Phoenix questioners examine the riddle of wayward director Roeg

The work of wayward director Nicolas Roeg can be wondrous, maddening and perplexing. But whatever you think, they are films quite unlike anyone else s, says MICHAEL JOYCE RECENTLY, the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley played host to one of the wayward

The work of wayward director Nicolas Roeg can be wondrous, maddening and perplexing. But whatever you think, they are films quite unlike anyone else's, says MICHAEL JOYCE

RECENTLY, the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley played host to one of the wayward talents of British cinema - Nicolas Roeg.

The 79-year-old director took part in a 45-minute Q&A session after screenings of two of his most daring and difficult movies - The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980).

Both were presented in gloriously scratchy prints and preceded by the original British Board of Film Classification rating - This Film Has Been Passed X. It was like being transported back to an age when movies were wild and out of control.


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The first features David Bowie as Thomas Newton, an alien who comes here to rescue his planet but becomes trapped here.

The second charts the doomed relationship between Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell, the actress who would become his second wife.

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His most celebrated movies are famously elliptical and non-linear.

Bad Timing is told in a mosaic of flashbacks around the attempts to revive Russell after a suicide attempt.

The Man Who Fell To Earth has a beginning and an end - but misses out many of the main stops en route.

But perhaps we should expect nothing else from someone who was offered this piece of wisdom from his father at a young age: "The day you are born is the only day you have a tomorrow. The next day you have yesterday and today."

Roeg adopts a similar approach to answering questions.

A simple enquiry about whether he had been influenced by the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is greeted with a rambling, but engaging, discourse on the nature of chance and the miracle of the retention of the image.

Somewhere in there I think the answer was revealed to be not particularly. Though like Powell, he's an unusually sensual British film-maker and most of his characters are defined by their sexuality.

The most famous of his sex scenes was the one between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now, where their lovemaking was cut up by shots of them getting dressed and preparing to go out afterwards.

Roeg was asked about contemplating taking the scene out.

He experimented with this but kept it in because without it there was no indication that the couple - who are grieving for the loss of their child - still love each other.

"We lost sight of who they were, it was just plot. It gave a reality to it."

On the other hand, the lovers in Bad Timing "were doomed from the beginning. It was artificial - the meeting at the party was studied, a little bit of showing off."

A couple of people wanted to know about Roeg's habit of casting pop stars.

And he was asked if the appeal of working with them was because they didn't have the usual actor's technical tricks. But he didn't seem to accept the divide.

"Rock stars are actors too. There's not many actors who can get 60,000 people to watch them perform," adding that people didn't object to Rex Harrison singing in My Fair Lady.

It's true that both Bowie and Jagger, who starred in Performance, have an energy and charisma that was well-harnessed in their roles - although I'm not sure the same is true of Garfunkel. He is convincingly cold as a psychology lecturer and Roeg casually mentioned that this was because Garfunkel lectured in mathematics at New York University.

Roeg's directorial career can be split into two distinct phases.

The first decade and a half produced six films - Performance (co-directed by Donald Cammell), Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bad Timing and Eureka, which are all to varying degrees wondrous, perplexing and maddening.

Whatever you think of them, they are distinct works unlike anybody else's.

In the middle of the 80s, he made a film version of Terry Johnson play Insignificance, about Einstein, Monroe, DiMaggio and McCarthy meeting in a hotel room.

Although not a bad film, the distinct Roeg magic just seemed to have disappeared. Instead of Nicholas Roeg films, you got films that were directed by Nicholas Roeg.

Nobody at the Phoenix had the bad taste to mention his 90s' phase making erotic thrillers like Full Body Massage.

There's a 2007 film directed by him called Puffball but nobody seems too keen on releasing it here and the man himself never brought it up.

Roeg seems to accept the ephemeral nature of his profession.

Asked about "lost films" such as Eureka and Track 29, he seems content to hope that one day audiences will eventually rediscover them.

He spoke about seeing "a terribly sad thing" recently - a silent film record of Sarah Bernhardt performing one of her famous roles when she had only one leg.

He regretted that it existed because "the time had gone by, it would be better if it had remained a marvellous mystery".

In general, Roeg seems happy to just take things as they come.

At the start of The Man Who Fell To Earth, there's a marvellous scene where the just landed Newton is greeted by a giant children's bouncy castle being blown around by the wind. He then wanders through a deserted playground where a drunk looks up from a ride and belches at him as he walks past.

None of this was in the script - they just came across them during filming and used them.

Roeg wandered into film-making because he used to live opposite the Ministry of Information film studio in Marylebone.

He began at De Lane Lea dubbing French films, moved onto editing but really made his mark as a cinematographer.

Asked about his influences, he couldn't really specify other than to praise his prop men - particularly the one on The Witches, a Roald Dahl adaptation.

Children are turned into mice and he got the chief mouse to perform by laying a trail of female mouse urine along the path where he wanted the mouse to run.

His own favourite film is Les Enfants Du Paradise. But he couldn't choose a favourite among his own films - each one was too personal.

"Film-making takes over your life for months and years and when it's finished there's a sense of loss," he said.

He quoted John Huston on directing: "Taken all in all it's rather a melancholy affair."

I think melancholy is the fundamental here.

A lot of the time, his films seem to be flailing around trying to nail down some elusive human truths. But when they hit one the effects are startling.

The Man Who Fell to Earth contains one of the most affecting death scenes in cinema, a character being thrown out of a top floor window

His plummet is accompanied by heavy breathing, seductive music and a few brief flashbacks.

In a few brief moments, you get this terrible sense, not of a character leaving a story, but of all this man ever was, hoped for, cared about, being eradicated forever.

It's a beautiful scene but distressing, symptomatic of a talent for digging up emotions you'd prefer not to deal with.

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