A Life on the Wild Side
A biography about vice. And versa.
By Rebecca and Sam Umland. 304 pages, illustrated.
The life and death and cult iconography of Donald Cammell exists somewhere between the lines of avant-garde cinema and 1960’s pop nostalgia, with a cursory nod to Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. It’s an erratic tale of hedonism, bohemian idealism and the dark hole of suicide ripped from the pages of Hollywood Babylon
—and in more ways than one: Cammell made an appearance in Lucifer Rising
(1972), a film by Kenneth Anger, the chronicler of those tawdry yarns of lust and greed, dashed ambitions and gritty dead ends.
A new biography by Rebecca and Sam Umland, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side
is the first published work to trace this jumble of personal and creative pursuits—Cammell’s “questing personality” as art critic G.S. Whittet once put it—only to discover someone swaggering on paradox, shattered hopes, martyrdom and a myriad of dysfunction. Along the way, the authors correct some of the misinformation that’s been circulating ever since the sensitive and despondent man took his own life in 1996, at the age of sixty-two. There were bizarre rumors of interest only to the very few who knew or remembered who he was, gossip about him living nearly an hour after putting a bullet in his head, waiting for the spirit of Borges to accompany him to the next level.
A gifted portrait painter and book and magazine illustrator during the 1950’s, Cammell switched over to the cinema by the mid-60’s, hobnobbing with the Rolling Stones, taking a bit part in Eric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse
(1967), and writing the screenplays for Robert Parrish’s Duffy
(1968) and Robert Freeman’s The Touchables
(1968). During and after the making of Performance
(1970), Cammell’s directorial debut (sharing credit and responsibilities with Nicolas Roeg), he gained a reputation for being temperamental, demanding and “difficult,” his vision and temerity an apparent threat to the blank-eyed bigwigs bankrolling his dreams.
Cammell wrote the script of Performance
with input from Anita Pallenberg and other cast members, edited most of the film and directed the actors, while Roeg, experienced in all phases of cinematography and production, supervised the shooting and blocked the scenes. Cammell fully understood and appreciated the value of collaboration and shared ideals, and recognized the fallacy of the auteur theory: “Reverence for the director of a film as sole creator has been vastly exaggerated, through critical efforts,” he once said. “I’m thinking particularly of the Cahiers du Cinéma
‘author’ concept—I’ve been living in Paris, and have been quite aware of it for a long time. The kind of theory of creativity that’s arisen there (and in a related world in New York) is, succinctly, crap.”
Anita Pallenberg and Donald Cammell on the set of Performance
Nonetheless, the obscure personal and sexual references, androgyny, homosexuality, art and violence in Performance
broached what the Umlands regard as “Donald’s personal mythology of the dualistic, antagonistic, masculine and feminine forces, that reside in the unconscious.” They add that “The essential dilemma confronting characters in Donald’s films is how to exceed the limits of their banal, desacralized existence without causing a series of calamities or contradictions which ultimately alienate them from their society.” These themes would resurface in Demon Seed
(1977), White of the Eye
(1987), and Wild Side
(1995), the handful of pictures that he completed over an arduous twenty-seven year career.
With the exception of White of the Eye
, they were taken out of his hands and altered or damaged in the editing by worried producers and concerned distributors. As it’s conveyed through the book’s many interviews, Cammell never fostered confidence in his backers—one associate claims that “Donald was the kind of guy who would fuck the producer’s wife and then wonder why the film wasn’t made”—nor did he possess the business or legal acumen to cover his hide or protect his interests. In Hollywood, these can be grave shortcomings.
His career was not usual, nor were his films…and neither is A Life on the Wild Side
. Although the Umlands trace back to Cammell’s privileged Scottish ancestry (most of the family fortune went bust during the Great Depression) and piece together a fairly colorful depiction of his upbringing (his father, Charles Richard Cammell, was a published poet), the biography otherwise veers away from convention. It spends a great deal of time on the individual films he worked on, in passages that are often weighed down by longwinded plot descriptions—dependent upon bravura pictorial and psychological nuance, the pictures transcend the limitations of straightforward synopses—but these rough spots are saved by flavorful behind-the-scenes anecdotes related by some of his actors, the women he traveled with, his brother David, and Frank Mazzola, the editor who worked with Cammell from Performance
through Wild Side
An acquaintance with the films may be necessary before reading the biography, as well as an awareness of (if not an affinity with) the suicidal soul. The authors recognize the stream of talent and damage coexisting within, the paradox of creation and violence that became his trademark on the screen. “Donald accepted the Freudian assumption that the notion of the self must include the unconscious,” they write. “Following Nietzsche, he would name the dualistic, antagonistic forces within the human unconscious—where the masculine and feminine impulses are in constant tension.” Thus, the whole of Performance
can be interpreted as autobiographical, its four principal characters and their disparate sexuality representing the warring corners of Cammell’s psyche.
If the Umlands keep him at a distance, it’s likely due to his enigmatic aura. “He was an incredibly determined person, but he made people uncomfortable,” remembers one of his lovers. “He was totally uncompromising, but this worked against him. He…managed to antagonize people who could help him.” On the surface a charming and witty raconteur (as witnessed in the interview clips in the 1998 documentary, Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance
), poetry and death framed his hazy place in this world, enough to cause everyday living to appear trite and superficial. With his colorful journey from Scotland to London to Paris to New York and Los Angeles, we come away knowing very little of the loves, desires, passions, marriages, and a son that Cammell apparently disowned. But if an image of self-centeredness arises, it’s soon eclipsed by the pained conscience of a creative spirit stifled by his demons, lapsed privilege, and the drudgery of routine.
The book finishes with an earnest examination of Cammell’s personality traits and suicidal tendencies. The authors attempt to uncover a trauma that could have distressed his inner core, in a reach for closure to help explain the mind and soul gravitating toward implosion. “Nothing is real, everything is permitted,” quotes Mick Jagger in Performance
from Hassan-i-Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain. In the end and after death, Donald Cammell seems such a figment, a vague presence beyond finality or psychological jargon or reason. His story simply raises more questions than can ever be answered.
Copyright © 2006 by Ray Young