Starring: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty
Director: Donald Cammell
If you’re willing to concede, as some are, that Performance (1970) is among the dozen or so most significant British films ever made, then anything its director, Donald Cammell, did afterwards was likely to pale in comparison. Even so, his subsequent career marks a terrifying falling off. Before his death in 1996, Cammell completed just three more feature films. Of those, one was a for-hire job, and one was removed from his hands and re-cut. That leaves just 1987’s White of the Eye to stand as his follow-up and swan song all rolled into one.
The film concerns one Paul White (David Keith), amiable family man, installer of high-end customized audio equipment and prime suspect in the violent deaths of a number of bored, rich housewives. Accepted unquestioningly by the locals as one of their own, you only have to scratch beneath the surface to discover that he harbours some very strange ideas (he seems, for instance, to believe that he’s in possession of a kind of dolphin-like sonar which helps him in his work). But this is a place where people are seemingly content to allow surfaces to speak for themselves.
You can see why the studios, expecting a cheap, nasty, sellable horror, must have been baffled by White of the Eye. Cammell casually jettisons most of what you would expect to find in a slasher movie – escalating violence, the ramping up of tension as you wonder who the killer is and how he will be stopped. Here, there’s hardly any of that. Despite the script languidly offering up a red herring in the form of Paul’s wife’s emotionally volatile ex-lover, there is little doubt that Paul’s the culprit, and with the police liking him for the murders, it seems only a matter of time before he’s caught. As for the slayings, apart from one chilling sequence, they’re represented with conceptual montages that look like modern art (most strikingly, a goldfish flapping about, gasping for breath, on a bloody rack of lamb).
Instead of the usual contrivances, Cammell serves up… well, nothing. Or more precisely, emptiness. The bleak emptiness of the Arizona desert, a lunar landscape of opencast copper mines; the emptiness of sleek, minimal interiors; the emptiness of small talk and small lives; and most of all, the emptiness at the heart of the central character. At one point, Paul starts ranting about black holes, and that’s what he is, a black hole – his pathology sucking in, among other things, Native American mysticism, the way of the samurai, theology and the outer reaches of science fiction.
So not a very scary movie then – not unless you find the human condition scary. But it is infused with a very ’80s sense of alienation and numbness. Cammell’s directorial style is chilly and remote, stalking his characters rather than engaging with him, and the visual aesthetic has the blurry blankness of a sedative haze. At first glance it might not seem to have much in common with the lush, seedy decadence and restless technical experimentations of Performance, but it shares several potent ingredients with the earlier film – a pervasive air of dread, a portrayal of the fragility of the human persona, an oppressively powerful sense of place.
The picture quality is rather speckly on HD – not Arrow’s fault, it’s apparently the look Cammell was going for. Fortunately, the extras are first class. As well as an audio commentary by Cammell’s biographer and various deleted scenes, there’s The Argument, a long-lost 11 minute short about a documentary maker trying to interview an uncooperative genius loci (played by Cammell’s then partner Myriam Gibril). Strikingly shot in the Utah desert, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (made around the same time, and in which Cammell and Gibril appeared in front of the camera). In Into the White, cinematographer Larry McConkey speaks extremely entertainingly of Cammell as agent provocateur, sabotaging his own movie (for instance, by hiring two directors of photography) and “always looking to tear apart the process”. It leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth though – in the nicest possible way, McConkey seems to be taking credit for the movie, much in the same way as some people claim that the real auteur behind Performance was his co-director Nicolas Roeg, and not Cammell himself.
Best of all is The Ultimate Performance, Kevin MacDonald’s wonderful feature-length documentary from 1998, with thoughtful contributions from James Fox, Mick Jagger and the cockney geezer who played Harry Flowers in Performance, and footage from 1992 of Cammell talking with an acuity and intelligence which belies his artist-as-anarchist image. Indispensable viewing for Cammell aficionados, it’s the cherry on top of what is a thorough and worthwhile release.