“‘Young people are only just beginning to read film – they know the grammar, [...] They come from a visual generation, and film is a visual medium. But pretty well everyone over the age of twenty-five, I guess, maybe twenty-eight, is rooted in the literary tradition. I’ve always wanted to get my thoughts over in film visually, without the intermediary of literature. I actively prefer to be in the cinema, but not the cinema of literature, which is like Victorian picture books. Faced with that, I’d rather stay at home and read. Before the whole Gutenberg galaxy thing, storytelling was more intimate, more immediate – like film. Printing confined a story within a binding and imposed artificial limits. It made stories into lengths. But before that, in the oral tradition, stories could continue forever. It’s one of the basic concepts of living that stories are one great story of which all stories partake.’
From Roeg’s office we walked to his editing room and drew up two stools before a Steenbeck editing machine. Against the wall neatly filed cans were ranged on shelves, all bearing the legend Bad Timing. Some contained reels of celluloid, others the matching sound tapes. Taking them down two by two, Roeg placed them on the Steenbeck, which spun the reels simultaneously, providing synchronized sound and picture.
Bad Timing takes Roeg’s visual sleight of hand and jigsaw crosscutting to a new peak of ingenuity and associative meaning. The plot, like that of Don’t Look Now, has a tinge of the pulp-fictional, but the point of Roeg’s work – and its glory – is that there is nothing simple about even simple plots. ‘The ground that makes me nervous in Bad Timing,’ says Roeg, ‘the thought that makes me tremble, is that I don’t want to see in this love affair that sentimental middle area that I think we all know. It’s a real, very painful love affair. When one’s in love, the moments of lyrical love are to me implicit in people’s behavior. It’s actually something in that other, public manner that makes you understand that they have those moments of lyrical love.’”
Harlan Kennedy in conversation with Nicolas Roeg1
“‘Did you pirate it?’ Roeg asks when we meet to discuss it. ‘I like pirate copies. There are some around.’ Bad Timing began with a favourite Italian paperback of the producer Carlo Ponti, a story of sexual obsession that neither Roeg nor his screenwriter, Yale Udoff, read. Its premise proved a gift. ‘It was all about frailties,’ Roeg says. ‘It was about the fact that you cannot intellectualise your genes, which make aspects of your life inevitable. You cannot intellectualise yourself out of obsession. You cannot cure yourself of it.’
Vienna in 1979 impregnated their work. ‘It was an unstable city, a border city, only just handed back from the Russians. To be in a place with so many strange rules and so many dangers, so many police and spies - all that was in the film.’
Four days into the shoot his two tyro stars begged Roeg to let them leave, and he knew he was on the right track. ‘Theresa came first. She said, “I don’t think I’m up to this. I'm terribly nervous. Please let me leave.” I said, “No. I won’t let you. I’m glad you feel that way.” Then I asked Art in. I told them, “This isn’t like another movie. We’re shooting fragments of scenes; there’s nothing to rehearse. We’re in a city none of us knows, an empty landscape. I must ask you to trust that I know where I’m going. It’s a maze, but there is an end to it.” We had some Martinis, and they agreed. Somehow, it was a release. I felt all right about pushing them further and further.’
The actors’ immersion into their parts became painful. At the film’s half-way point, when Russell vengefully demands sex with Garfunkel on the stairs, and he looks up at what’s on offer like a naughty schoolboy, fearfully grabbing her, her skin mottling and flushing, the old claims that there was real penetration on the set of Performance seem small beer: here, psyches are stripped. And soon the fever spread through the crew. ‘Everybody was peeling themselves open,’ Roeg remembers. ‘It was a wild time, there was a great feeling of release - sexually, emotionally. It was exhilarating. I remember one day we shot for 24 hours. I think I was the one who said, “I can't take it any more. I've had enough.” We were shooting six or seven days a week. It was claustrophobic - play the part, go to sleep, go back. I abandoned control, and something magical came in. Bad Timing began to live itself. I kept out of the way of its forcefield. It was a bit of suspended time. A parallel universe.’”
“Vienna is used to startling effect in the masterful and initially much maligned Bad Timing (1980), one of the director’s most elusive and complex pictures, which examines in flashback the consuming relationship between two Americans in Venice (Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell, later to become Roeg’s muse and wife). Roeg has described Bad Timing as an apt summation of his career, believing himself to have often been ahead of time, instead of simply of it. Treated with disdain by its distributors, with one Rank executive describing it as ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people,’ the film, which journeys into Klimt, obsession, and psychoanalysis, was released minus the Rank logo and led to the diminishing of Roeg as a commercial force.”
“What might once have belonged to the world of La dolce vita was transplanted to the cold north, to Vienna, to the world of The Third Man and a whole range of references to spying, prying, psychoanalytic inquiry, and police probing. Udoff recalls that he and Roeg developed the script through extensive conversations: ‘We just talked about men, women, women and men together, battles, our own personal lives.’ Udoff was well qualified to contribute personal material to these discussions on relations between the sexes, since he had always been in the habit of recording observations, keeping journals on his friends’ behavior and attitudes. This, he says, had earned him the reputation of being ‘the Allen Dulles of the literary world.’ And this turned out to be another qualification, since the activity of spying, especially as carried out here, by two professionals – a psychoanalyst and a policeman – is essential to the erotic imbroglio.
At one of his lectures, Alex uses a series of slides to illustrate the theme. A baby is ‘the first spy,’ followed by a shot of a couple making love. There are slides of Freud and of other professionals in the field: no Allen Dulles, but J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Stalin. Roeg playfully hints at The Third Man with a little zither music, but then, for him, the processes of observation are essential to all human behavior. ‘We are all spying on each other. That’s how we assess each other. You go to a party, and it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t like the look of her’ or ‘I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night.’ Even the strangest of Roeg’s characters, ‘the man who fell to Earth,’ is kept in the frame in this way. His arrival does not go unnoticed. ‘Everything is seen. Everyone is seen. I like that.’”
Sam Wasson: It’s a polarizing movie.
Theresa Russell: Nic’s movies do that. Like with Bad Timing. People were confused by the way it was cut. But to me, it was perfectly obvious. It wasn’t written that way either; he cut it that way.
He cuts the way people think. But it’s not always how they think they think.
People don’t think linearly... You think kind of back and forth and up and down, you don’t think A-B-C, in chronological order. People had a problem with that. But now when people see it they don’t even mention that, because people are so used to that kind of cutting and that kind of grammar of film. I really think that Nic changed the grammar of film. It was ahead of its time.
Were you scared making Bad Timing? The material is so challenging.
And I was so young. It was like, Holy fuck. How am I gonna do this? I was all of twenty-two when I got the part.
Actors talk about using the fear. Do you do that? Or do you try to throw that away and run in the opposite direction?
Well, that doesn’t work for me. You just go with those instincts that your creative self is telling you to do. And if you have someone, like I found in Nic, the fear is taken away and the creativity goes full force.
Can we go back to something you said about your dad? I mean the part about losing the ego. Insignificance and Bad Timing are egoless performances. You don’t really see that kind of unselfconscious acting in movies today. You see bravado, you see personality, but you don’t really see new or shocking behaviors.
There’s a certain type of television acting where they don’t want egolessness, they really don’t. They want it to be a certain way with your ego up front. To me, that’s difficult to do. It’s like another technique that I had to learn.
Sam Wasson in conversation with Theresa Russell5
“In Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980), the central character of Milena played by Theresa Russell is a fascinating screen figure, and not only for her complex psychology. Bringing together many short fragments, our audiovisual essay evolves like a musical composition, foregrounding a crucial aspect of Russell’s performance: her work with voice. Not the intention behind her dialogue, but the precise qualities of intonation as she seduces, teases, argues or declares her love. Guided by the intensity of her laughter, the hysterical noises of excitement and joy, the stuttering of sadness, the pauses and ruptures of her evasions. The throat is an overarching motif: Milena’s sonic vitality is directly contrasted with the drive of Alex (Art Garfunkel) to possess and annihilate her being.”
Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, September 2017
- 1. Harlan Kennedy, “Bad Timing. Magical Image Slices. Nicolas Roeg - An Interview,” American Cinema Papers, 1980.
- 2. Nick Hasted, “Sick, sick, sick, said Rank,” The Guardian, 15 August 2000.
- 3. Jason Wood, “‘Once I had it all. Now I just have everything’: Nicolas Roeg Remembered,” Mubi Notebook, 10 December 2018.
- 4. Richard Combs, “Bad Timing: The Men Who Didn’t Know Something,” Criterion Collection, 27 September 2005.
- 5. Sam Wasson, “A Conversation with Theresa Russell,” Criterion Collection, 22 June 2011.