The paradigmatic auteur maudit, Donald Cammell was always more legendary than praiseworthy. He had all the trappings of a myth: rugged beauty, high Scottish birth, innate artistic brilliance, orgies, drugs, models, rock stars, fierce uncompromisability, mental anguish, suicide, an acquaintance with Aleister Crowley, and a tortured handful of movies as innovative as they are, finally, high-flying monkeyshines. To hear tell of it, Cammell emerged from the '50s Chelsea set an all-pistons-firing genius, and yet his earthly remains suggest his idol Antonin Artaud's unfocused oeuvre too closely for comfort. True, Cammell never went mad, and his films' wacky unevenness is often due to production interference, but his decadent dissolution cries out for crazy-artist genuflection.
'Vice and Versa:
The Films of Donald Cammell'
At AMMI, August 14 and 15
In shooting himself in 1996, he's got a leg up in the cult market over fellow crash-and-burners Monte Hellman, Jim McBride, Dennis Hopper, and Alex Cox, but his tone remains too groovy, his material too haphazardly Dionysian, to gain a new audience today. Still, the necessarily brief AMMI retro, which includes a worshipful new BBC bio-doc Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performanceset to run on IFC concurrently, might win some converts. After all, in their very fractiousness, Cammell's movies are dazzlingly entertaining. His first and most notorious, Performance(1970, codirected with first-timer Nicolas Roeg), is a rubber-room time capsule of late '60s London; as the documentary painstakingly makes clear, Cammell was the moment's Richelieu, with even Mick Jagger as eager courtier. Extraordinary claims are still made for the film in England, but Performanceis a woefully dated and silly, if spirited, Age of Aquarius document, an Easy Riderof doppelgangers, threesomes, and nonstop jump cuts.
It made Cammell, but not his career. Demon Seed(1977), a woman-raped-by-a-computer thriller he took as a job, is, like The Stepford Wives, neglected '70s pulp that today seems stunningly eloquent. White of the Eye(1985) is a hyperactive serial-killer study that more than makes up in head-shaking hyperbole what it lacks in coherence. And Wild Side(1995), Cammell's abortive demi-noir pitting Christopher Walken, Joan Chen, and Anne Heche at each other in a lusty sex-and-crime act-out, was recut and dropped onto cable. Like many before him, Cammell was addicted to movies but unsuited to Hollywood. In another universe, he'd be a martyr.