Nic Roeg on Bad Timing








by Harlan Kennedy



"Jack McCann is a dinosaur," says Jewish gangster Joe Pesci of Gene Hackman's aging millionaire in Eureka. "And everyone knows what happened to di­nosaurs." They were wiped out by the Ice Age – all except the few who went to Hollywood and became production chiefs. Nicolas Roeg has been battling with them ever since, whether trying to woo his first film, Performance, off the Warner Bros. shelf back in the late Six­ties or striving to make his good friend Dino DeLaurentiis see Flash Gordon his way in the mid-Seventies.

The shock of the new causes parox­ysms on Sunset Boulevard and points East. Every Roeg movie, not just his latest, is rampant with novelty and could justify the title Eureka. It is thus no surprise that the latest moguls at MGM/UA have responded to its hard violence, sex, and complex narrative with perplexity, not immediately sure whether to cut it or tough it out. Instead, they've dumped it on UA Classics.

Up in the icy Yukon and down in the balmy Caribbean, Roeg and screen­writer Paul Mayersberg (who scripted Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth) dig for the tale of grizzled Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), who gets rich quick in a 1925 gold strike and lives happily never after. The uncaptured rapture of his great "Eureka" haunts him still when we rejoin him two decades later – a giant leap for mankind, a swift flash-forward for filmgoers – on his private is­land sequestered from the din of World War II. And the lost rapture stays to haunt him until his death, murdered in blood and fire in a bizarre Walpurgisnacht in his mansion Eureka.

Roeg thinks with his eyes: as befits a cinematographer turned director. He was director of photography on Far From The Madding Crowd, Fahrenheit 451, Petulia. He then directed Performance, Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing.

Eureka is a treasure-trail of optic clues, mythic psychedelia and eyeblink rags of illusion and allusion, which leads into one of the richest movie labyrinths since Citizen Kane. It's a film about passion for gold, sex, or for the elemental in oneself and dying in the fulfillment. What can fuel life thereafter? It's a film about sor­cery – from alchemy to Tarot to telepa­thy. And murder, mystery and motive. Not so much "Who killed Jack McCann?" as "How and why did Jack McCann bring on his own death?"

Back in the days when Man the Sci­entist had "simple" dreams – turning metal into gold – there were but four elements. Earth, air, fire and water. Roeg's layer-on-layer movie rests its im­agistic base on these, and the dazzling twenty-minute opening section set in the Yukon is a song for four elemental voices, with fire dominant. Fire plunges from the sky, leaving a sizzling stone in the snow that McCann guards ever after as a sacred talisman, his "philosopher's stone." Gunfire blows away the head of a suicidal prospector. And fire frolics tauntingly in the hearth of a croaky hooker-cum-sorceress, Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes), who laments the day McCann's passion for gold overwhelmed and killed his passion for her.

If fire leaps forth as the primal spirit of energy in Eureka – life-giving or life-de­stroying – gold is its portable emblem. When, in the Yukon prologue, Hackman hacks out a river of gold from the cavern under howling ice and snow (the other elements all in chaining coalition), Roeg intercuts repeated pickaxe bangs with the gasps, both orgasmic and dying, of Frieda in her far-off bordello lovenest. The music from Das Rheingold's prelude, simultaneously swelling on the soundtrack, intimates mythic quest Wagner-style. And sacri­fice. For the consummation of Hackman's love for gold has been bought, like Alberta's, at the cost of human sex­ual love. And the gold itself gushes forth from the rock in a fiery-liquid river, an elemental orgasm.

When we leap forward into the For­ties, the same mythic and elemental music is being played. The aging mage McCann now presides over a household as knotted and intricate as the House of Atreus: wife Helen (Jane Lapotaire), daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell), son-in-law Claude (Rutger Hauer), plus a bevy of servants and a dubious business manager (Ed Lauter). If McCann's trag­edy is that he found ecstasy too soon in his life – and Alberich's curse lives with him in his sense of spiritual waste and passion spent – Roeg and Mayersberg also now give him a tragic grandeur, a patriarchal fallen wisdom that becomes the apex of the main character triangle.

Tracy is his soul-heir. Her psychic link to her father is invoked both in tele­pathic cross-cuttings between the two and in the gifts of spirit he has be­queathed her, from a driving quest for ecstasy to the arithmetic wizardry they demonstrate one evening at dinner.

Claude is the third corner of the trian­gle: the interloper-dilettante (or "dab­bler" as Roeg calls him) who wants Tracy as much for her being the recepta­cle of her father's soul as for herself. Rutger Hauer makes Claude a vain, strutting, gold-quiffed, compelling de­mon; a wanderer, a flying Dutchman whose sole permanent possession is a yacht called Pandora.

Much like Pandora's Box, Eureka be­comes a movie that when thrown open explodes around one: outward from a three-cornered thematic core of desire (for gold, for love, for other men's souls and secrets) and scattering sparks across a huge terrain of myth and meaning. As in all his movies, Roeg hurls heady vis­ual juxtapositions at us – in a bid to storm the syntactical frontiers between shot and shot, scene and scene, meta­phor and reality, parable and paranor­mal.

Is it real or emblematic cause-and-effect when we cut from McCann's hand being scorched by the talisman, which stands on a pedestal in the mansion's hall, to Tracy crying in sexual pain or ecstasy in her bedroom? Or when later in the same scene a golden chain (child-parent link?) slips loudly from Tracy's dressing table?

Mightiest brain-twister of all is the film's late and tenebrously cryptic court­room scene. After McCann's murder, Claude is put on trial and led, by his own decision to conduct his defense, to a confrontation with Tracy herself. Each peels off layer after layer of protective half-truth as the lights dim around them save for a pale and eerie spot on each.

Roeg and Mayersberg, gear-shifting into the surreal, depart furthest of all here from their true-life point of depar­ture, the "real case" of Sir Harry Oakes. Oakes, prototype for the movie's McCann, was murdered in Nassau in 1943. His son-in-law, a French Count, was tried for the killing and, like the film's Claude, acquitted. But there the resemblances end, almost. Eureka's stylized courtroom becomes an arena not for weighing external facts but for peeling through to internal truths: the truth that Claude is in Tracy's words, "guilty of innocence", and that, far from having the strength of mind and body to have taken the life of McCann, he scarcely has the strength or self-knowledge to keep his relationship with her alive.

Claude ends up, in this Strindbergian ghost-trial, being arraigned not for a cap­ital crime of murder but for the spiritual crime of an egoism that camouflages weakness, dilettantism, and moral myo­pia.

Nothing in Eureka is what it seems. Even the movie's "subplot" is no sub­plot, in the sense of an obediently subor­dinate layer of narrative. It's a major nav­igating force in the action, as businessman Joe Pesci and his assistant Mickey Rourke bid to build a casino on Luna Bay, a proposed development on McCann's land. But McCann won't play. "I don't believe in chance," he says, summing up his Homeric certainty that man holds the reins to his own des­tiny and had visible, communicable gods of desire and conscience with whom to battle over it.

Nights later, duly pricked to action, Pesci's men converge on Hackman's mansion, Claude trailing ghost-like after in the shadows. And McCann, strewing blood-red flower petals over the stair-rail as if in invitation, is done to death.

Trying to summarize the theme and story of a Nicolas Roeg movie is like trying to distill and bottle Niagara Falls. Even the director, whom I met and talked with at London's Natural History Museum under the towering shadow of a long-dead dinosaur, tackled like with like. Roeg thinks and speaks as he films, in a high-volt helter-skelter of images and allusions, delivered in an intense and husky British brogue that some­times sounds like Herbert Marshall at­tacked by oneiric delirium. It's impossi­ble to transcribe his speech without plentiful italics, which mark the points where Roeg jumps on a word like a trap­per on a quarrelsome grizzly and wres­tles it to the ground.

"I wanted to make a film about ec­stasy," he says, "the many forms of ec­stasy. Ecstasy in individual people, and ecstasy as the mystic sense of life. How our actions are connected to everything and everyone around us. It's not a mys­tery film, it's not a thriller. And I hope you can't put it into a slot. There isn't a slot to put it in. To do so would make it a thing it isn't."

Nonetheless, critics have been trying to coax Roeg into slots for years now. He's a "movie mystic," he's a director of "existential thrillers," he's a "Borgesian." Eureka has already started send­ing cries of critical bafflement into the heavens. "A-ha!" cry hopeful scrutineers, Roeg has made a murder thriller. But then the film swirls and serpentines on into a climactic trial scene that has nothing to do with criminal justice and a denouement that doesn't even tell us whodunit.

"Professional critics reflect the time they live in," says Roeg. "And today it's a very reactionary time, socially, politi­cally, and artistically. Especially in the movies. If the grammar of cinema is at all changed or dented, it's resented far more than in other mediums. Fellini once said, "They call me self-indulgent now. They used to call it style." In liter­ature and poetry, fine: changes and changing attitudes to the form are quite acceptable. But the grammatic form of cinema has very little root in literature, and nothing to do with the theater. And it's become full of rigid preconceptions.

"I remember an audience coming out of a screening of Marienbad, among them some very eminent critics who said, 'The man doesn't know anything about form at all. Look at the ridiculous shot of Sacha Pitoeff coming downstairs in a dinner jacket and then going up­stairs in a blazer, then downstairs in a dinner jacket... That guy Resnais doesn't understand!' And yet today, ev­ery television commerical, the wife puts a pie in the oven and the next shot is the family sitting down to feast on it. That has its direct root in the changes in the grammar of film. Commercials like that are the direct result of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais.

"The trial scene in Eureka," Roeg continues, "is not – obviously it's not – a 'real' trial. The lights don't go down in a real courtroom, as they do in ours; you don't have spotlights. It's a dramatic set­ting for a confrontation between two characters. It's formalized. It's an arena. And when you see Claude cross-exam­ining Tracy, it's he who's being exposed. 'I taught you everything you know,' he says. And he still doesn't understand that he's talking to someone who has McCann's soul when he's talking to her, that they're the strong ones, she and McCann, the ones who understand, the ones with a capacity for life, knowledge, not him. She saves Claude's neck, but in doing so all things have to be said be­tween them. And very few relationships can survive that amount of truth."

The character of Claude is the "wild card" in the movie: an elusive, mercurial presence flitting around the stronger flames of McCann and Tracy. "He's a dabbler," says Roeg. "When we first started on the character of Claude, I re­membered a man I once saw on Brigh­ton beach before the war, when I was a child. He was, supposedly, a French Count. The local people despised him and used to call him the 'Count of no account.' And he had a beautiful girl with him who wore one of the first bi­kini-type bathing suits, shocking the lo­cals. I thought of this man as a dabbler. The kind of man who came to fruition later in occult things and dope and smoking grass, etc. The first hippie really, though I've nothing against hippies. I'm probably one myself – though a rather old hippie!

"But Claude hadn't 'gone the route' like McCann, in a single quest for gold – for his gold, for the gold's really a symbol of anyone's gold. Claude had never thought any purpose through, and he's not bright like McCann. He dab­bles, for instance, in the Cabala. At the dinner early in the film, Claude is wear­ing this shirt with cabalistic signs on it, flaunting this rather cleverer-than-thou image. And at one point, after they've talked about the five points of wisdom in the Cabala, McCann says 'And the sixth is Bullshit.' And he goes on, 'There's only one Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is conversation.'

"Well, people have come up to me and said 'Oh anti-Semitic!' and this, that, and the other. Well, when Jack says that he's actually quoting straight from the center of the Talmud: 'There's only one Golden Rule' the Talmud says: 'Do unto others,' and then it ends, 'The rest is commentary.' So the people who come up and say 'Anti-Jewish, anti-Yid' are only scratching surfaces. I believe – and it's part of what Jack McCann represents – that once you start scratching a surface you must go on until you reach as far as you dare go. Or maybe go right to the bottom, whatever the dangers.

"And this strength that Jack has," Roeg continues, "is what Claude en­vies, what he covets. When the three of them have their fight later in the film – Tracy, Claude and McCann, when Jack breaks into the couple's house – McCann says to Claude: 'I see what you want. You want my soul.' Claude wants it through Tracy. She, like McCann, has this strength, this quest for ecstasy, and understands the danger of finding your ecstasy too soon."

Roeg sets a flame to another cigarette and looks up at the dinosaur's head, hol­low-eyed and bleach-boned.

"One reason the film isn't a murder thriller," he says, "is that McCann doesn't die. That's to say, what he is, what he represents is absolutely contin­ued in Tracy. There are children – I've seen it in friends of mine and their families – who are quite literally soul-clones of their parent, their father or mother. In surface things they can be quite differ­ent, but the essence is passed on.

"And that's what I wanted to illus­trate, as simply as possible, when the mathematics puzzle is solved by Tracy in her head at the dinner. She and Jack share this gift. And how often can you know what is going on in someone else's head? It's a classic lover's question, isn't it? 'What are you thinking, darling?' Pause. 'Oh, thinking about you, dar­ling!' But you never know. Unless you have a gift in common. And that scene was a simple, direct way of showing that Jack and Tracy are linked."

Roeg and I get up and walk through the room, among the bustle of visitors busy cricking their necks at the beast beetling above them, a giant jigsaw of white bones.

"I wanted the characters in the movie to be big people," says Roeg. "Not big 'symbolically,' because that's the deathknell. But Grecian almost. The Father. The Mother.

"When you have this elemental feel to the people, there are links you can make between the characters. For in­stance, all the women – Frieda, Helen, Tracy – have dark hair, and they're given this kinship with the world of sor­cery, of mysticism. And even the gang­sters have this extra stature, they're small in a 'big' way. They're brutal, petty, mean, violent, uncaring men. Grand Guignol characters almost. They don't realize how much it takes to kill a man like Jack McCann. He has to be beaten down and consumed.

"Which is why we made the murder scene quite violent. People have come up to me and said, 'Oh it's very grue­some and brutal!' But I think it's impor­tant. In Performance only two shots were fired. But when you shoot someone, you reduce a physically healthy young man to probably terminal illness. It's an im­portant thing.

"I feel bad about violence when I think of films, good as they might be, like Friday the 13th, and people say 'Jolly good film, lot of blood, and people are strangled and stabbed!' I believe in the sanctity of life and I've tried to show these gangsters as only foolish people and criminal, not glorified at all. Sadistic violence offered for gain, or to express machismo, is awful."

Eureka is in a different dimension from that catchpenny breed of fair­ground shocker: not only in its content but in its style and vision. Part of the movie's spell lies in Roeg's ability, as in all his films, to bend and transform im­ages in a way that takes us far beyond naturalism. Even that old slam-bang fa­vorite, the zoom shot, is transfigured here into a technique supple, respon­sive, and varied – from limpid, spectac­ular lunges forward across snowy land­scapes or into the moon's face to tiny darts of attention into an object or a hu­man face.

"I'm not comfortable just standing still," says Roeg. "It's probably some psychological thing! I like to be at differ­ent distances from things. They seem to expand more then. And the zoom cre­ates this effect. I can't bear, for instance, those interview programs on TV where two faces just sit across from each other and the camera doesn't move. I want to get up and walk around myself. I'm probably from the Peripatetic School of philosophy!"

Peripatetic conversation has now walked us all the way from the Natural History Museum to Nicolas Roeg's house. I ask him how the title Eureka had finally been chosen for the film, after the title had gone through several previous variants, including most re­cently Murder Mystery.

"It was the cry of Archimedes, of course," says Roeg, "when he stepped into the bath and discovered the princi­ple of specific gravity. He was wearing the golden crown of Herion, the ruler of Syracuse, who had asked him to find out how much base metal there was in it. So Archimedes put it on and stepped in, the water ran over the side, and he dashed off down the street yelling 'Eu­reka!' Amusing chap.

"But actually the direct idea for our title came from Edgar Allan Poe's essay 'Eureka.' Which I think is marvelous, the best thing he ever wrote – it s specu­lation about the stars and the heavens, the cosmos. He said, 'After I've done "Eureka" I can do no more.' And that was the last he ever wrote. He went on a great binge and died two weeks later.

"Of course, what's fascinating about following leads in building a movie," continues Roeg, questing busily among his bookshelves, "is that some things, some references feel instantly right. And you don't have to follow the roots right through. You find echoes of what you're trying to say in all kinds of places.

"When we were preparing the film and we were talking about ecstasy, Paul Mayersberg and I, we were saying that the truly ecstatic moment should arrive at the point of ecstasy-is-death. And I came across this."

Roeg opens a book. "According to the Muslims, there are seven Heavens', and they're listed and described, one by one. And when we come to the Sixth Heaven, listen to this: 'The Sixth Heaven is composed of ruby and garnet and is presided over by Moses. Here dwells the guardian angel of Heaven and Earth, half snow and half fire.' And Jack is the snow and the flame! That's the Sixth. 'The Seventh Heaven is formed of divine light beyond the power of tongue to describe and is ruled by Abram. Each inhabitant is bigger than the whole Earth and with 70,000 heads, each head 70,000 miles, each mouth 70,000 tongues, and each tongue speaks 70,000 languages, all forever employed in chanting to the glory of the most high. To be in the Seventh Heaven is to be supremely happy, to be in paradise, to be in ecstasy.' "

Roeg chortles with delight, closes the book, and throws a beaming look at me across the room.

"It's rather shattering, isn't it? That really is the story of Jack McCann! Snow and fire. And the quest for the Seventh Heaven. Ecstasy."







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.