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February 9, 2007

Unfiltered Cammell

The endlessly fascinating freak-out Wild Side closes out the late filmmaker's NYC retrospective

Joan Chen and Anne Heche star in Donald Cammell's Wild Side, screening this weekend at the Walter Reade Theater (Photo: Kobal Collection)

The great thing about Donald Cammell's films, a compact canon winding down a long-overdue retrospective this weekend at Lincoln Center, isn't really that he pulls off the impossible. It often feels like the impossible -- the sensational yet sympathetic collision of decadence and personal conviction that mirrored the filmmaker's own abbreviated life. But in fact, it's probably more appropriate to credit him with credibly unmasking new psychoses beneath his generation's hoariest cinematic tropes: the psychedelic identity crisis of Performance (1970, co-directed by Nicolas Roeg, yet conceived and completed by Cammell); the organic techno-lust of Demon Seed (1977); and the exurban domestic horror of White of the Eye (1987). His early '70s short film The Argument refracted the death obsession of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising (in which Cammell played a strapping young Osiris) through an already jaded auteurist prism, foreshadowing his suicide almost a quarter-century later in 1996.

But the real discovery thrives in the nervy noir of Wild Side (1995), which screens Saturday and Sunday in a cut assembled from Cammell's notes after his death. Distilled to its moody essence, the Cammell legend is important to understanding his art; in many ways, though, there's not a whole lot worth saying here that isn't already noted in Chris Chang's posthumous Cammell appreciation (published more than a decade ago in Film Comment) or in Kevin Macdonald and Chris Rodley's 1998 documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance (also featured in the retrospective). As restored to the filmmaker's original vision, however, Wild Side functions like an entirely new phenomenon: dualistic yet triangular, and oddly sweet despite an unwavering obsession with power. If the split personalities of Performance (violence/bohemia), Demon Seed (computer/human) and White of the Eye (killer/family man) were reiterations of Cammell's most beloved theme (he himself was a born artist who could not abide the perversions of commerce), then Wild Side would be its apotheosis -- and not just by default of self-destruction. Cammell got away in the same fashionable, dramatic manner of anti-hero money launderer Bruno Buckingham, whose last words onscreen say it all: "Life is black and white; it's extremes. You ever see gray on a chessboard?"

You can't take too much of Cammell at face value, of course; the ambiguous final shot of Performance has fucked viewers up for nigh on four decades now, and even in White of the Eye, Paul White's wife Joanie initially seems to prefer him as a killer rather than a philanderer. Nevertheless, Wild Side throws all of that out, offering a war of wills (and wits, not all equivalent) between Christopher Walken's unhinged Bruno, call girl/banker Alex (Anne Heche in one of her several wickedly underrated mid-'90s roles) and Bruno's chauffer Tony (Steven Bauer), whose fealty to his boss reflects the pitch-black depths to which he's under cover as a cop.

The plot is almost too extraneous to indulge -- perhaps the most vulnerable femme fatale since Chinatown's Evelyn Mulwray, Alex conspires separately with Bruno and Tony on opposite ends of a $170-million banking scam -- but without it, there would be no Virginia (Joan Chen), Bruno's wife and an accomplice to what could be the score of their lives. And without Virginia, neither Bruno nor Alex could reconcile their respective identities: Bruno as a compulsive sociopath, Alex as a lovelorn careerist -- oh, and a lesbian. Chen and Heche's lengthy sex scenes were in fact the selling point for Wild Side's producers at NuImage, whose butchering of Cammell's edit emphasized its soft-core porn qualities and reputedly drove the frustrated filmmaker to kill himself.

Again, that's an easy assumption to make outside the context of Cammell's previous work -- on their faces, the scenes are inarguably exploitive (and, well, sure, pretty hot) -- but when viewed as extensions of his layered obsession with duality and the dense, triangulated structure of his most awe-inspiring existential detours (think Jagger/Fox/Pallenberg in Performance, or even the climactic Keith/Moriarty/Rosenberg showdown in White of the Eye), the permutations become almost too complex to parse. It's no joke when Bruno alludes to his dyed-black hairstyle aspiring to match his wife's; as portrayed by Walken and experienced by Heche and Bauer, Bruno is indeed so monochromatic that Cammell and co-writer China Kong (the director's own wife) almost had to conceive that Cammellian alter ego as a woman. As such, when Alex's call girl must play the game with Bruno so that her banker may achieve freedom with Virginia, the ensuing narrative chaos barely matters against the backdrop of shadows dancing too fast to identify.

The camerawork and editing develop a complementary rhythm, crafting another dynamic three-way with their subjects. Cammell's handheld lens always transferred a greater terror than it did intimacy; it's one of the reasons why something like Demon Seed, more expertly shot by Bill Butler, retains all the light of its grim premise yet none of the heat 30 years later. Wild Side features jump cuts so severe they're almost textural, with time, space, location and, of course, identity all folding over on each other in quick succession. Its introduction, intercutting a broken-down Alex with her prostitute alter ego Johanna, recalls the dazzling, disorienting first few minutes of Performance -- sex, turmoil, color, all of it -- while editor Frank Mazzola splices tracking glides into jarring close-ups that together evoke as much pity as tension. Filmed almost entirely in wide shots, Walken takes outrageous advantage of his room to move; yet viewers' acute awareness of the troubled blonde at the edge of those frames anchors them to the knowledge of which character is actually in control -- almost despite herself.

She symbolizes a cannny metaphor for Cammell's own career on the fringe: conspicuously invisible and famously obscure, yet anticipating the last word through whatever following would have him. Likewise, once destined for sour valedictory, Wild Side's revival is a justice to behold. It is endlessly fascinating filmgoing.



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