I spent the morning writing a review of the 1970, psychedelic classic Performance. For me this is one of the few films from America’s mid-century cultural revolution that still lives up to its shocking reputation. Most people associate Performance with its cinematographer and co-director Nicolas Roeg. Even if you are a die-hard fan of outre, countercultural cinema you might not leap to attention at the mention of the name of Roeg’s partner Donald Cammell.
A painting prodigy as a young man, Cammell was making a living with his brushes by the age of 19. Having built the foundations of a lucrative portrait painting career, Cammell moved to Paris in search of a more inspired path in art. This shunning of commercial opportunity for artistic possibility marked Cammell’s pursuits in the years to come. It’s both the reason why he’s not more widely known and why he continues to be re-discovered by lovers of cinema on the fringes.
Returning to Swinging London in the 1960′s, Cammell decided that painting was dead and that he needed to turn his talents towards cinema. He lived a bohemian lifestyle and became the embodiment of the era’s libertine ideals. He befriended the Rolling Stones and teamed up with Nicolas Roeg to co-direct their sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll classic. Although Roeg is usually associated with the film, its troubled production saw Roeg disconnecting from the post-production process and the film’s final cut, with its revolutionary editing style really belongs to Cammell.
After Performance, Cammell maintained an uneasy relationship with the Hollywood studios. Holding his creative integerity in the highest regard, he made ends meet selling treatments and scripts while trying to develop projects and find funding independently. He wrote a script for William Burroughs that found the author playing a Supreme Court Justice who is kidnapped to North Africa. Cammell also starred as Osiris in his friend Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising.
In addition to his friendship with Anger, Cammell had deeper links to the occult — is father was a friend of Aleister Crowley’s and he even wrote a book about the Great Beast. Cammell told Anger that he’d sat on Crowley’s lap when he was a little boy. Anger promptly sat on Cammell’s lap in an effort to complete the circle!
While Cammell would never secure a star turn in the Hollywood system, his place among experimental filmmakers is beyond dispute. Find out more about Donald Cammell in this fascinating documentary. Here’s Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance…