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I Am a Bullet: The Films of Donald Cammell

I Am a Bullet: The Films of Donald Cammell

Credits

Feature by: Rumsey Taylor and Leo Goldsmith

Posted on: 09 February 2007

Related articles:

Reviews: Performance

Reviews: Demon Seed

Reviews: White of the Eye

Reviews: Wild Side

It is at once rather sad and wholly appropriate that Donald Cammell’s film career would be so famously bookended by a pair of brain-piercing bullets. The first, aligned with the camera’s eye, wends its course through Mick Jagger’s mind in his 1970 film, Performance, before shattering a framed picture of Jorge Luis Borges on the wall. The last, fired from Cammell’s own gun on April 24, 1996, eventually killed the director after some forty-five minutes of consciousness. During this time, Cammell observed his life dissipating in a mirror held by his wife, China, and in his last moments was heard asking, “Can you see the picture of Borges now?” Two bullets: sad, yet wholly appropriate. Sad, because this last bullet finally denied any more entries in an already sparse cinematic output; wholly appropriate, because, like these films, this bullet was deliberately, even hyperconsciously, delivered and absolutely symmetrical with the director’s film work.

Born in Scotland in 1939 and raised in a somewhat bohemian world of which the occult hedonist Aleister Crowley was a fixture, Cammell was trained as a painter (primarily, a portrait artist) before turning his hand to screenwriting in the mid-sixties. Dissatisfied with the onscreen realization of his script for the larkish mod film Duffy (“a bob-bon that’s not worth discussing,” in its screenwriter’s words), Cammell used his centrality in the milieu of late-sixties Swinging London to mobilize a unique document of the times, the daring, incendiary Performance (a co-directing debut with the more technically experienced, but similarly disposed Nicolas Roeg). The reaction to this film of extremities was itself fittingly extreme. And while Roeg was seemingly able to found an entire career upon the film’s countercultural and formal audacity and his own credibility as cinematographer to David Lean and Richard Lester, it took another seven years, much patience, and many aborted projects for Cammell to return to directing. This set the pace for the constantly frustrating, stop-start flow of Cammell’s projects that would plague him for the rest of his career, producing a total of four feature films over the span of as many decades.

With such a meager and widely dispersed set of films, one initially suspects that locating concordances that span Cammell’s intermittent output is the work of the ardent and single-minded auterist. But in fact, this task is remarkably easy, and this is as much an index of Cammell’s self-consciousness about his status as a filmmaker as it is a tribute to his unconscious pathologies. Because of his difficulties finding his professional footing, each of his films seems, at first glance, to riff (impersonally and opportunistically) off some minor contemporary cinematic trend: Performance, hippie-counterculture exploitation; Demon Seed, dystopian sci-fi; White of the Eye, a slasher flick; Wild Side, late-night cable soft-core. But it doesn’t require a much closer inspection to see the breathtaking idiosyncrasy and intricate coherence of these films. Characters in Cammell’s later films quote those in his earlier films (“I am a bullet,” Tony boasts to Alex in Wild Side before raping her, mirroring Chas’ own parting words to his victim Joey in Performance); the montage always emphasizes the relativity of time, the simultaneity of events rather than their chronology; and numerous visual motifs recur from film to film (mirrors and glass, gushing blood or red paint, lens flares and a haunting, subjective use of steadicam and crane-shots). Most common is the visual motif of the vortex, a circular void at the center of the frame that violently pulls the spectator into the center of the frame, like a gunshot wound, or an iris, or Paul’s vision of the vaginal black hole at the universe’s center in White of the Eye, sucking everything into itself.

It is this image of the vortex – best viewed in Performance’s brain-navigating camera and Julie Christie’s digital hallucinations in Demon Seed – that signals Cammell’s fascination with destruction (especially willful self-destruction) and the transcendence that results from this loss of self. For Cammell is ultimately, in the literary sense, a romantic: his films chart a course toward the sublime, and always involve a meeting of opposites that produce, through Hegelian dialectic, a transcendent and revelatory synthesis. The Demon Seeds of this fascination are sowed in Performance, in which the familiar binaries of female-male, heterosexual-homosexual, black-white, hippie-square, and especially Olde Englande-Swinging London clash and eventually blur as in some orgiastic struggle of the gods. Cammell’s tack at all times is to meet head-on the extremities of life, exemplified in sex and murder. In a Cammell film, when a character has sex with another, there is a point to be made about that character, something for them to discover; when they are killed, invariably in a brutal manner, it is always with a high aesthetic value and, more often than not, willingly and decidedly. Performance quite rightly lives up to its reputation as an orgy of sex and violence, but the film’s sex says as much about the blurring of gender (as expressed in the blurring of images) as do the film’s aggressive montage, canny dissolves, and loopy dialogues. And similarly, when Alex and Virginia tentatively begin their secret lesbian affair in Wild Side, it is a source of redemption, and a sharp contrast to the varieties of sexual exploitation they have suffered in the world of men.

For Cammell, art – be it a painting or film – is not necessarily or solely a thing of beauty, but an act of violence. It can be a journey or a lesson, and through it, we approach and surrender to the sublime wherein all things become clear. The murder scenes of White of the Eye are works of art, as is the mushroom cloud the killer leaves in his wake. The child of the demon seed is born out of violence and creates a violent schism in human evolution. And the final act of Chas and Turner’s performance involves a transferal of identity that seemingly destroys them both. Like these acts of violence, Cammell’s films seek to explode our consciousness, our hang-ups, our predilections, piercing and transcending our rigid binary thinking like a bullet through the brain.

Introduction by Leo Goldsmith


Performance 09 February
Demon Seed 09 October
White of the Eye 09 February
Wild Side 09 February

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