Our current Movie of the Month, Donald Cammell’s 1987 sunlit thriller White of the Eye, is a real weird one. Our first Movie of the Month produced by the Canon Group (improbable but true), it’s a violent clash between high & low art aesthetics. Whether it’s a result of the sun-blazed setting or the Golan-Globus production funds, there’s a daytime TV cheapness to the look of White of the Eye that cannot be overcome through Cammell’s . . . unusual choice of imagery. So, he mostly overcomes that cheapness in the editing. The images look like excerpts from a Walker, Texas Ranger episode, but they’re assembled into a dreamlike, Lynchian tone. The whole movie borders on looking & feeling mundane, and yet it’s electrifying in its off-kilter presentation.
It’d be easy to write off White of the Eye‘s uneasy, unwieldy tone as a result of incompetence if it weren’t for Cammell’s larger catalog of unwieldy genre oddities. White of the Eye plays like a knockoff giallo that gets lost in the American desert for a while, then emerges as a sun-dazed erotic thriller. The kicker is that it gets lost on purpose. Cammell’s tragically short career as a filmmaker is comprised entirely of loosely edited, borderline incoherent genre exercises that reach past the storytelling expectations of his audience’s bloodlust to prod the outer limits of the human psyche. He teetered between being a mad genius & a total hack, and the tension between those extremes made for constantly exciting work. To that end, here’s a rundown of the other three feature films directed by Donald Cammell, in case you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and are curious about the rest of his off-kilter catalog.
Cammell’s most vivid extremes of brilliance & incoherence are on full display in his genre-defying debut, Performance. A collaboration between fellow inscrutable artist Nicolas Roeg, Performance starts as a chaotically edited gangster picture before emerging from an intense mushroom trip as a macho echo of Bergman’s Persona. James Fox stars as a bigoted, close-minded gangster with a seething hatred for “females” & “foreigners”. When he defies the orders of his mobster employer, he finds himself in need of a proper hideout, so he disguises himself as a free-spirited bohemian rocker and takes refuge in a rented room owned by Mick Jagger, essentially playing himself. Through the power of marijuana, psilocybin, and polyamory, Jagger’s libertine landlord breaks down the rigid boundaries of his gangster tenant’s psyche, turning him into a genuine, genderless version of the free-spirit archetype he disguised himself as to escape his fate – all on a harem-style crash pad set that looks like it was decorated by Kenneth Anger.
That’s the most concise, straight-forward recap of Performance I can provide, since it’s a film that’s deliberately, defiantly loose in both its scene-to-scene details and its overall meaning. Because Roeg has touched on similar territory elsewhere—otherworldly rock star personae in The Man Who Fell to Earth) & extraordinarily intimate sex scenes in Don’t Look Now—it’s tempting to attribute a lot of the film’s high-art pretensions to his influence, but the dreamy surrealism of this debut collab echoes throughout the rest of Cammell’s work as well. As soon as the long establishing shots of rain-slicked London exteriors are intercut with flashes of a genderfucked threesome between Jagger & his groupies in the very first scene, it’s clear this is pure Cammell, for better and for worse. The only thing that’s really out of place here is the film’s setting, since the rest of his work feels magnetically drawn to the American West. If you’re looking for more of the untethered weirdness of White of the Eye without all the hyperviolent genre tropes grounding its story, Performance is all filler & no killer – often transcendently so.
Demon Seed (1977)
Although Performance & White of the Eye have their own vocal cults, Demon Seed is Cammell’s most popular, iconic work among the general moviegoing public. It belongs to a very special subcategory of classic horror: I saw it parodied on The Simpsons decades before I saw the movie itself. In some ways, it’s the most well behaved of Cammell’s films, telling a coherent story with an almost made-for-TV level decipherability. Except for maybe some lingering exterior shots of the American desert, and some deeply strange War of the Sexes philosophical tensions, you might not even be able to clock it as a Cammell film at all. Despite its tightened-up editing & storytelling style, though, Demon Seed is just as strange as Cammell’s most out-there works. It’s not every day you see a movie where Julie Christy plays a lonely housewife who’s imprisoned & impregnated by her husband’s automated-home A.I. technology – a rapist HAL9000 on the fritz.
I’ve been putting off watching this film for decades, since its premise is so sleazy (and that particular subject matter was rarely handled well in the grindhouse days of the 1970s), but thankfully it’s less focused on the physical act of impregnation than I feared and instead finds a kind of wretched transcendence through retro computer graphics & technophobic rambling. Adapting a novel from paperback titan Dean Koontz, Cammell prods at his usual War of the Sexes tensions here, pitting “male” logic-brain against “female” emotion-brain in a sinister, physical manifestation of a violent divorce. Its woman vs. machine gender battle spirals out from there to hit on a galaxy of button-pushing hot topics, though, ranging from technocratic fascism to the patriarchal surveillance state to blocked abortion access. It’s a movie about the misogyny & assault I was worried it was going to indulge, and it’s one that telegraphs the strange proto-MRA violence of Cammell’s next picture, White of the Eye, except with an iTunes visualizer mystique.
Wild Side (1995)
Because Performance & Demon Seed are his most out-there, genre-defiant works (and, frankly, his classiest), the closest companion piece to Cammell’s White of the Eye was his follow-up erotic thriller, Wild Side. Wild Side feels like watching Tommy Wiseau remake the Wachowski sisters’ Bound. It’s about how cops are rapists, lesbians are rad, and Christopher Walken is an absolute madman. Walken’s performance is completely unpredictable in its cadence & internal illogic, pushing the third-act villain turn from White of the Eye into a feature-length character study of an unhinged gangster freak. If it were a Nicolas Cage performance, Wild Side might be Cammell’s most celebrated cult classic; as is, it’s rotting in 360p on YouTube, which might be exactly what it deserves.
The quick-cut edits of mundane images that make White of the Eye such a disorienting head-trip continue in full force here, now accompanied with similarly scrambled Christopher Walken syntax in lines like “Women: with them, without them, who can live?” Anne Heche stars as Walken’s romantic foil – a banker by day, prostitute by night, who’s hellbent on stealing the heart of his hottest moll (Joan Chen, Josie from Twin Peaks). If Performance is the purest version of Cammell’s choppy, dreamlike editing style, Wild Side might be the purest form of his sleazy War of the Sexes gender conflicts, which teeter wildly from thoughtful critique of societal misogyny to horned-up participation in that very thing. As chaotic as White of the Eye can feel in other ways, it does find a neutralized balance between those extremes of Cammell’s debut & his final work before his suicide. Demon Seed might be the furthest outlier in that career trajectory, but let’s be real, every Donald Cammell movie is an outlier. He was a deeply strange dude, and it’s a tragedy he didn’t leave us with a deeper mind-fuck filmography to puzzle over.