The sun, burning a hole in the sky, recurs in the opening montages of Donald Cammell's shape-shifting films. As shorthand for an everyday portal to the infinite, they're fitting overtures for a director who staged explosions of identity and experience that thrillingly get out of hand. The rocker/gangster culture clash of Performance (with Mick Jagger's hermit harboring James Fox's fugitive enforcer) takes of-the-moment mind expansion into far more profound disorientation, while the outré computer horror of Demon Seed yields skin-crawlingly skeezy metaphysics and macabre apocalyptic comedy.
LACMA's weekend series “Sympathy for the Devil: The Magick Cinema of Donald Cammell,” revisits a brief, heady oeuvre that has been obscured by production legends and mysticism. The colorful Cammell mythology isn't baseless: His obsessions were the things — whether polymorphic perversity or intricate editing schemes — that send producers reaching for shears. But the double feature that opens LACMA's four-film blast — Performance, followed by the little-known 1987 Arizona thriller, White of the Eye — connects the dots on Cammell's overlooked strengths. Perhaps surprisingly, it's Cammell the enabler of actors and indulger of passions that makes Cammell the visionary viable and absorbing. Performance's loop de loops through consciousness via crosscut flashbacks and Notting Hill jet-set-drug-pad oblivion require the desperate assertion of identity by its posturing cast. James Fox, as the thug in hiding, Chas, converts his knack for upper-class priggishness into a pathologized East End brutality, while Jagger co-star Anita Pallenberg's insouciance and free-floating sexuality outclass the top-billed star. Collaborating with a cinematographer also making his directorial debut — Nicolas Roeg — Cammell handled rehearsals and blocking, and the compressed re-edit. His references to Borges and Freud (Sigmund and Lucien) underline the bohemian gender/mental drift, and the threat posed by Chas' sweaty gangster syndicate feeds the sense of sexual panic — for all its violence, their world is the norm for Chas.
Performance — Cammell's titles are like oeuvre keywords — is as important to White of the Eye (whose title is emphasized with extreme retinal close-ups). As Paul, a hunky hifi installer suspected of killings in a small town, David Keith grounds the giallo-worthy goings-on with a natural manner that's corny, easygoing and roused, at all the right moments. The script, co-written by Cammell with writer wife China Kong, boldfaces its binaries — Raging Bull prize Cathy Moriarty plays the stereo-man's New York expat wife, who “doesn't give a shit about small-town talk” — but in the manner of a good, keyed-up melodrama. Jealousy heightens the mortal fear, as a client comes on to Paul, and the wife's ex from New York turns up as a broken man repairing cars. The Southwestern setting lends the sensuality an awareness of space: Audio savant Paul susses out acoustics with unnerving keening, and the filmmaker adds vertiginous Steadicam glides to his repertoire. Bonus: a Pierrot le Fou finale and fetish-ready furs galore.
The love triangles and split identities in Cammell's final production, Wild Side, rival even Performance. That fracturing includes the film — it was cable-readied into 90-odd minutes by producers but screens at LACMA in the director's cut reconstructed by editor Frank Mazzola and Kong after Cammell's 1996 suicide. Preview the appeal of its sex and power games by your response to this summary of a climactic scene in a love-hotel room: A neurotic money launderer (Christopher Walken in robes) takes his macho bodyguard (Steven Bauer) roughly from behind to prove his love for a good-hearted banker (Anne Heche); the good-hearted banker is moonlighting as a hooker and sleeping with the launderer's Chinese ex-wife girlfriend (Joan Chen); and all occurs on the eve of the release of a computer virus. Again, a downright Cassavettean conviction (by Walken and Bauer, especially) carries the confined, handheld-captured mania improbably far, though the lack of a compelling Cammellian force majeure (besides stakes-raising gab) suggests late Abel Ferrara by way of off-Broadway.
The same openness to excess — comic, horrific, wondrous — that makes Wild Side borderline ridiculous pushes Demon Seed appealingly over the top. In what may or may not be a visceral response to Shampoo, Julie Christie plays an inventor's wife, who is imprisoned and raped by their house's broody central computer. “I don't have the facilities here to duplicate the human womb,” Proteus explains.
It's a jaw-dropping piece of sci-fi horror, and makes one wish Cammell had pursued his Nabokov-approved adaptation of Pale Fire — an identity-melding tale of obsession to do the filmmaker-magus proud.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: THE MAGICK CINEMA OF DONALD CAMMELL | LACMA Bing Theater | June 4-5 | lacma.org/film