(US - 1988)
Directed by Donald Cammell. Written by China and Donald Cammell. Cast: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Art Evans, Alan Rosenberg, Michael Greene, Alberta Watson, William G. Schilling, David Chow, Danielle Smith, Mimi Lieber, Pamela Seamon. (R, 111 mins)
Scottish-born Donald Cammell (1934-1996) made only four features over his career, beginning with the 1970 cult classic PERFORMANCE, co-directed with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. A wild, surreal mindfuck about a vicious London gangster (James Fox) on the run and going down the road to madness while hiding out with a retired, reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and two bisexual groupies (Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton), the X-rated PERFORMANCE was shot in 1968 and shelved for two years by Warner Bros., who hated the movie and had no idea what to do with it. They finally released it after some re-editing against Cammell's wishes, and supported it with a promotional campaign that centered almost completely on Jagger, even though Fox is the star and Jagger doesn't even appear until 45 minutes in. This would become a recurrent theme throughout the director's career, with tragic results: his final film, the 1995 thriller WILD SIDE, which features one of Christopher Walken's most insane performances, was taken away from him in post-production and recut by the producers, who emphasized the explicit lesbian sex scenes between Joan Chen and then-newcomer Anne Heche, whose last name was mispronounced "Heck" in the trailer. It went straight to video and into regular rotation on late-night cable after Cammell had his name taken off of it, with directing credit going to the non-existent "Franklin Brauner." The filmmaker was so despondent over his serious work being retooled into a tawdry Skinemax flick that he fell into a deep depression and made the ultimate protest for final cut, shooting himself in the head in his Hollywood home on April 24, 1996. His widow and frequent collaborator China Kong claimed that it took him nearly 45 minutes to die, and he requested a mirror in order to observe his own final moments of life.
|Donald Cammell (1934-1996)
|Donald Cammell's descents into madness:
James Fox as Chas in PERFORMANCE (above)
and David Keith as Paul White in WHITE OF THE EYE (below)
score composed by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn. Cammell also shows some love to Italian horror in the stunning opening sequence that has the (unknown at that point) killer following a woman into her house and killing her, the mix of blood, broken wine bottles, and thawed meat creating a disturbing and virtuoso display of all manner of splattering red that recalls Dario Argento firing on all cylinders.
murder, the punchline of which eerily foreshadows Cammell's own final request in his last moments of life. Its almost non-existent release and the fact that nobody saw it did nothing to further his career, and the next several years would find him mired in the expected stalled productions that would never be, including a collaboration with Brando called JERICHO, which would have found the actor cast (improbably at that point in his life) as a retired contract killer who emerges from hiding to wipe out a Colombian drug lord's operation. JERICHO made it as far as pre-production but fell apart in 1988 when the erratic and unpredictable Brando bailed. Looking for some studio gigs to make some quick cash, Cammell was in the running to direct ROBOCOP 2 (eventually directed by Irvin Kirshner) and the Rob Lowe thriller BAD INFLUENCE (ultimately made by Curtis Hanson), as well as 3000, a drama about a wealthy business executive who hires a street-tough prostitute for a week. The script for 3000 had been floating around Hollywood for several years before it was completely overhauled and turned into the beloved romantic comedy blockbuster PRETTY WOMAN. It would be another five years before the ill-fated WILD SIDE would get the greenlight from Cannon cover band NuImage, the Avi Lerner-owned outfit best known up to that time as a straight-to-video assembly line specializing in Frank Zagarino action vehicles. Cammell wrongly assumed that a small company like NuImage would leave him alone and let him make the film he wanted to make, but they weren't interested in art-house auteur pieces and recut it into the kind of sleazy, unrated erotic thriller that cluttered video store shelves at the time. Several years after his death, Cammell's director's cut of WILD SIDE would get a festival screening in the UK, but it thus far hasn't seen the light of day in the US outside of the bootleg and torrent circuit. A 2006 biography titled Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side, written by Umland and his wife Rebecca, wasn't widely read but the cineastes who did applauded its cementing of Cammell as a genuine auteur, and it's a tragedy that he only directed four films in 25 years. Cammell's name is synonymous with PERFORMANCE, but the Blu-ray release of WHITE OF THE EYE marks the perfect occasion to rediscover this haunting, forgotten masterpiece.