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Donald Cammell
The Final Cut

He ran with some of the hippest talents of the 1960s and killed himself four years ago. It's time we appreciated film-maker Donald Cammell

When the Edinburgh-born artist and film-maker Donald Cammell shot himself in the head in a little house in Hollywood on 24 April 1996, it reportedly took three-quarters of an hour for him to die. During those 45 minutes, Cammell is said to have been perfectly lucid and able to hold a conversation with his wife, China Kong.

Cammell apparently requested two things. Firstly, he asked Kong if she could see the picture of Borges: in Performance the film Cammell wrote and co-directed with Nicolas Roeg in 1968 everybody, from gay gangsters to reclusive faded rock stars, seems to be reading the same book by Jorge Luis Borges, and when Mick Jagger finally gets shot in the head, a little red tunnel opens up in his skull and the camera dives in, eventually coming across a photograph of the author sitting in there.

The other thing Cammell asked his wife was if she would bring him a mirror: in White of the Eye (1986), the penultimate film of Cammell's career and the last to be released with his name attached to it, the serial-killing stereo repairman at the centre of the film drowns a woman in a bath while he holds a mirror in front of her face so that she can see herself dying.

Rightly or wrongly, when an artist dies, attempts are made to fit the shapes of their lives into the contours of the texts they left behind - the desire to see Citizen Kane as the blueprint to Orson Welles's life is the classic example - but in Cammell's case it seems he was himself deliberately alluding to and replaying in life scenes he had created in his fictions. Or perhaps the converse is closer to the truth: that Cammell used his work as a testing area, staging rehearsals for possible future events.

In any case, it is clear that Cammell had an unusually deep connection with his work. As a result of his unwillingness to compromise his vision, Cammell was only able to complete four films in his lifetime: Performance, his collaboration with Roeg, a violent drugs, sex and magic gangster film which Warners deemed unreleasable and sat on for two years and has since been canonised as a classic; Demon Seed (1977), a rogue-computer-sci-fi flick Cammell inherited after two other directors had quit, in which a terrorised Julie Christie gives birth to a child covered in metal, White of the Eye, adapted by Cammell and his wife from a trashy paperback transmuting a standard stalk'n'slash affair into a multi-dimensional film that, in its final third, has a weirdness bordering on the galactic; and, finally, Wild Side.

A bizarre black bedroom farce masquerading as psychosexual thriller, written by Cammell and Kong, Wild Side was originally produced by the company Nu Image, and starred a pre-coming out Anne Heche as a banker and part-time hooker who begins an affair with Joan Chen, the wife of Heche's gangster client, Christopher Walken.

This was just the surface of the movie: all of the films which Cammell directed are heavily textured, densely layered creations.

In his movies, Cammell was concerned with exploring the spaces surrounding events and the spaces between people, with the interconnectedness of things, with synchronicity, and the notion that all of time - every moment, past, present and future - is occurring simultaneously. Performance remains the purest expression of this style (though, even here, it's difficult to separate Cammell from Roeg), and that film resembles a splintered kaleidoscope, as fragmentary flash-cuts, flashbacks and flash forwards proliferate and merge. Cammell developed the particular editing strategy intrinsic to his vision in close collusion with editor Frank Mazzola, whose vital work on Performance went uncredited, and with whom Cammell would collaborate again on both Demon Seed and Wild Side.

Nu Image, who were looking forward to the lesbian scenes between Heche and Chen, were appalled when they saw the elusive, elliptical black comedy Cammell and Mazzola were creating in the editing suite. The company took the film away from Cammell, dumped most of the interplay between characters and restructured it as an easy, linear narrative, the result being exactly the sort of soft-focus - girls in wigs and guys with guns - that might turn up late on Friday nights on Channel 5. This Nu Image Wild Side had a very short life as a straight-to-video- release, enjoying a brief revival on cable thanks to the feeding frenzy sparked off when Heche started going out with sitcom queen Ellen DeGeneres.

Cammell, meanwhile, removed his name form Nu Image's edit and, using his own money, completed his own rough-cut of the film on video, in anticipation of one day buying the rights and re-releasing Wild Side in its intended form. At the time of his death, he had been unable to make any such deal. End of story.

Except, true to form, the end of the story isn't the end of the story. For six months last year, Frank Mazzola holed up in an editing room in Los Angeles - the same editing room where he and Cammell first edited Performance three decades earlier - painstakingly piecing Wild Side back together from the mountain of footage Cammell shot, using that rough video edit as his guide, re-establishing the film Cammell had wanted to make.

The restoration of Wild Side has been overseen by Hamish McAlpine of Tartan Films who, along with Channel 4, funded the work. McAlpine was a long-term friend of Cammell's - indeed, the late director was godfather to McAlpine's son.

"Donald was, in my view, a manic depressive," McAlpine says. 'But he had always said that he was going to commit suicide one day, not because he was depressed or miserable, but because he wanted to choose his time, place and mode of exit: he wanted to plan it. He said he never wanted to end up dying lonely in a hotel room in New Mexico. He always said: 'At a point when it's right, I'll go.' I remember saying to him I thought suicide was the single most selfish action any individual could perform. Donald's response was that the single most selfish action an individual can perform is to force someone else to stay alive for their personal delectation."

From his childhood spent in the company of Aleister Crowley - the start of a lifetime's interest in the arcane - and his teenage years as a society portraitist of exceptional ability, through to his running with the international boho drop-out communities of the late 1960s and his involvement with the key players on the fringe of experimental film - notably Kenneth Anger - Cammell cut an extraordinary figure, but his true worth as a film-maker is perhaps still to be evaluated.

McAlpine considers the restored Wild Side as " a labour of love … homage to a dead friend". But the film also marks an important addition to the frustratingly limited oeuvre of an unquestionably important director, and could indeed be the closest to an out-and-out Cammell film there is: Performance was co-directed; Demon Seed and White of the Eye were both adaptations of existing properties. Though this Wild Side, of course, also exists at one remove from its creator.

It is a mark of the enduring appeal Cammell holds that musicians including Craig Armstrong (known for his arranging work with Massive Attack), Blur's Damon Albarn and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker all expressed interest in being involved in the creation of a new score for the film. As it is, the score has been provided by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

However, Wild Side might not be the end of the story either. When Cammell died, he and McAlpine were working together on a project called 33; a film about the heroin trade that Cammell had long considered the greatest of his many unfilmed scripts. The day before Cammell's suicide, the actor Bill Pullman had signed up for the project and the news was that two studios were competing to finance the film.

"So it was a real bizarre bolt from the blue when he killed himself the next morning," says McAlpine. "I mean, I'd always though Donald would kill himself when he thought that things were going down. What I hadn't thought of was his idea that he would kill himself because he was so happy, and he thought he would never be as happy again as he was that morning."

Already, McAlpine and Kong are working together to bring 33 to the screen. Originally they approached similarly auterist directors, including David Lynch and David Cronenberg, who all pointed out that, should they take on the script, it would become their creation, not Cammell's. Currently, the two producers are rethinking, considering looking for some other, chameleon-like director who would be able to, as McAlpine put it, "obey the script". In the meantime, though, Wild Side, in a rough-cut form, finally premiered in the town of Cammell's birth, three years after his death, at a special showing during last year's Edinburgh International Film Festival. Full Circle.

With the film now completely polished off and ready for commercial release, I ask McAlpine what Cammell might have made of the restored Wild Side. He considers for a moment, then: "It would probably be: 'Four years too fucking late'."

Source: The Scotsman 20/06/2000
Article written by Damien Love