Saturday, July 21, 2007
"Performance" and Hassan i-Sabbah
I recently watched Performance (1970) again. I first saw it when I lived in Beirut, shortly after it was released. Given the fact that there are lots of shots of bare breasts, which were of course cut by the Lebanese censor, it's amazing that the film was so coherent the first time I saw it. What I had remembered about it was (1) that the gender-bending, both of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and gangster-on-the-run Chas (James Fox) was quite mind-blowing, (2) the soundtrack was fabulous, especially Ry Cooder's slide guitar, and (3) Jagger's song, "Message from Turner," was terrific as well. These impressions all held up on second viewing, although it appears that not all the slide guitar playing is by Ry Cooder, because Lowell George (of Little Feat fame) plays guitar on the soundtrack as well.
What I didn't remember, and probably did not appreciate at the time, was what one might call the Burroughsian Orientalist themes and atmosphere. First Turner's house, where Chas takes refuge, bears a strong resemblance to a harem--the decor, the fact that Turner lives with two women (Pherber, played by Anita Pallenberg, and Lucy, played by Michèle Breton), the robes worn by Pherber and Lucy, and the decadence. Except that Jagger, with his long hair, androgynous looks and dress, and lipstick, often as much like one of the women of the harem than its master. And if purdah is imposed, it's self-imposed upon the reclusive Turner as it is upon Pherber and Lucy.
And then there is the scene where Jagger is reading from a book about the "Legend of the Assassins" (I'm not sure what the source is) and he quotes the famous lines of Hassan i-Sabbah (which by now have begun to seem a little trite from overuse): "Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted." Hassan i-Sabbah (1034-1124), the celebrated/infamous leader of the Nizari Ismailis, was an important figure in the novels of William Burroughs. (The best analysis of Burroughs' use of Hassan i-Sabbah is to be found in Timothy Murphy's Wising Up the Marks.) Burroughs' pal and collaborator Brion Gysin was very much into Hassan i-Sabbah as well, and perhaps he's responsible for the "Assassin" leader's appearance in the film? After all, Gysin did lead Brian Jones to Jajouka in 1968, where he recorded the tracks that would eventually would appear (with effects added by Jones) as Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka in 1971.
If I'm not mistaken, the last shot in the movie is of Hassan i-Sabbah's fortress at Alamut, in northern Iran. The soundtrack also includes some Persian touches, as the Iranian santur player Nasser Rastegar-Nejad appears in the mix.