The blog of author Dennis Cooper

David Ehrenstein presents … Donald Cammell Day *

* (restored)


To begin at the beginning …

“Cammell was born in the Camera Obscura (then known as Outlook Tower) on Castlehill, near the castle in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of the poet and writer Charles Richard Cammell. The older Cammell wrote a biography of Aleister Crowley focusing principally on the occultist’s poetry. Crowley, who lived near the Cammells for a time, knew the young Donald.”

(Aleister Crowley)

You can’t imagine how much this impressed Kenneth Anger. But we’ll get to him in a minute.

“A prodigy, he was a society portrait painter and thanks to family connections, a prominent fixture of the “swinging London” social scene of the 1960s, specifically of what became known as the ‘Chelsea Set.’”

(Cammell the portrait painter)

Indeed. But it was clear that being the next Graham Sutherland was not his thing

(Cammell as he looked most of the time)

Women were his thing. Consider his wife Maria Andipa.

(Maria Andipa and her son by Cammell — Amadis)

The little boy is their son, Amadis

Here’s what Amadis Cammell is up to today

Then he met Deborah Dixon

(Deborah Dixon)

A “Supermodel” avant la lettre, very much in demand —

(Deborah Dixon and Fellini)

She and Cammell became a famous couple.

But after her came Myriam Gybril (See The Argument below)

— making for an infamous couple. Finally there was China Kong

(China Kong)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“He wrote and co-directed Performance with Nicolas Roeg in 1968, though he didn’t get another film produced until Demon Seed in 1977.

Cammell also made the eccentric horror thriller White Of The Eye in 1987. Between infrequent film and TV directing jobs, Cammell directed music videos for the likes of U2.

When Cammell’s 1995 film Wild Side was cut by the producer, he committed suicide in Hollywood, California by shooting himself. His wife claimed the wound was not immediately fatal and that he asked for a mirror so that he could watch himself die; the claim would later be disputed in Cammell’s published biography. A posthumous “director’s cut,” commissioned by FilmFour and edited by his widow and co-screenwriter China Kong and editor Frank Mazzola, was released in 2000 to critical acclaim.”

That’s the short version. A longer and more detailed one is provided by the documentary

Donald Cammell The Ultimate Performance

No question that Performance is of tantamount importance — his glory and his ruin. More than Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, this debut feature has become Cammell’s legacy. And why not.

Consider its head games

Bathtub antics

Magic Mushrooms

And that’s far from all

IOW it was a far cry from the tame stuff others had made of Cammell scripts like

The Touchables

You can imagine how much edgier this would have been had Cammell directed


This too could have been something more than “innocent” fun.

And most important of all there was Duffy

— which was if nothing else the film that introduced him to James Fox.

But while Hollywood ruined things for him post-Performance he sensed that’s where the action was, and so he moved to L.A. Marlon Brando, as usual, kept him hanging with the promise of all sorts of projects. Longing to get re-started he made Demon Seed. The script was not his own, but the subject — a woman raped by a computer — was right up his alley. Plus it was a chance to work with the great Julie Christie. Alas the project was taken away from him in the editing. But the results (as this trailer shows) still sport his touch

Keeping busy, he starred — along with Marianne Faithfull and Myrian Gybril in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising

Typecasting, needless to say.

Finally he got a chance to do something more to his liking. A thriller about a serial killer in a “bedroom community” in the Southwest. It was terrific, with a great performance by Cathy Moriarty. But making a good film is one thing. Marketing it is another. And White of the Eye never “found its audience.”

White of the Eye — Murder scene

White of the Eye (scenes)

It was through White of the Eye I met Cammell my one and only time. There were press screenings being held in a tiny screening room in the Hollywood area — and there was Cammell handing out the production notes.

Film directors never do this. But there he was, his own press rep. He was surprised that I knew who he was, and delighted too. A very nice man . With a long string of very bad luck.

He managed to make a very personal shot along Angerian lines, The Argument

But that was an avant-garde affair. He wanted the “Mainstream” and he got what looked like a good crack at it with Wild Side. A thriller about banking and sex it starred Christopher Walken, a pre-Ellen Anne Heche, Steven Bauer and Joan Chen. Lots of good pervy fun. Too much fun for the producers — so they took it away from him.

For Cammell it was the last straw and so he killed himself. Ever-faithful Frank Mazzola got a chance to do a cut of the film along its creatoer’s lines and its available as a Region 2 DVD.

Cammell reverberations persist. A novel version of Fan-Tan, a script he co-wrote with Barando, came out a few years ago.

(Cover of Fan-Tan)

And plans are afoot to film a Cammell script Bones of the Earth

What was it that the Old Man of the Mountain said? “Nothing is True. Everything is permitted.”

Sing us out Mick




p.s. I’m away from the p.s. section of the blog until the 11th. Today please enjoy the rebirth of David Ehrenstein’s excellent post about the singular Donald Cammell.


  1. David Ehrenstein

    Merci Dennis!

  2. David Ehrenstein

    Latest FaBlog: A Blast From Our Future/Past

  3. Count Reeshard

    As a sidebar to today’s welcomed resurrection:

  4. Kyler

    This is very cool, David. Thanks – my “evening activity” will be watching Lucifer Rising…looking forward to seeing it again. (I got Grandma with Lily Tomlin from the library today, but I think I’ll like Lucifer better, haha).

    • Kyler

      Actually, Grandma was a nice surprise; Lucifer Rising was better when I saw it years ago on Halloween.

  5. David Ehrenstein

    James Baldwin’s loneliness

  6. Liam Garriock

    A fine post about a singular and underrated genius. The 2006 biography of Cammell, A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE, is very good and informative, too. PERFORMANCE is his masterpiece, especially as it seems like a collage of esoterica and the things that I love: Max Ernst, Magritte, Borges, and the lurking influence of Artaud, Burroughs, and Genet. It also, in retrospect, reminds me of an early Angela Carter novel.

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