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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 (who authored a book on occultist Aleister Crowley). Donald Cammell was educated at Shrewsbury House School and Westminster School.
Brought up in a bohemian atmosphere, Donald Cammell was raised in an environment he described as ”filled with magicians, metaphysicians, spiritualists and demons” including Aleister Crowley, the great inspiration behind Kenneth Anger’s life and work. Cammell was a precociously gifted painter, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy at age 16. He subsequently studied in Florence and made his living as a society portrait painter. While still in his late teens, The Times hailed one of his portraits as ”society portrait of the year.” He had a short-lived early marriage that produced a son.
After its disintegration he moved to New York to live with model Deborah Dixon and concentrate on painting nudes, which helped him to satisfy his notable sexual appetite – he had the reputation of being irresistible to women – but not his creative desires. He moved to Paris and began writing screenplays; first a thriller called The Touchables, then a collaboration with Harry Joe Brown Jnr called Duffy. This caper movie was directed by Robert Parrish in 1968 (and featured James Fox), an artistic failure that frustrated Cammell to the point that he decided to direct. Through his friendship with Anita Pallenberg he came into the orbit of the Rolling Stones and moved to London.
After Performance, he wrote a script called Ishtar that was to feature William Burroughs as a judge kidnapped while on holiday in Morocco. Like most of the scripts he worked on, it remained unproduced. His unwillingness to compromise his ideas alienated him from the Hollywood establishment that perceived him as an eccentric troublemaker. Several of Cammell’s major frustrations involved Marlon Brando. In 1978, Brando invited Cammell to collaborate on a script called Fan Tan which Brando soon lost interest in; then he asked Cammell to adapt the script as a novel and again scuttled the project half way through by losing interest. In 1989 Brando employed Cammell to direct a script he had written called Jericho. After eighteen months of work, while on pre-production in Mexico, Brando again decided he didn’t want to go through with the project.
The next project Cammell managed to get made was a short called The Argument (1971/99) that was shot on location in the Utah desert by Vilmos Zsigmond on the sly. Cammell had obtained the camera on the grounds that Zsigmond was shooting tests for another film. This visually stunning confrontation between a frustrated film director and a goddess (played by Myriam Gibril, Cammell’s lover and Isis to his Osiris in Lucifer Rising) covers many of Cammell’s favourite themes, but does so in an overly obvious way, verbalising rather than dramatising the situations with the effect that the comedic dialogue becomes nothing more than an irritating distraction from the images. This is not helped by the inevitable comparisons to the magnificent Lucifer Rising that arise due to the presence of Gibril as a goddess in a desert. Cammell never completed the film. It was rediscovered and put together by his editor, Frank Mazzola, in 1999.
Cammell’s next feature was the underrated Demon Seed (1977). Although not a personal project, this intense science fiction thriller (based on a book by Dean R. Koontz featured many of Cammell’s obsessions. A super-computer takes over a scientist’s house with his wife (Julie Christie, an impressive performance) inside and proceeds to terrorise and ultimately impregnate her. A claustrophobic two-hander between Christie and the computer, Demon Seed‘s picture of a domestic environment turning against its owner is genuinely unsettling. The mind games and closed environment are reminiscent of Performance, while the idea of the machine giving a child to the heroine and thus providing itself with a human incarnation is another example of Cammell’s fascination with transformative sexuality.
Cammell had to wait until 1987 to complete another project, White of the Eye. This visually impressive study of a serial killer is intelligent and obviously Cammell’s work, featuring a welcome return of his imaginative crosscutting techniques '(absent from Demon Seed). Unfortunately, it seems rather dated today, with its sympathetic portrait of an ordinary man driven to murder by metaphysical delusions appearing tired rather than challenging.
Cammell’s second and final masterpiece had a tortured genesis. Wild Side was originally made for the exploitation company Nu Image in 1995. Allegedly their main incentive in hiring the director was his ability to attract stars such as Christopher Walken, Anne Heche and Joan Chen. Although initially claiming to be committed to an art product that would upgrade their image, the company soon got cold feet. Reportedly the producer would visit the set to demand more nudity, becoming so irritating that, as the director’s brother David dryly testifies, “at one point he [Donald] was going to go and shoot [producer] Eli Cohen, but I managed to persuade him that it was a negative thing to shoot your producer and then shoot yourself.” In the cutting room, the film was taken away from Cammell and recut, taking out the director’s experimental editing and emphasising the sex scenes. Cammell disowned this version which editor Frank Mazzola described as a ‘desecration’.
In 1999 Mazzola had the opportunity to re-edit Wild Side according to the late director’s wishes. The new cut showed Wild Side to be one of the funniest, most entertaining and, above all, most consistently surprising films of the ’90s. While Tarantino had made playing with audience expectations in the context of a crime film cool, his calculating smartness was very different from the far more startling shifts in tone that characterise Wild Side. It moves from glossy, hard-bitten thriller to spacey, poetic lesbian love story to jaw-droppingly eccentric hysteria that borders on slapstick with a spontaneity and an insolent assurance that is both unique and breathtaking. Games are again played with power and identity, dangerous games but not fatal ones this time; if there is one difference between the Cammell of 1968 and of 1995 that stands out above all others, it is the replacement of Artaudian cruelty with an affectionate generosity towards his characters. The film centres around prostitute/banker Anne Heche, who gets into a criminal deal with financier Walken and commences an affair with his wife, Joan Chen. Steven Bauer plays an undercover cop posing as Walken’s bodyguard. As the film progresses, our perception of most of the characters changes at least once, most drastically in the case of Walken who initially appears as a sinister, Wellesian figure of absolute power and control, especially when discussed by the lovers. However, when the film begins to devote more screen time to him, he reveals himself as a sympathetic, even pathetic character dependent on those around him, while somehow retaining his authority. Wild Side is very much an actors’ film and all are excellent, but Walken is outstanding, delivering what must be his bravest and best performance to date, a wired tour de force of whimpering, blustering confusion that is often hilarious to watch but also manages to display just the right amount of dignity. The seductively glossy visuals and edgy, often hand held camerawork create an engaging visual tension, especially in the memorably atmospheric love scenes between Heche and Chen.
Cammell committed suicide by shotgun. According to sensesofcinema.com, "The death of Donald Cammell was as flamboyant and dramatic as anything he had ever filmed. Haunted by death and suicide for many years, he took his own life in 1996 at age sixty-two with a gunshot to the head. But he fired into the top of his head instead of the roof of his mouth with the result that he was alive and conscious for up to 45 minutes afterwards and, reportedly, was in a happy, almost euphoric state. The fact that he didn’t die instantly was not accidental; in fact he allegedly requested that his wife and writing collaborator China Cammell hold up a mirror so he could watch himself die and asked her ‘Do you see the picture of Borges?’. This was a reference to the climax of the only film that he is widely remembered for today, Performance (1968, released 1970), in which gangster Chas (James Fox) shoots reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). In a startling move, the camera plunges after the bullet into the hole in Turner’s head only to end up confronting a photograph of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer much quoted in the dialogue and – like Burroughs and Genet – a literary influence on the film as a whole. Performance is a film about the merging of opposites, of male and female, of identities, of personae, of the apparently different worlds of gangsterism and extreme artistic decadence that are both revealed to function through the engine of the performative ritual of violence. Or, as the tagline had it: ‘Vice. And Versa’". 
- Performance, with Nicolas Roeg (1968; released 1970)
- Demon Seed (1977)
- White of the Eye (1987)
- The Argument (1971; released 1998)
- Wild Side (1995; director's cut released in 1999)
- Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance (1999)
- "Fan Tan". google.co.uk. Retrieved 15 October 2015.