and critics over the years, many of whom hadn't previously appreciated just how much they could "get from a picture show."