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 Fox’s London gangster shoots Mick Jagger’s rock star Turner in the head, and in one of the most audacious shots in cinema history, the camera follows the bullet’s trajectory into Turner’s 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 people’s 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 Beast’s knee as a child, later played Osiris, “the Lord of Death,” in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising. He had, one might say, a certain sympathy for the devil long before Jagger ever sang those words.
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 men’s personalities fusing into one.
If Performance is one of the greatest movies ever made in Britain, it’s 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 movie’s production reflected the script’s schizophrenia: two directors (with one mind), two milieus (underworld, underground), two distinct halves (gangland, Turner’s mansion), two women in Turner’s bed and bathtub, two sides to each character’s 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 Cammell’s 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 it’s Performance that lingers in the mind — a Modernist masterpiece that invokes Artaud and Genet, Borges, Bataille and Burroughs, Nabokov’s Despair and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and that includes gangster sequences which English directors are still imitating today, as well as the first proto–rock video and Jack Nitzsche’s 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 head’s incapable of being fucked, and that’s 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.