The Athens International Film Festival – Opening Nights, which starts on Wednesday and ends on October 4, is paying tribute to Nicolas Roeg in a retrospective on a filmmaker who can be described as among the most idiosyncratic of British cinema in the 1970s and 80s.
Roeg, 87, emerged from the belly of the film industry, starting off as a tea boy who proved he could climb to the top while continuing to live in his own parallel world. His persistent views on what constituted entertainment put him at odds with the industry from his very first film, 1969’s“Performance,” a chaotic and scandalous tapestry describing the decadence of the rock music scene. Later, and in a more composed frame of mind, he tampered with some of the basic tenets of linear narrative, his creative moments becoming experimentations on movement, color, shadow and framing. Light is his raw material, which he has worked like few other filmmakers, and editing his strongest tool, used to play with time and space.
Roeg was modern at a time when modernism seemed to have become eclipsed in the world of cinema. Yet his work cannot be described as auteur cinema and his contradictions are too many to label, as he has shown a strangely subversive vivacity along with an instinctual bent for the confidence of the classic narrative. He has also been described as a perfectionist, with an excellent sense of rhythm and harmony, and a pioneer in the way that he has manipulated the medium.
In short, Roeg’s talent comes from within. He is, after all, the filmmaker who cast the usually virginal Julie Christie in one of the sexiest scenes in British cinema with the help of parallel montage, in his 1973 masterpiece “Don’t Look Now.”
Roeg was born in London in 1928 and found himself, quite by chance after finishing school, working at Marylebone Studios as the tea and clapperboard boy. He questioned the norms from day one, telling the Telegraph newspaper in a 2013 interview about how he challenged the director of “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” by telling him that the title was a superlative and left him no alternative but to call his next film “Tarzan’s Disappointing Adventure.”
He continued to express his opinion and criticism when he became an assistant cameraman on films including “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” though director David Lean became fed up with his attitude and fired him. This did not stop Roeg from becoming a distinguished director of photography.
His transition to director was also partly a matter of luck, as writer Donald Cammell was looking for a young director with a fresh style and perspective for “Performance.” Roeg caught his attention as he had already built a reputation as a cinematographer in Roger Corman’s 1964 horror “The Masque of the Red Death,” Francois Truffaut’s 1966 sci-fi drama “Fahrenheit 451” and Richard Lester’s 1968 romantic drama “Petulia.”
Cammell gave Roeg artistic freedom and the nascent director dove into the surf of the rock counterculture but the producers were all but happy.
“Warner Bros threatened to sue me for not delivering the film they were expecting,” Roeg told the Telegraph’s John Preston. “It affected me very badly. It was difficult to hang onto self-belief.”
Roeg had a special bond with the rock scene and went on to make films with David Bowie (“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” arguably one of the weirdest sci-fi films ever made) and Art Garfunkel (“Bad Timing”).
Among the many younger directors that Roeg influenced with his work and unique point of view were David Lynch and Michael Winterbottom, while he still enjoys a cult following among those who see cinema as a light that causes turmoil when it illuminates inner darkness.