This review contains spoilers
In many respects, Donald Cammell’s third film, the flashily dreamlike “White of the Eye”, seems stylistically to embody the very quintessence of what a voguish neo-noir thriller for the 1980s’ MTV generation was supposed to look like. The glossy aesthetics of a Michael Mann or a Ridley Scott film seem to be very strongly evoked by its gliding, eagle’s eye aerial views of the primal landscapes of Monument Valley, which open proceedings to the strains of the professional 80s rock musician’s favoured musical soundtrack accompaniment of the era – namely, heavily processed, Fairlight synth-centric but faux ‘traditional’ sounding instrumentation, with cues composed in this case by 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. Cammell juxtaposes his sweeping landscape vistas depicting natural geological formations, with equally mobile and vertiginous helicopter shots of the neon-edged mirrored skyscrapers that bestride the financial district of the city of Tucson, Arizona, and contrasts them with the rusting, smoke-belching remnants of its heavily industrialised outskirts; both of which, when seen from way above ground like this, have their powerful, towering indomitability shown up for the merely transient marks of an temporary civilisation that they are – the former gleaming like jewellery in the magic hour of a desert sunset, yet hopelessly dwarfed by a surrounding expanse of seemingly endless, silently encroaching wilderness, no doubt one day to be rendered obsolete in the deep time of ageless eons made concrete in vast and ancient rocky canyons, and the layers of strata so picturesquely laid bare in quarry seams opened up in the recent past, during the ruinous activities of now-abandoned nearby copper mines.
The film mostly takes place at the margins of these notionally triumphalist centres of urban activity, only recently set aside for the convenience of a contemporary American modernity, making a confusing hinterland where the barrier that divides the desert from the city becomes fragile and porous. The anonymous new build shopping malls and luxury modernist villas of the yuppie rich, monuments to soulless excess erected at the dusty edges of an arid featureless landscape, in fact provide the perfect setting for a seemingly straightforward serial killer thriller that very soon mutates into an existential exploration of the conflict between the many conceptual forms of opposition that might limit or define a sense of place or personal identity.
This theme had been an abiding concern with the film’s director ever since his debut directorial effort “Performance” deconstructed gender and class for the fashionable Chelsea set of late-sixties England, and is discernible throughout most of Cammell’s small body of completed work, perhaps going to the very root of the inner life of his tragically brief existence, which was ended by his own hand via a gunshot to the head in 1996 after a tumultuous career consisting of more uncompleted and failed projects than finished or successful ones. But this tension between opposites, and how they might be made to co-exist or come together as artistic modes of expression, are themes also pertinent to a consideration of the formal language of the movie itself – which is realised through photographic and compositional techniques that contrastingly invoke the austere visual grammar of, say, Antonioni’s “The Red Desert” on the one hand, while at the same time being thoroughly steeped in the moody soft focus gloss and comfortingly familiar diffuse lighting schemes which had come to characterise the modern music video. This cut glass modern noir aesthetic had seeped into American cinema in the 1980s just as contemporary adult rock had begun to replace conventional incidental music cues in Hollywood’s populist product, increasing film’s reliance on recently developed marketing tools suggested by TV’s emergent culture of 24 hour music programming.
Perhaps because of its uneasy yoking of the art movie aesthetic to the diffusely lighted visual characteristics of high-end popular Hollywood genre thrillers of the day, “White of the Eye” ends up grabbing the attention immediately thanks to an post-credits sequence that looks and sounds – either by chance or design -- for all the world exactly like something Dario Argento might easily have come up with at precisely this point in his career. The sequence makes dynamic use of the POV shot by utilising mobile Steadicam imagery (as Argento in fact did copiously that very year in “Opera”) set to thumping synth-powered music, creating an opening murder sequence that takes place in the expensively furnished but minimalist kitchen of an showpiece fashion spread home, to which the rich, stylishly dressed female occupant is seen returning from a shopping expedition in time to find her goldfish has already been made an Objet d’art in the marinade of a showily pre-prepared meat dish, and where a killer sporting welders’ gloves is waiting to add her to the menu. Operatically shot and tightly edited to produce all the kinetic attack of a slasher movie set-piece, Cammell and editor Terry Rawlins equate murder with art and gourmet cuisine as quasi futuristic, pristine state-of-the-art interiors and surfaces are doused in red, recalling similar shots from the climax of “Tenebrea” … although cleverly, unlike in the Argento film, the red stuff here turns out to be spilled wine and sauce intended for a meal rather than arterial blood spray from the stump of a severed arm -- an artistic flourish which allows the sequence to suggest great violence through the power of editing and allusion alone, without explicitly having to show anything violent apart from a shot of the victim’s head crashing through the glass frontage of an oven in arty slow motion, which is a piece of imagery that also happens to look very much like a similar set-up seen in the opening murder scene of Argento’s 1985 follow-up to “Tenebrea”, “Phenomena”!
Detective Charles Mendoza (Art Evans) sums up the central themes of the film while surveying the bloody aftermath of this carnage, first of all by noting how the destructiveness and chaos wrought by the perpetrator leaves in its wake its own ravaged forms of beauty which remind him of the work of Picasso. Objects found amid the butchery at the scene of the crime have been arranged ritualistically, in a manner indicative of Apache lore (apparently), and the fact that the killer took a shower in the victim’s bathroom immediately after his act of carnage also provides Mendoza with a further detail concerning the mystically inclined forms of thinking that lie behind the murder (one of a series, recently carried out in the area) and that later prove significant in terms of fixing the film’s high concept approach to the exploration of motive through synthesis of thematic opposites.
The film itself sets out to investigate the crime abstractly, using idiosyncratic philosophical meditations on the existential questions 'asked' by the carrying out of such acts. At the time such an approach was relatively unique to this film, although it has since become almost an ingredient that is expected by audiences raised on the plethora of post-Hannibal screen serial killers who think of themselves primarily as artists, expressing their creativity through the medium of gruesomely inventive acts of murder. A character such as detective Mendoza is a generic, utterly standard ingredient of pretty much any procedural cop thriller; and in this film he plays a familiar role: he’s basically here to turn over the crime scene for clues and interview suspects, and in doing so aid the screenwriting process by supplying possible plot points that help focus the narrative’s trajectory. He’s also a Columbo-like figure, who settles on his prime suspect as soon as he claps his eyes on him, and proceeds to hang on like a terrier despite the inconvenience of his quarry’s seemingly unassailable alibi.
But “White of the Eye” unfolds in a manner that is nothing like conventional in its approach to the treatment of this material.
Mendoza’s attentions settle on Paul White (David Keith) – an audiophile and self-employed Hi-Fi home installation expert whose job entails traveling all over Arizona testing and fitting expensive audio equipment in the lavish homes of his invariably rich clients. Not only does White’s job give him easy access to the houses of just the kind of women who have recently started being ritualistically slaughtered amid the stylish interior furnishings of modernist but relatively secluded edge-of-desert dwellings, but the fact that he turns up at the scene of the most recent crime the following morning to install stereo equipment for the murder victim’s next door neighbour, and then turns out to be driving a van whose tyres bear exactly the same tread mark (a rare kind possessed by only four other vehicles in the area) as that found in tracks outside the victim’s home discovered on the day of the killing, seems to suggest a connection; these facts plus the revelation that Paul’s adolescence had been marred by a history of violence and petty criminal convictions means Mendoza has reason enough to pay close attention to his activities, while playing the usual cat and mouse game designed to fool White into making a mistake out of a false sense of security.
The film plays its own unusual game with the viewer’s expectations, establishing Paul White as the only plausible perpetrator early on while also steadfastly refusing to show the face of the killer during the two murder sequences. This sends mixed messages, suggesting the idea that despite a paucity of other likely suspects, there might conceivably be some last minute surprise reveal in store at the end, in the vein of the traditional giallo, still being exercised to its highest standard at that point in much of Argento’s work. But Instead of delivering a standard procedural thriller that rehearses the usual beats required of the genre, the film veers off into other areas and Mendoza’s investigation becomes a side-line (he disappears entirely from the final act of the film), the story instead developing into an intense study of Paul White’s home life and his relationships with his wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and their young tomboy daughter Danielle (Danielle Smith).
Interspersed with depictions of the Whites’ apparently settled and loving domestic arrangement in the present are flashbacks to 1976 in which the circumstances of Joan and Paul’s first meeting and the beginnings of their relationship are examined minutely. During these scenes, we discover that Joan was previously the girlfriend of a man called Mike Desantos (Alan Rosenberg), and, ten years previously, had been travelling across the States with him in a campervan with Malibu Beach as the couple’s intended destination. However, the romanticism of this itinerant bohemian lifestyle is challenged by the realities of day-to-day living on the road in cramped quarters, where tempers inevitably flair. After stopping off at a garage for some necessary repairs (a fed up Joan has poured Pepsi into Mike’s state-of-the-art eight track cassette player in a fit of pique) Joan and Mike meet Paul, who is working as a handyman for an electrical store in a small Arizona town near the copper mine where Paul’s elderly grandfather (his only surviving relative) still works. Paul’s knowledge of electrical equipment enables him to repair the broken device, which encourages a grateful Mike in his faltering attempts to cultivate a paly, ‘boys’ club’ style friendship with the enigmatic stranger, after months spent on the road with only the increasingly dissatisfied Joan for company.
Many of these memories are brought to the mind’s eye after Joan runs into Mike again in the present day, and finds him much changed from the New York poseur in the Hawaiian shirt and bell bottoms she formerly knew in 1976. Now he’s a meek, bespectacled loser who pumps gas for a living at a remote truck stop – a long way from being the flashy urban city dweller who she set out with for Malibu Beach all those years ago. Now he appears to be mentally ill somehow, claiming to be in possession of seer-like abilities to read the future thanks to ‘the television screen in my head’.
The ensuing multi-sided exploration of the relationship between Joan, Mike and Paul and the gradual unearthing of what happened between the three of them ten years back to make Mike change so much and for Joan to swap her life of freedom on the road with him for a settled relationship with Paul in a small town, bringing up a child as part of a regular family unit, becomes the prism through which the film attempts to explain Paul’s murderous ‘hobby’, using the three cornered relationship to examine notions of masculinity and femininity that historically have been rooted in a uniquely American frontier perspective that’s inextricably bound up with ideas of there being an inherent opposition between civilisation and primitivism, the city and the wilderness, and the confinement of the domestic space versus the nomadic free-wandering spirituality of the male in his role as hunter.
A flashback to a deer hunting expedition, embarked upon by Mike as a naive bonding exercise that was intended to cement his and Paul’s friendship, instead becomes a traumatic experience that compels the city boy to take part in a perverse and horrific ‘blooding’ ritual in the mountains that has become practically a symbolic form of male rape by its conclusion, but which allows Paul to assert masculine dominance over Mike and to ‘claim’ his woman. Joan knows nothing of what happened between the two men when she chooses the ‘dependable’, home-making audio technician over irresponsible chancer Mike, and she is unaware of how the man she has decided to spend the next ten years of her life making a home with is in fact wearing a mask of normalcy in order to conceal a divided psyche that reconciles competing components of its conflicted nature with recourse to a misogynistic spiritual-scientific belief system, that at one point expresses resentment at the supposed ‘neutering’ power of the female domestic sphere by using for it the metaphor of a Black Hole which sucks in and destroys everything in its orbit.
The film resists any simple ‘profiling’ type explanation of Paul’s psychopathology; the contrast between his macho, independent ‘hunter’ persona and his folksy, working class, down-on-the-range average American dad disguise is suggested merely by his having somewhat disparate tastes in music, which divides up into a liking for both the traditional country music sounds of Hank Williams when in the home with his family, and for swaggering, sweeping arias taken from a Ruggiero Leoncavallo opera, listened to when driving to work in his van. In attempting to negotiate a space between the frontier nomad image of maleness and the ‘emasculated’ family man persona, Paul eventually succumbs to repeated attempts made by a predatory rich neighbour called Anne Mason (Alberta Watson) -- who is married to a powerful local dignitary -- to seduce him; his murders can thus be seen both as attempts by his hunter persona to reassert his masculine authority, and as his family man guise symbolically fighting back by ‘punishing’ the adulteress who threatens to come between him and the domestic harmony of his marriage to Joan by killing women who come from the same privileged economic bracket, or who even just look a little bit like Anne. Either way, masculinity is depicted by Cammell as intrinsically violent and antithetical to womanhood; and only by seeing through the illusion on which her life with Paul has been built can Joan truly save herself and her daughter.
The bathroom plays a vital symbolic role here as one of the main sites in which this contest comes to be played out: not only does Paul ritualistically cleanse himself after the first murder by showering in the victim’s house, but the second victim is actually murdered in her own bathroom and drowned (trussed up in a towel with electrical wiring) in her own bath. A space associated with the home and domesticity (and therefore, in the mind of the killer, with the emasculating power of femininity) in this way is reclaimed for the male ego instead – an idea foregrounded when Joan’s recently awakened suspicions about her husband, after she finds out about his adultery, are at last confirmed in the final act of the film when she also discovers that Paul has been removing organs from his victims as ‘hunting trophies’ which he’s then been secreting all around the family bathroom in compartments hidden behind the skirting, where their presence subverts the family living space with secret mementos of his other life . This idea harks all the way back to “Psycho” and its gleeful depiction of a toilet being flushed (at the time one of the first such images in American cinema) in the same bathroom that will at a later date play host to a woman’s murder and in which her blood will be seen spiralling down the plug hole. Indeed, when looking for ways to depict the misogynist male ego and the objectifying male gaze in their element, Cammell tends always to steal from the best, namely Hitchcock and Michael Powell, whose “Peeping Tom” is also explicitly alluded to when Paul shows his second victim her reflection in a hand mirror so that he can watch her view her own death at the precise moment she drowns.
Arresting, close up images of the human eye (in conjunction with the adoption of the camera’s POV) provide the recurrent visual motif that lends the film its title. It’s an image that was also used throughout both the Hitchcock film and in Powell’s, although it had already been seen before either one of them, in Robert Siodmak’s “The Spiral Staircase” from 1945. But as well as being presented in relation to the male perpetrator’s voyeuristic pursuit of his crimes, the image of the staring eye also functions as a window into Joan’s memories of the early days of her relationship with Paul, serving as a prelude to at least one flashback of their former life. Unfortunately, after Joan has the scales lifted from her eyes regarding the deception that has been at the heart of her ten years spent as a wife, and retreats to the house’s barricaded roof attic (where boxes of old clothes from her younger days –including the peacock feathered jacket we see in the flashback sequences – position this as a traditional Gothic space of thwarted female desire) the film’s narrative becomes somewhat more formulaic than before, relying on a traditional suspense-filled chase scene to close proceedings on what is otherwise an unusual, offbeat and still unique examination of the male psyche in extremis.
Indeed, it pretty much turns into a re-run of the final fifteen minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining” when, having by now been exposed as the serial murderer the police have been searching for, Paul White, with the lower half of his face smeared in red face paint mimicking Apache ceremonial markings and wearing a dynamite-laced vest and ammo belt, attempts to destroy his entire family in one final operatically spectacular act of self-annihilation. Just like in the Kubrick film, we are presented with the picture of a once seemingly loving family man suddenly transformed into a raving, unpredictable creature of extreme violence who attempts to hack his way into a room in which his terrified wife and child are hiding, intent on killing them both. Once again the chase ends up climaxing in a hunt through a labyrinthine structure (in this case the tunnels of an abandoned mine shaft) but, due to re-edits that resulted in the removal of some context-setting information from early on, it’s never made clear how Mike suddenly ends up in the same location as the husband and wife to enable the film to deliver its coup de grâce, which takes the form of a – literally – explosive finale, as the two men meet again for a face-off over Joan, who by now is pretty much over the both of them!
This bombastic show-stopper of an ending is otherwise at odds with the stylishly rich and heady, often weirdly dreamlike piece of work, dazzlingly underscored by its eclectic use of music, that “White of the Eye” otherwise presents itself as – which is a fluid almost stream-of-consciousness evocation of the borderlines between desire and hate, sanity and madness, love and misogyny, woven through a dissection of marriage carried out with brutal murder as its backdrop. Cammell and his wife China (who appears in a small role in the movie) took an unremarkable thriller novel by Andrew and Lawrence Klaven (jointly written under the pen name Margaret Tracy) and turned it into an astonishingly textured 'visual tour de force, unlocking a poetic sensibility in it that is unlike that of any other work committed to this genre.
Presented for this UK Arrow Video dual disc edition in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with 2.0 Stereo audio (LPCM on Blu-ray, Dolby Digital on DVD), the film has been fully restored in high definition from the original 35 mm negative by James White. Due to certain stylistic devices employed during some scenes, including the use of heavy diffusion and extreme lighting and lensing effects, there is sometimes an unavoidable fluctuation in focus and detail discernible between some scenes, which have been left to look as they originally appeared upon the film’s original release. The flashback sequences were also subjected to a special bleach bypass process in the lab which deliberately blows out highlights and increases contrast to a level that removes a lot of detail in the picture. This again was an aesthetic decision made on the part of the filmmakers at the time; but it does mean that certain sections of the film can sometimes look excessively soft, grainy or dark. Arrow’s restoration experts have stayed as true as possible to the original intent and delivered a transfer that is likely as good as is technically possible even though it occasionally looks more degraded than one would usually expect. It should be remembered that it almost certainly has always looked that way, though.
The inclusion of a comprehensive menu of extra features makes this a valuable release to have for anyone interested in the Donald Cammell artistic legacy. The audio commentary provided by critic and biographer Sam Umland provides as detailed a history of the film’s production, combined with an authoritative reading of it, as one could hope for -- although the presentation might come across as a little dry for some (you can often hear the sound of prepared notes rustling throughout the audio track). It’s worth sticking with though since Umland, who is a Professor of English at The University of Nebraska Kearney in his day job, has plenty of interesting ideas and interpretations to impart. Some of these relate to deleted material that fills in information on points that might otherwise get lost in the theatrical version as it stands. Those deleted scenes are also included on the disc, along with an optional commentary from Umland. You can also view the flashback scenes as they were originally shot, before the bleach bypass process was applied. These days any film can be graded with digital tools and most films are manipulated in the post production period. But back when Cammell made “White of the Eye”, this could only be done chemically and entailed a certain amount of risk to the negative, as one could never know for certain how the process would turn out in the lab until one viewed the finished results. A theatrical trailer and an alternative cut of the opening sequence are also included along with an 11 minute interview with cinematographer Larry McConkey who talks about the visual presentation of the film. Cammell seems to have truly believed that art is born out of conflict, which is perhaps why he employed two cinematographers to work on the film without telling either of them about the other, and giving them no clear demarcation of their duties. McConkey tells how he discovered Alan Jones had also been employed as director of photography, and how the movie’s unique visual stylisation was arrived at as a result of their working out their respective roles for themselves in a collaborative process that sounds rather like the one established by Cammell and his co-director on “Performance”, Nicolas Roeg.
Themes of spirituality and the battle between masculine and feminine conceptions of divinity form the basis of the surrealist short “The Argument” that Cammell shot in 1972, between “Performance” and “Demon Seed”, with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Money ran out and the film was never completed, and it was not even known to exist until 1996, when producer Frank Mazzola came across the boxes of film while clearing out his garage! After raising the necessary funds from various parties, including Warner Brothers, Mazzola set about completing the project, and even persuaded its two actors, Myriam Gibril and Kendrew Lascelles, to redub their parts. He also persuaded the composer originally slated to supply the music for it, Bruce Langhorne, to come up with the goods over twenty-five years later. Shot in the deserts of Utah, the film has an obvious affinity with “White of the Eye” in both themes and location, but was conceived more as an experimental test of new optical effects Cammell was considering for his next feature-length project, which itself never came to fruition. This fact alone probably explains its slightly maddening, kaleidoscopic impenetrability more convincingly than any interpretive attempt to decode it possibly could. Nevertheless, Sam Umland gives it a go in an optional commentary track also provided with the film.
The most essential extra included in this set is the 73 minute, 1998 biographical documentary by “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald, “Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance”, which covers Cammell’s upbringing and early career as a portrait artist before going on to develop a detailed commentary on the making of his Sixties masterpiece “Performance”, and how Cammell’s career descended from this artistic peak down a steep slope leading to Hollywood development hell. A stellar cast of associates, colleagues and friends are assembled here: Kenneth Anger, James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and Barbara Steele contribute personal memories of the man and Cammell himself appears in footage recorded in 1994 during the production of “Wild Side”, which he eventually ended up removing his name from when it was first released, due to studio interference in the editing process. Most of the running time is given over to “Performance” and anyone with an interest in that film needs to see this detailed consideration of almost every aspect of its conception and production.
After co-director Nicolas Roeg’s subsequent career saw him go on to produce a series of strikingly original works like “Walkabout”, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Don’t Look Now”, while Cammell wound up with only the mildly diverting science fiction oddity “Demon Seed” to his name, many began to assume that responsibility for the unique construction of “Performance” lay entirely with Roeg, but this documentary was made at a time when that perception was at last being laid to rest, and Cammell’s status as a filmmaking artist of the first order was at last being fully acknowledged. This documentary is a fitting tribute to a major talent who left the scene far too soon.
The Blu-ray/DVD package is rounded off with a collector’s booklet which features an essay on “White of the Eye” by Brad Stevens and a commentary on the circumstances pertaining to the making of “The Argument” by Sam Umland. An extract from producer Elliott Kastner’s unpublished memoirs in which he discusses his involvement with the production of “White of the Eye” is included, along with notes on the processes used in the digital restoration of the movie, and a selection of production stills. A reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh provides the package with its colourful, handsome finish.
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