Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance

I'm currently reading Rebecca and Sam Umland's excellent 2006 biography of Donald Cammell, and as a taster for things to come I caught a screening over the weekend of Chris Rodley and Kevin Macdonald's 1999 documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, the first important study of this criminally neglected film maker who took his own life in 1996 with a gunshot to the head. Cammell might have made just four films over the course of nearly four decades but he lived a rich and strange life. Before he made film making his life's work, Cammell was a portrait painter of some renown, he was a sexual adventurer among the glitterati of 60's Paris and London, extremely well read (Borges was a lifelong favorite) and was fascinated by esoterica and ritualism. Incredibly Cammell met Aleister Crowley when he was a young boy - Cammell's father wrote one of the first biographies of Crowley (The Man, the Mage, the Poet).

Donald Cammell interviewed in 1992

The core of the documentary is the incredible history of Cammell's signature film Performance admittedly much to the detriment of Cammell's other films - Demon Seed (1977) is passed over in one short clip, while the lost classic White of the Eye (1987) is discussed all too briefly. Cammell's final film Wild Side (1995) is barely mentioned perhaps due to the shoddy treatment the film received by the studio who financed it. That aside, the discussion on Performance is quite extraordinary. Almost everyone from the film is interviewed - Anita Pallenberg remembers acting the awkward love scenes with Mick Jagger and the aggravation it caused with her then boyfriend Keith Richards; James Fox recalls his sojourn among the faces of South London in research for the film ("Jimmy Fox was regarded as one of their own" confirms Johnny Shannon who played mob boss Harry Flowers in the film); Jagger himself reads out an impassioned letter he and Cammell wrote to Warners who were appalled by the film's violence, while Nicholas Roeg who forged a symbiotic co-directing partnership with Cammell for the film is visibly upset over his split with Cammell during the fallout from the film.

Johnny Shannon and James Fox

Elsewhere sharing their thoughts and memories of Cammell are his brother David (who was associate producer on Performance), Cammell's wife China (pronounced Cheena), Cathy Moriarty (who starred in White of the Eye), Barbara Steele who knew Cammell from the Swinging London days and Kenneth Anger who cast Cammell as Osiris, Lord of Death in his 1972 film Lucifer Rising. Cammell himself appears in the documentary interviewed in 1992 and is engaging, intelligent, charming and in good form. But in his private life Cammell was given to fits of black depression, frustrated no doubt by the amount of film projects he was force to abandon. Friends admit that Cammell was perhaps his own worst enemy, he simply couldn't work within a studio system of film making. One close friend speculates that Cammell's inability to get films off the ground ultimately freed him to commit suicide at his Los Angeles home in April 1996, with a bullet to the brain, eerily echoing a scene in Performance.

A quick glimpse of Donald Cammell under the covers with Jagger and Pallenberg, from an outtake from Performance

Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance remains unavailable in any official edition at the time of writing, but the complete film can be seen over at YouTube. All four of Donald Cammell's film are currently available on DVD. Performance and Demon Seed are on Warner DVD. Dutch label Mælström put out a barebones but English-friendly White of the Eye (DVD reviewed here). The director's cut of Wild Side is available courtesy of Tartan, and includes Cammell's 14min short film The Argument, which was originally shot in 1971 but remained unedited until the film was reconstructed and mixed by Frank Mazzola in 1999.


  1. Sad end. Few can say they lived a life like that.

  2. Sad indeed, but an extraordinary life. I’m trying to think of other film makers who came to a violent end – Pasolini of course, and there was Al Adamson who was murdered and buried underneath his recently renovated bathroom floor in 1995. Apparently he lay there undiscovered for over a month – a ghastly horror, to borrow from the title of one of his films…