Nicolas Roeg, who died on Friday evening, was one of Britain’s finest filmmakers, as both director and cinematographer. Like Ken Russell, he was often attracted to difficult subjects, and brought a visual flair and a genre flirtation to much of his work, something that inevitably placed him outside a British film establishment that has long fixated on the dour and empty works of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh on the one hand, the empty costume dramas of Merchant-Ivory on the other. Roeg’s films often had deep themes, but they were not political polemics designed to worry at the conscience of middle class liberals. Instead, Roeg’s work had a dark edge, a fascination with sexuality and identity, while infused with pop culture sensibilities (and pop star actors). They were, therefore, always going to be viewed with some suspicion by much of the British film establishment.
Roeg joined the film industry in 1947, slowly working his way up the ladder to become a camera operator on films like Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, before finally getting cinematographer credits with films like Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451 and Petulia. His first credit as director came with Performance, co-directed by Donald Cammell. Cammell was inexperienced as a filmmaker, and Roeg has often been seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ on the project, brought in to help bring Cammell’s vision to the screen effectively – in essence, a glorified cinematographer. It’s a theory that would only hold water if Performance didn’t feel very much like a Roeg film, but of course it does. Playing with genre (in the case the gangster film), Performance twists and turns the themes within the story inside out, becoming a dazzling headlock of a film in the process. It was also deemed ‘unreleasable’ by Warner Brothers, setting the scene for a director who would regularly clash with myopic studio heads and, after the 1970s, find it increasingly hard to finance projects.
Roeg’s work during his peak period is a pretty remarkable series of films – Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance are a pretty extraordinary series of films, and all controversial as they poked at taboos (often, but not exclusively, sexual) and demanded the audience pay attention even as cinema was becoming ever more disposable. His later work remains interesting – Castaway and Track 29 would be seen as great works from any other filmmaker, and his version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches has its own cult following – and shows that Roeg could work within the confines of family entertainment without entirely losing his soul. It would be his last major film though, as the changing face of cinema had little room for eccentric mavericks like him. He worked increasingly in TV, and his work here is not without interest – Full Body Massage is a decent stab at making something out of nothing, for instance. His final feature film, Puffball, was made in 2007 and failed to secure a release for years – and other than the odd festival showing, it still remains little seen. In truth it is a pretty weak film, showing little of the flair or provocation that we associate with his work. It’s an unfortunate ending to an otherwise impressive career.
Roeg’s career decline is, it must be said, a sad indictment of a British film industry that doesn’t reward, or even trust, creativity. Like Russell, Roeg would spent the last part of his career ignored by an establishment that would rather finance another Andrea Arnold poverty-porn tale than make anything that might be genuinely cinematic. But the apparently contempt shown by the industry simply proves the point: Roeg was one of the best and most original filmmakers that we have ever had, and his body of work is astonishing.