White of the Eye
It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance. And that the arrival of White of the Eye, after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.
It’s suggested that the re-editing process Performance underwent, overseen by Cammell and Frank Mazzola in an attempt to assuage the concerns of Warner execs who wanted to “get to Jagger”, was duly responsible for Roeg’s stylistic signature. Ironically so, as “He wanted his name removed, because he felt that too many liberties had been taken with the continuity”. Film Comment claims “it would be a few years later in Roeg’s career when he himself would return to the style and then be erroneously associated with its inception”. Erroneously? It seems to me that disagreement over the movie Performance became in Cammell’s edit has morphed into an underhand means to disinherit Roeg from an approach that came naturally. You don’t make movie after movie on the subject of time, memory and subjective experience if it’s no more than a gimmick filched off a one-time collaborator.
In terms of the co-credit on Performance, Cammell recounted of Roeg, “He said that he didn’t want to do any more pictures as a cameraman. He was now a director, and I had no qualms about saying, so what, let’s direct it together”. On set, Roeg would work the camera and Cammell with the actors. Cammell said “You have to realize, it was a collaborative effort, yet it was my screenplay, my concept” and “I will say this: Nick went on to several features on the strength of Performance… it does aggravate an already open wound”. Which is, let’s be honest, sour grapes about his own-worst-enemy approach to filmmaking (the documentary by Kevin Macdonald – a far better docs than features director, it must be said – observes that Cammell always had in mind that he would kill himself, and was concerned that “success might drive him in the opposite direction”, lest he not make the date he always knew he would “from the age of seven”).
Roeg has said “In life, we all learn from everyone. But if you like and admire someone tremendously, perhaps because they think the way you do, or like the way you think, then inevitably you do”; there can be little doubt both he and Cammell had a significant influence on each other. You only have to look at the same interview with Cammell, in which he acknowledges Roeg’s own stylistic cross-cutting approach; quizzed about Performance’s opening he says “It’s to emphasize the sense of transition, of change, of continual mobility. Some of it is subliminal and Nic loved to intercut”. There may be an acid undertone to “The editing technique… is nowadays referred to as ‘Nicolas Roeg‘”. But any push against Cammell on the filmmaking front needs to balancing against both directors being immense talents (on the other extreme, Bernard Rose suggested Roeg came on Performance as director because Cammell didn’t know what he was doing).
As Cammell admitted, Roeg was already directing his next film before Performance was released. He’d also been a successful and in-demand cinematographer for a decade prior. There’s no doubt Performance gave him a chance to shift seamlessly to directing, and that Cammell’s openness to sharing director credit enabled that, but the reason Performance gets associated with Roeg is for continuity of visual sense and simple continuity of filmmaking talent. Roeg was around and busy, and getting greater acclaim for his subsequent work than Performance initially garnered. Cammell, meanwhile, was being difficult, and when he wasn’t being difficult he made Demon Seed. Which was difficult.
It’s in this context that Brad Stevens, discussing White of the Eye in respect of the (over?) emphasis on Performance and its cues, in particular the reversal of Jagger and Fox, maligns Roeg for “somehow ending up with the career that should have been Cammell’s”. Elliott Kastner is quoted as saying “because Donald was such a generous sweet, twisted person, but insane, he gave Nic Roeg co-directing credit, which made Nic Roeg’s career. Donald Cammell didn’t work for years after that”. Yeah, that’s obviously right. All it took was that co-directing credit. So why didn’t it work the same way for Donald?
Why indeed did Donald spend the next quarter of a century drifting through semi-obscurity while his erstwhile co-director went on to (relatively) prolific status? The answer seems to be all there in the interviews with the man or his collaborators. He had a very particular sense of integrity. He didn’t get on with the Hollywood machine (Demon Seed). He lived in California, believing that was where he needed to be for work, but in a “witchy house” removed from the mainstream (Barbara Steele, for one, thought he made a mistake staying in Hollywood). For years, his reputation was that of living up on the hill indulging orgies and a life of decadence (most of his money came from options on the unproduced screenplays he’d write). He was regularly courted by Brando, but as was Brando’s custom (“Marlon is bad karma”) it never came to anything, not at the start of the ’70s and not at the end of the ’80s.
And maybe there’s that, as someone who thrived on a particular way of working, on a form of chaos magic, Cammell didn’t want to get in a fight with an edifice whose magic was more potent than his (be that Brando’s or the big studio’s). The Aleister Crowley connections to Cammell are oft cited (Kenneth Anger: “He had contact with Aleister Crowley when he was a boy, because Aleister Crowley was a friend of his father’s, Charles R Cammell”, before enviously noting how Donald had sat in Crowley’s lap as a boy).
Anita Pallenberg remarked on Cammell’s on-set rituals: “little magic things that he knew about”. Steele commented that he was “like a Pan” (those orgies again). James Fox, thoroughly fried by his Performance experience and having fled to the refuge of Christian faith, suggested Cammell and the like were “not in league with the devil”. Perhaps not, but they were certainly consorting with Dionysus and Pan. And certainly, in consort with those minor deities, eager to mess with others’ heads.
At any rate, I think we can squarely lay screwing up Edward Fox at his door, given how he liked to manipulate people generally (Cammell demurely suggested it was Jagger’s influence on Fox, but then, Cammell’s interviews do tend to present him as deceptively reasonable fellow). He refers to the “legendary atmosphere I was supposed to have created” and “orchestrated” and “psychological games” (“Mind-screwing” as Fox puts it). There’s reference to his being a dissociative personality, whereby “the uncensored Donald” would do the things that “Donald Cammell wouldn’t do”. Which sounds like an excuse, in psychological terms, for one who embraces the world of magic and ritual and altered states of awareness – and, if you like “possess-iveness” – and is consequently taken over (just as he took over others).
Fox was pushed to the brink by the sexual and psychological games of Performance; Barbara Steele noted that Cammell was “all about the blending of sexual identities” (in wife China, whom he met when she was at Hollywood high school – Sandy Lieberson, called Performance actress Breton “A strange little creature, totally androgynous-looking – the way Donald liked them” – he saw the possibility of “merging his personality”). Cammell “had a strange social and sexual scene” and his previous girlfriend Deborah “befriended girls in unusual ways”. Cammell’s interest in this related both to physical bisexuality, an “innate distrust of the masculinity”, and the male-female aspects of the self, and it would surely be a mistake to divorce this fascination from his magical predilections. Dualities are key to Performance, White of the Eye and Wild Side. One might even extend that to his “love story between a computer and a woman”, as he original envisaged Demon Seed. A transhumanist premise if ever there was one.
In White of the Eye, Patrick Swayze/Kurt Russell-on-a-budget David Keith is hi-fi system installation guy Paul White, increasingly under suspicion from Art Evans’ beret-wearing Detective Mendoza and his own wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) of being a serial killer preying on woman in Globe – an interesting choice of name – Arizona. With regard to the movie’s genre status, as Stevens notes, “Cammell doesn’t make it blatantly obvious that Paul is the killer, but he doesn’t make it much of a mystery either”; it’s never really sticking that Mike DeSantos (Alan Rosenberg), Joan’s ex as depicted in flashbacks and now experiencing mental-health issues, is a potential alternate, despite an obsession with weaponry and tyres matching those of the suspected killer.
Cammell is intent on drawing parallels between Paul and Mike, complete with foregrounded sexual taboos (in the flashback where they are deer hunting, Paul kisses Mike on the lips then spits; in the present, he taunts him over his sexuality). Accordingly, White of the Eye shares some DNA with Performance. Others (Richard Combs) have suggested an autobiographical comment on the diverging careers of Cammell and Roeg, since Mike’s star descends as Paul’s rises after they initially cross paths (albeit “The killer has a painter’s eye, which I suppose is mine”).
I’m not sure how effective that element is, however. Keith’s performance is quite riveting (Cammell was evidently pleased to have worked his transformative spell on the actor). He convincingly and disconcertingly traverses the territory – the dissociative territory of “I didn’t ask to be the one. It’s like somebody else is doing it, and I’m watching”* – from loving husband and father to crazed killer. A crazed killer intent on blowing up his family and given to musing on the essential differences between the male and female; comparing the female to a black hole, he advises “You see, the female of the species is the main reason that evolution is turned inside out”.
Meanwhile, Rosenberg is comedically clutzy, completely out of his depth as the cool New Yorker trying to impress Paul and Rambo-by-way-of-Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste – released the same year – as a gun-toting, quarry-dwelling nut at the end (“You sure do pick ’em” agrees Mike of Joan’s choice in men). Rosenberg is very entertaining – the movie is often very funny, despite its lurid subject matter – but it does feel like he’s in a different picture to Keith, even when they’re in the same scene together.
Equally, Cammell was interrogating the most personal of relationships here. He “did not like the book” (1983’s Mrs White by Laurence and Andrew Klavan) but was intrigued by the possibilities: “I suppose I’m really asking if we really know the people we love. Do we really understand their motives? And how a serial killer might also love his wife (how those two things can exist in one person – I’m unsure they can, but nevertheless)”. I don’t think Moriarty, returning to acting after a half-decade absence instigated by a car accident, is entirely consistent in her performance, but she’s in an entirely inconsistent film, so Joan seems largely in keeping.
Mostly, Cammell has created a strikingly off-kilter landscape of “waste and boredom”, even if the broader tapestry doesn’t quite hang together. I’d argue Michael Mann’s Manhunter is a more successful stylistic endeavour that delves into many of the same themes, but both display a surprising amount of restraint, given the extremes of that decade’s slasher trend. Paul operates some kind of zen ambient tuning, while Mike talks up a microscopic Native-American ancestry. There are close-ups of pupils and much use of mirrors.
The elements lending themselves to overt psychologising are the less successful ones, since they tend to carry with them an air of heavy-handedness; these are often, perhaps surprisingly, those tending to the uncanny (the rituals). The score from Rick Fenn and Nick Mason wanders from Pink Floyd-esque ambience to crass ’80s guitar noise. And the proceedings culminate in an almighty explosion (Antonioni-esque, indeed) following a Mike ex machina that’s symptomatic of a screenplay none too fussed finessing the plot in those parts Cammell cares about least.
Cinematographer Larry McConkey provided an illuminating interview for the Blu-ray release, reflecting on his director’s peccadilloes. McConkey is predominately a Steadicam operator, with only three feature credits as DP. He called Cammell engaging, artistic, sensitive, and gentle too, but when it came to going to work, he also proved manipulative, subversive, and sneaky, displaying a passive-aggressive mindset and yen for conflict – the controlled chaos he was so fond of – that saw him hire two DPS. He left them to thrash out who would do what (the other being Alan Jones, later of Michael Winner classic Bullseye! who took the lighting cameraman credit).
McConkey, who comes across as supremely level-headed, considered that “Donald had definite issues dealing with the real world as he saw it”, such that “We almost had to make that movie in spite of him”. He liked creating conflict, surrounding himself with chaos, but on a low budget, where the difficultly was just getting through the day with all the shots required, Cammell kept coming up with things what wouldn’t allow this to happen: “he was always looking to tear apart the process”. Sounds like the kind of guy who would get on famously with Lars von Trier. McConkey also makes it sound as if the lack of more explicit content was down to the aversion of the crew – “because we were uncomfortable with it” – rather than Cammell per se. As he tells it, the fact that the picture is a bit ragged and “gnarly at times” is less design than having to figure how to make it across the finishing line with limited time and resources.
Cammell said he was “very proud” of White of the Eye, so I guess that’s testament to an uninterrupted vision. Its curiosity value is that, as Stevens suggests, it is “neither exactly art no precisely exploitation”. There are points where you could “happily” assume you’re watching the low-grade Cannon responsible for Death Wish III, just as there are others where it’s recognisably the studio funding Goddard. Do I think Roeg would have made something like this? No, any more than he would have been interested in Cammell’s Jericho, set to star Brando as an ex-CIA assassin on a killing mission. Nor could I see Cammell making The Witches. But I guess, if your mission statement is to screw people up, the movies you make are going to be screwed up too, to a greater or lesser extent. Chaos magic or Chaos tragic?
*Addendum 16/08/22: Very MKUltra. See Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill for further details.