The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.
The death of Donald Cammell was as flamboyant and dramatic as anything he had ever filmed. Haunted by death and suicide for many years, he took his own life in 1996 at age sixty-two with a gunshot to the head. But he fired into the top of his head instead of the roof of his mouth with the result that he was alive and conscious for up to 45 minutes afterwards and, reportedly, was in a happy, almost euphoric state. The fact that he didn't die instantly was not accidental; in fact he allegedly requested that his wife and writing collaborator China Cammell hold up a mirror so he could watch himself die and asked her 'Do you see the picture of Borges?'
This was a reference to the climax of the only film that he is widely remembered for today, Performance (1968, released 1970), in which gangster Chas (James Fox) shoots reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). In a startling move, the camera plunges after the bullet into the hole in Turner's head only to end up confronting a photograph of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer much quoted in the dialogue and - like Burroughs and Genet - a literary influence on the film as a whole. Performance is a film about the merging of opposites, of male and female, of identities, of personae, of the apparently different worlds of gangsterism and extreme artistic decadence that are both revealed to function through the engine of the performative ritual of violence. Or, as the tagline had it: 'Vice. And Versa'.
In fact, what is so special about Performance may well be that it is the furthest truly underground filmmaking has ever penetrated into the mainstream. Not just in terms of techniques pioneered by the avant-garde only to be snapped up for commercial purposes (of which Performance has many) but in the ideas and sensibilities that came together to create it. The world that gave birth to Performance was soon to dissolve. Rolling Stone Brian Jones, upon whom the character of Turner was substantially based, died; James Fox withdrew from acting and his social milieu to devote himself to Christian evangelism for a decade; the danger inherent in Jagger's image would mellow after the tragic events at the notorious Altamont concert in 1969. Donald Cammell went to Hollywood to edit Performance, a two-year struggle with studio heads who didn't know what to do with such a strange and outrageous film. He was to stay in Hollywood for the rest of his life.
Donald Cammell was born in Edinburgh and brought up in a bohemian atmosphere, an environment he described as ”filled with magicians, metaphysicians, spiritualists and demons” including Aleister Crowley, the great inspiration behind Kenneth Anger's life and work. Cammell was a precociously gifted painter, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy at age 16. He subsequently studied in Florence and made his living as a society portrait painter. While still in his late teens, The Times hailed one of his portraits as ”society portrait of the year.” He had a short-lived early marriage that produced a son. After its disintegration he moved to New York to live with model Deborah Dixon and concentrate on painting nudes, which helped him to satisfy his notable sexual appetite - he had the reputation of being irresistible to women - but not his creative desires. He moved to Paris and began writing screenplays; first a thriller called The Touchables, then a collaboration with Harry Joe Brown Jnr called Duffy. This caper movie was directed by Robert Parrish in 1968 (and featured James Fox), an artistic failure that frustrated Cammell to the point that he decided to direct. Through his friendship with Anita Pallenberg he came into the orbit of the Stones and moved to London.
After Performance, he wrote a script called Ishtar that was to feature William Burroughs as a judge kidnapped while on holiday in Morocco. Like most of the scripts he worked on, it remained unproduced. His unwillingness to compromise his ideas alienated him from the Hollywood establishment that perceived him as an eccentric troublemaker. Several of Cammell's major frustrations involved Marlon Brando. In 1978 Brando invited Cammell to collaborate on a script called Fan Tan which Brando soon lost interest in; then he asked Cammell to adapt the script as a novel and again scuttled the project half way through by losing interest. In 1989 Brando employed Cammell to direct a script he had written called Jericho. After eighteen months of work, while on pre-production in Mexico, Brando again decided he didn't want to go through with the project.
The next project Cammell managed to get made was a short called The Argument (1971/99) that was shot on location in the Utah desert by Vilmos Zsigmond on the sly. Cammell had obtained the camera on the grounds that Zsigmond was shooting tests for another film. This visually stunning confrontation between a frustrated film director and a goddess (played by Myriam Gibril, Cammell's lover and Isis to his Osiris in Lucifer Rising) covers many of Cammell's favourite themes, but does so in an overly obvious way, verbalising rather than dramatising the situations with the effect that the comedic dialogue becomes nothing more than an irritating distraction from the images. This is not helped by the inevitable comparisons to the magnificent Lucifer Rising that arise due to the presence of Gibril as a goddess in a desert. Cammell never completed the film. It was rediscovered and put together by his editor, Frank Mazzola, in 1999.
Cammell's next feature was the underrated Demon Seed (1977). Although not a personal project, this intense science fiction thriller featured many of Cammell's obsessions. A super-computer takes over a scientist's house with his wife (Julie Christie, an impressive performance) inside and proceeds to terrorise and ultimately impregnate her. A claustrophobic two-hander between Christie and the computer, Demon Seed's picture of a domestic environment turning against its owner is genuinely unsettling. The mind games and closed environment are reminiscent of Performance,while the idea of the machine giving a child to the heroine and thus providing itself with a human incarnation is another example of Cammell's fascination with transformative sexuality.
Cammell had to wait until 1987 to complete another project, White of the Eye. This visually impressive study of a serial killer is intelligent and obviously Cammell's work, featuring a welcome return of his imaginative crosscutting techniques absent in Demon Seed. Unfortunately, it seems rather dated today, with its sympathetic portrait of an ordinary man driven to murder by metaphysical delusions appearing tired rather than challenging.
Cammell's second and final masterpiece had a tortured genesis. Wild Side was originally made for the exploitation company Nu Image in 1995. Allegedly their main incentive in hiring the director was his ability to attract stars such as Christopher Walkan, Anne Heche and Joan Chen. Although initially claiming to be committed to an art product that would upgrade their image, the company soon got cold feet. Reportedly the producer would visit the set to demand more nudity, becoming so irritating that, as the director's brother David dryly testifies, “at one point he [Donald] was going to go and shoot [producer] Eli Cohen, but I managed to persuade him that it was a negative thing to shoot your producer and then shoot yourself.” In the cutting room, the film was taken away from Cammell and recut, taking out the director's experimental editing and emphasising the sex scenes. Cammell disowned this version which editor Frank Mazzola described as a 'desecration'.
The Argument (1971/ 99)
Demon Seed (1977) also known as Proteus Generation
U2: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)[/SIZE]
White of the Eye (1987)
Wild Side (1995)
Donald Cammell: the Ultimate Performance (1998) Dir: Chris Rodley and Kevin Macdonald