Bad Timing: bad plot saved by great director

On paper, this film shouldn’t be interesting. But thanks to the leadership of Nicolas Roeg, it actually is.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in Scott’s new column here at RVANews, where he sheds some light on some little-seen art house and genre classics. Most of the films he’s covering can be found at Video Fan or on Netflix.


On paper, Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing shouldn’t be interesting. A story about a man and a woman dealing with a mutual sexual obsession that leads to their undoing sounds more like a late night Cinemax film than the masterpiece that it is. The reason this movie rises above the cookie cutter plot is the director: Nicolas Roeg.

Roeg arrived on the scene with 1970’s Performance featuring Mick Jagger and immediately got attention with his unorthodox filming/editing style. Combining camera zooms and pans with rapid-fire editing, Roeg showed an ability to convey emotion and heighten tension in even the most mundane sequences. He followed this gem with 1971’s Walkabout, the Daphne Du Maurier horror adaptation Don’t Look Now from 1973, and the David Bowie anti-sci-fi epic The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976. These films solidified his reputation as a non-linear filmmaker that challenged audiences.

Enter 1980’s Bad Timing. I first discovered this movie 4 years ago when going through a huge Jim O’Rourke phase. O’Rourke is an amazing musician that has done everything from playing in Sonic Youth to arranging music for film (School of Rock, Grizzly Man). My three favorite albums of his were all named after Nicolas Roeg films in order of their release (Bad Timing, Eureka, and Insignificance). After discovering this, I quickly watched as much Roeg as I could find. I’m glad O’Rourke did that because he helped at least one person discover Roeg’s genius.

From the very beginning, Bad Timing puts you in the middle of a complex tale of mutual obsession between Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), and uses a different cinematic language to tell its tale. Scenes are juxtaposed in an initially confusing manner. The fascinating thing is that the narrative is propelled by the cuts, not by the story. The first time you hear The Who’s “Who Are You” playing over scenes of Alex spying on Milena, it seems almost cheesy. The second time this happens (the song picks up where the previous cut left off 20 minutes prior) you have a completely different understanding of both characters, and hopefully a deeper appreciation for Roeg’s storytelling. There is even a conversation that uses continuous dialogue, but cuts between shots of the actual conversation and shots of the characters before they start talking, that adds an unsettling effect perfect for the scene.

Plot barely shows itself until the second half of the film, yet Roeg’s use of various techniques creates a completely new way to keep you interested. The characters are much more important than the plot, and the theme of commitment keeps things going. The more we find out about everyone, the less we like them. Alex is everyone’s favorite manipulative academic, and Milena is everyone’s favorite drug-addled free spirit. They love each other on the surface, but it never goes beyond that, even as they both try to change themselves and each other. This leads the audience down a dark path that results in both characters taking their personalities to the extreme with near catastrophic results. Most of this is inter cut throughout the film, so we know mostly “what” happens, but it’s the “how” and “why” that’s so interesting.

I really admire Nicolas Roeg’s ability to show and not tell us what we need to know. When the couple goes to Morocco, they don’t say, “Morocco sure is great.” Instead Roeg shows us Morocco through shots of locals charming snakes and the atmosphere at street level. There is no narration and very little exposition as well. I like it when the director doesn’t treat the audience like idiots…it feels cool. Roeg has created an 120 minute puzzle that merits many viewings.

Also, the soundtrack is great. Tom Waits, Keith Jarrett, Harry Partch, Billy Holiday and The Who. This one’s well worth tracking down.

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Scott Burton

Scott Burton is a tireless composer and guitarist in Richmond. He writes reviews about obscure movies for RVANews, and he writes music about obscure movies for the avant jazz group Glows in the Dark.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. GARFUNKEL? I thought he was dead!

  2. Amazing movie. It kind of destroys your ind, but it is well worth the mind destruction, several times over. Also, there is a really creepy Francois Rabbath solo piece that appears throughout the film that reigns quite hard…and of course Arty G.

  3. Nice choice, Scott. This is a fantastic movie. The three leads are memorable — Garfunkel is so damn creepy! — and the ending is shattering. And if you want some more great Harvey Keitel from the 1970’s, check out Paul Shrader’s “Blue Collar” (co-starring Richard Pryor) and Ridley Scott’s “The Duelists.” This is a great idea for a series.

  4. I’m very glad that you have started this column. I will be putting this movie in my queue and bumping it up near the top. I don’t know how much Roeg I have seen, but I was extremely impressed with ‘Performance’. You did a great job describing his strange editing style. I felt a bit of the tension just by reading your column. I look forward to the future of your reviews.

    Plus, the show on Feb. 21 at the Camel.

  5. Thanks Don. I will definitely be checking out these films. I have not seen either yet.

    Thanks I. Bardoni. I will try to continue crafting tense write ups. Ones that rip you like Jujanti rips the snare bands.

  6. Jujanti!! I totally forgot about Jujanti.

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