Today: February 25, 2024

White Of The Eye

Donald Cammell was born to be a painter. Educated at the Royal College of Art and a firm favourite amongst 1950s aristocrats looking to have their portraits painted, he met the 1960s by declaring painting a dead medium and immersing himself in the world of film. Cammell’s first and best-known film Performance (made in collaboration with the great Nicolas Roeg of Don’t Look Back fame) is equal measures self-indulgent nonsense and clear-eyed expose of how Britain’s wealthiest and most attractive people spent the 1960s losing themselves in a forest of sex, drugs and warmed-over occultism. Made with Hollywood money, Performance allowed Cammell to find work in Hollywood but did absolutely nothing to advance his career. By the time he had killed himself in 1996, Cammell had directed only four films of which White of the Eye is undoubtedly the most coherent and accessible.

Set in what appears to be the middle of the Arizona desert, Cammell’s film opens on a montage that feels like a dozen 1980s music videos crammed into a pot and reduced down to an inky sludge. Hints of ZZ Top collide with notes of Duran Duran as red wine splashes across tiles, blood arcs through the air and eyes are drawn to stocking-clad legs, pastel interiors and improbably geometric patterns. If, as Marianne Faithful once said, Performance took 1960s Chelsea and placed it under glass, White of the Eye takes the surface gloss of 1980s MTV and turns it into a living, breathing, bleeding world.

Though White of the Eye is remembered primarily for its visual style, much of the film’s brilliance lies in its genre-busting screenplay. Despite opening the film with a grizzly murder, Cammell immediately backs away from the crime-based elements of his plot and begins an intense character study of the sound technician who happens to be the police’s only suspect. Played with considerable energy by David Keith, Paul White is a lovable everyman who sits atop a pair of love triangles that tie him to his wife Joan (a magnificently steely Cathy Moriarty), a wealthy widow (Alberta Watson) and his wife’s former boyfriend Mike (a deceptively human Alan Rosenberg). Disconcertingly for anyone expecting a traditional thriller, Cammell devotes the first half of his film to exploring the bonds between the different characters and showing how sex, misery and psychosis can pull at the bonds between human souls until the tension becomes unbearable. Arranged in a decidedly non-linear fashion, the film is forever shuttling us between past and present, using subtle visual motifs to drag our sympathies between the different characters in an effort to make us understand why such terrible things can happen to such normal-seeming people.

White of the Eye is undoubtedly a gorgeous and incredibly intelligent film but it is also fundamentally flawed. The artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once noted that style is a simple way of saying complicated things and if this holds true then it becomes necessary to ask what it was that Cammell was attempting to say with all of his flash cuts, disorienting transitions and carefully composed tableaux. Whenever Cammell uses a steadycam to prowl around a victim’s house, it is obvious that he is harping back to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and attempting to place us inside the killer’s mind. However, while the intense stylisation of the opening murder and the trippy feel to the film’s conclusion might support the idea that Cammell is using exaggerated style to denote a heightened but deranged subjectivity, this does raise the question of what the rest of the film is supposed to represent and how it relates to those moments of more intense stylisation. Indeed, aside from the opening 10 minutes (which look like MTV) and the concluding 30 minutes (which look like something shot by Alejandro Jodorowsky), White of the Eye is shot in the classical style that we have come to associate with realism. The disconnect between the trippy moments and the more realistic moments speaks to a deeper disconnect between sane and deranged minds but rather than exploring that disconnect in the style of a psychological thriller such as Pal Sletaune’s Babycall, Cammell simply glosses over it resulting in a film that feels very much less than the sum of its exquisitely-made parts.

This Blu-Ray release contains a number of wonderful extras including one of Cammell’s short films, a feature-length documentary about his life, making-of featurettes, commentary tracks and a collector’s booklet with a variety of essays and historical material. Evidently drawn from a fairly good print, Arrow’s release copes with all the colours and lighting effects right down to the intentionally grainy flashback sequences. Given that White of the Eye is an obscure film made by an obscure director, we are lucky that this film was released at all and to see it released in such style is wondrous indeed. A flawed masterpiece.

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White Of The Eye