When British-born director Donald Cammell put a gun to his head in 1996, it seemed like death was imitating art. By some quirk of fate or ballistics, the bullet lodged in his skull causing no pain, and for an hour the 62-year-old Cammell was able to talk lucidly with his wife, China, about his descent into the hereafter. Many including the moribund Cammell immediately saw parallels with the climax of Performance, which he co-directed with Nicolas Roeg in 1968. James Foxs London gangster shoots Mick Jaggers rock star Turner in the head, and in one of the most audacious shots in cinema history, the camera follows the bullets trajectory into Turners brain, out the back of his skull, through the roof and into the sky. Trust Cammell to encapsulate the quintessential 68 concept mind-fuck in a single image and then to try it on himself.
He liked to fuck with peoples heads. He was a manipulator, an arranger of scenarios be they his movies or the ménages à trois he favored a galvanizing, eruptive, faintly diabolical figure. He had vestigial fangs, and as former lover Barbara Steele recalled, You half expected him to have a little tail. His father wrote a biography of Aleister Crowley, and Cammell, who remembered being dandled on the Great Beasts knee as a child, later played Osiris, the Lord of Death, in Kenneth Angers Lucifer Rising. He had, one might say, a certain sympathy for the devil long before Jagger ever sang those words.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Cammell, who had recently forsaken a successful career as a society portrait painter, met the Rolling Stones in 1967 through the Chelsea Set, a group of wealthy neo-Decadent London bohemians whose social milieu, in the words of his younger brother David, included aristocrats, gangsters, politicians, creative people, destructive people. Thereafter, Cammell developed a script in which a gangland enforcer hides out with a reclusive rock star, each a performer in his own right, the one capable of overstepping the bounds of civility into a realm of violence and murder, yet still constrained by the social and sexual taboos the other is intent on destroying. Cammell saw this union of creative and destructive forces as the source of a new kind of liberating energy, and Performance ends allegorically, with the two mens personalities fusing into one.
If Performance is one of the greatest movies ever made in Britain, its because nobody from Warner Bros. was watching the set, a whirlwind of communal creativity and controlled chaos where the random was elevated and the predictable excised. For a movie about doppelgängers and merging identities, Performance is remarkably single-minded and well-organized. Almost every aspect of the movies production reflected the scripts schizophrenia: two directors (with one mind), two milieus (underworld, underground), two distinct halves (gangland, Turners mansion), two women in Turners bed and bathtub, two sides to each characters sexuality, and two stages of production history (shot 1968, released 1970), involving two different edits. If 1970 critics were unsympathetic (the vilest movie ever made John Simon), the years since have seen it elevated to the status of maverick, minatory classic.
Cammell made three more movies: Demon Seed in 1977, White of the Eye in 1987 and Wild Side in 1995. The second was made on his terms, but the others were re-edited by their backers (the Cinematheque will screen Cammells cut of Wild Side). This was a harsh blow, since his greatest legacy to cinema was the cutting style he developed with editor Frank Mazzola on Performance, one that made all tenses present and doubled the power of certain sequences through crosscutting. But its Performance that lingers in the mind a Modernist masterpiece that invokes Artaud and Genet, Borges, Bataille and Burroughs, Nabokovs Despair and Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray, and that includes gangster sequences which English directors are still imitating today, as well as the first protorock video and Jack Nitzsches soundtrack, a serious work of art in its own right. If after you see the film you still think Lawrence of Arabia or The Full Monty is the best British movie ever, then your heads incapable of being fucked, and thats your loss.
THE WILD OUTLAW EYE: A Tribute to the Late Director Donald Cammell | At the AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE at the Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood July 31 through August 1 | See Film & Video Events for schedule and information.