AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
NICOLAS ROEG – INTERVIEWED
by Harlan Kennedy
"Jack McCann is a
dinosaur," says Jewish gangster Joe Pesci of Gene Hackman's aging
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
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
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.
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
If fire leaps forth as the
primal spirit of energy in
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.
Claude is the third corner of the triangle: the interloper-dilettante (or "dabbler" as Roeg calls him) who wants
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
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
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.
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
"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
"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
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
"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 –
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
"And that's what I wanted to illustrate, as simply as possible, when the mathematics puzzle is solved by
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."
"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 conversation has
now walked us all the way from the
"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
"But actually the direct
idea for our title came from Edgar Allan Poe's essay '
"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."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE APRIL 1983 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.