Saturday, 14 June 2014

White of the Eye (1986)


Dir. Donald Cammell

The films I've found myself obsessing over now are those that cannot be easily defined - by genre and/or tone. They can have clear things to them that can simply categorise them, but the content is far more complicated. They are usually more profound, regardless of being lurid genre films, because they impact you with more potent takes on political messages, allegories or depicting anything from sex to violence. They don't need an actual political message - as mere entertainment or provocation, they can still touch uncomfortable or misused topics through mere cinematic pleasure (and displeasure). White of the Eye is a deliberately peculiar film. At odds with its standardised serial killer plot - someone killing women in violent rituals - by only having two murder scenes shown and by concerning itself with Paul White (David Keith), a sound system technician who is made a potential suspect by the police, and his wife Joan White (Cathy Moriarty), whose romantic view of him is slowly turning. Considering its made by The Cannon Group - a company which undercut its American Ninjas with films like this - a film that is mostly a drama of a family unit falling to pieces turned into a psychodrama of the most elliptical and unsettling of ways is something very different that what cinema usually is.

Again, most of this film could be the same as a made-for-TV weepy about a family falling down. The wife suspects her husband is having an affair, which is the case, and she had once had a violent breakup with her first lover Mike Desantos (Alan Rosenberg) over him, complicated when Desantos appears again. A daughter is between them all who could be harmed by this. What the film does however around this content is it this with a serial killer story, using perversion of such a story in a way much more intellectually rewarding while leaving me on edge for the whole film. Filmed in the eighties - prosperity, ridiculous perms on both genders' heads, slasher films - it misses the real meat to merely say it's a critique on American ideology when it can go further. With his co-writer China Cammell, warping a novel he hated into this adaptation, it nonetheless reminds the viewer, more powerfully,  that in our apparent bliss, regardless of era and nationality, regardless of how much our kitchens cost, people can be wonderful human beings but also psychopathic. Flaws can be found and grow if not treated. That you can literally find the worse nightmare in your bathroom, in a scene that I'm never going to get out of my mind involving a thread. The landscape outside is wonderful, from dunes to vast plains, but the city the film is set in, no matter how big it is, is swallowed up by it. The worst in human beings can exist in the apparent complacency of public, commercial life.

Very little violence is shown. The most gore shed, reminiscent of Dario Agrento's Tenebrae (1982) and his fixation for pale, white walls and blood, is a tomato sauce being splattered, the change still vile in suggestion of the brutality shown. A reminder of Peeping Tom (1960) that horrifies. Everything is ready to break into said violence without explicit mutilation. Paul White is not what he's expected to be, his wife showing her rage openly when it feels he has betrayed her, and Mike Desantos was violent before, released from jail and with apparent mental illness, talking about a TV in his head. Flashbacks to the original relationships between the three bleeds into the current day, slowly complicating and showing the grim reality of the situation. And then the film goes insane on purpose. All these years, I thought a character actually strapped hotdogs to themselves thinking they were dynamite. Actually seeing the scenes, they are dynamite, but the heightened tone the film enters means they still reminded me of hotdogs. In fact it adds to the terror of that final quarter this quirk of mine, absurd but horrifying in how far it goes. It takes the delirious tone of a Andrzej Żuławski film, like Possession (1981), where the organised chaos of the tone that White of the Eye develops into still conveys the most animalist in people even if the content is silly on paper. The acting has a rawness throughout, worth praising especially from Moriarty, turning into a madden frenzy when that finale takes place. When logical reality is replaced with the notion of heightened emotions affecting that reality, it has an immensely powerful effect. The result, far from ridiculous in an undermining way, is adding to the disturbing nature of what takes place.

The film switches through time periods with a fluidity that blurs them together. The editing, a trademark in Cammell's small filmography, breaks scenes and moments to lingering pieces when needed. Cammell, in both scenes of violence and out of them, examines objects in extreme close-ups, adding a layer that makes them new. A police officer's teeth in close-up, using floss, no connection to the narrative, is made alien, new, to the viewer as well as unsettle by seeing any wire, regardless of being dental, against human anatomy. The film looks like a glossy eighties Cannon Group film, going against the content inside. Night scenes are intentionally grainy and vague, creating a tone to even love scenes by the fire where it's all not it seems. The flashback tale is intentionally washed out in tone. The music by Rick Fenn and Pink Floyd's Nick Mason adds as well to the film, atmospheric and adding a ghostly edge. The result, on paper, feels like a film anyone could make. The result, onscreen, called White of the Eye isn't. Its leaves with the aftershock of what has happened. As an expression of the failures of the family unit, it uses its distortion to startle.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): MEDIUM
Cammell still follows a narrative style you find in many films closely, but how he does so is drastically different. It's as much a credit to all the people on and offscreen who worked on it too in how the film effects you as it does. Tragically not able to build a filmography beyond four films and an unfinished short, Cammell's safest chance at the highest ranking is his famous co-directed film with Nicolas Roeg....Performance (1970).

Personal Opinion
Shell shock. I've waited years to see White of the Eye, and it was even more than I hoped for. Praise for Arrow Video for releasing it finally in the UK in early 2014. I have to calm my nerves after seeing it now.

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