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Donald Cammell
Cruellest Cut of all for a Director

The resurrection of Donald Cammell's final film sheds light on his death.

Sometimes an audience is as interesting and revealing as the event itself. A recent screening of the final movie by Donald Cammell, the maverick Scottish director, is a case in point. At the Curzon cinema in Soho, 250 adherents are sardined together to witness Wild Side in its intended state. Its unintended state was rendered by the unsympathetic American studio which commissioned the film, then refused to release Cammell's final cut. That betrayal is one of the factors that drove the director to take his own life in 1996, at the age of 62.

For Cammell's small but discriminating fan base, the resurrection of Wild Side is a meaningful moment. They have arrived at the last picture show in a rainbow variety that reflects the stations of the director's madly varied life: cravatted 1950s Chelsea set veterans; hirsute acid casualties; and East End toughies forever in a thrall to the sharp-suited aesthetic of Cammell's greatest achievement, the psychedelic gangster classic, Performance - the only film in which Mick Jagger ever made a decent fist of being an actor.

Even Anita Pallenberg, former lover to three of the Rolling Stones, star of Performance and now a recluse of Hughesian dimensions, is to be spotted in the crowd.

On the stage is the small confederacy that has pledged to keep Cammell's memory alive: David, his brother, himself a film producer; Frank Mazzola, Cammell's long serving film editor; and China Kong, Cammell's second wife, the women who accompanied the director through his final moments. After shooting himself in the head, Cammell continued to talk lucidly for almost an hour, then finally expired.

"I've traveled all over the world with this film because I owe it to Donald," says Mazzola, who edited the four important features Cammell produced between 1968 and 1996.

"I worked on the James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause in 1955, then waited 13 years until I had an experience anywhere near as interesting, and that was meeting Donald. But he was a victim of the lies and corruption that are everywhere in the movie business. The last time I spoke with him, a few days before his death, all he could talk about was getting Wild Side re-cut and shown to British audiences. So I owe it to him to see that through."

A radical and a sexual libertarian, he only once found the format equal to his uncompromising, heavily, eroticised imagination, and even that, Performance, was co-directed by the better-known Nicolas Roeg. His cult allure owes a huge amount to that film's continuing power, and much also to the kinetic nature of his life.

Zelig-like, he popped up through-out the 1950s and 1960s, always orbiting the right people, attached to the happening scenes but never quite bursting through to the foreground. The promise of the projects he never completed, including several in the 1970s with Marlon Brando, a close friend, only enhances the tantalising and elusive Cammell myth.

"Death is always a great career move," says David Cammell. "That's when people appreciate what they've lost. Before that, for some reason, he could never quite get himself into the critical eye. But now in we see what a great director he was. In Demon Seed, he coaxed out the greatest performance Julie Christie has ever given. Same with Mick Jagger (in Performance)." Donald Cammell was born in Edinburgh in 1934, son of Charles Richard Cammell, heir to the Cammell Laird shipbuilding fortune. The money allowed father, and later son, to live the life of aesthetes. In Edinburgh, they lived in Outlook Tower on the Royal Mile, later renamed the Camera Obscura and turned into a tourist attraction.

The association is a suggestive one: the camera was there during Cammell's tenure and it is tempting to see a connection between the boy peering down on wartime Edinburgh and the films he would later make.

Equally conveniently, Cammell's father later became the biographer of the diabolist Aleister Crowley, leading to rumours that he was Donald Cammell's godfather. Untrue, but of no harm to the Cammell mystique.

After a period in Fort Augustus, Cammell, moved south aged nine, already a precocious talent whose work had been shown at the Royal Drawing Society. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy then established himself as a portrait painter of London society.

Unhappy marriages and nomadic treks around Europe and America saw him through to the mid-1960s, when, deeply unhappy, he abandoned paint for the cinema. "There are so many regrets when it comes to Donald, particularly his suicide," says his brother, "but my greatest regret is that he abandoned his art. He was supremely talented."

He returned to London in 1968 with an idea that reflected the fascination with class that had been bred into him by his privileged upbringing and by his growing associations with East End criminals.

In Performance, a small time gangster on the run hides out in the house of a fading rock star, played by Mick Jagger. The aristocratic rocker and the hood played by James Fox, engage in bizarre mind games and role-playing that end in death, in a manner which bizarrely foreshadowed Cammell's own demise.

Performance last year came 48th in the British Film Institute's millennium list. "With Performance, there was this perfect synthesis of man and moment. But Cammell, sadly, never found that moment again," says Professor Colin McCabe, who published a book on Performance.

"All his films are incredibly interesting, crackling with intelligence. But Performance deals with his two obsessions, sex and class. After Performance, they were just about sex."

So weird and transgressive was Performance that Warner Brothers refused to release it for more than two years. Meantime, Cammell had moved to Los Angeles to commence the painfully frustrating business off getting his challenging scripts produced. I had no idea that Donald was developing this depressive, morbid streak," says David. "We spoke all the time and he always seemed upbeat. Now I know that he was hiding his pain. It was a dirty business and it was taking its toll."

The director left behind around 15 scripts, the legacy of his otherwise unoccupied days in Los Angeles, several of which his brother is developing for production.

Mazzola worked closely with Cammell on the films he could get made: Demon Seed in 1977, White of the Eye in 1987 and, finally, Wild Side. "I never thought he would do what he eventually did," says Mazzola. "He loved making films. But what Hollywood did to him, it was like watching someone being murdered slowly, you had to watch it through your fingers."

Source: The Sunday Times 09/07/2000
Article written by Allan Brown