Thursday, March 29, 2012

White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)

You're an upwardly mobile blonde woman in the mid-1970s on her way to Malibu, California, when, all of sudden, it's the mid-1980s and you're  married to a man who installs high-end stereo systems for a living in Globe, Arizona. How did this happen? I have no idea. But don't expect White of the Eye, a serial killer film that's unlike any serial killer film I've ever seen, to spell things out for you in a simplistic, easily to digest manner. In fact, I'm rather uncomfortable calling this film, which is co-written and directed by Donald Cammell (Performance), a so-called "serial killer film," as I feel it demeans the genuine artistry that is on display throughout this thoroughly strange slice of off-kilter cinema. If anything, it seems to be mocking the genre. Take the opening murder sequence, for instance, it's filled with so many subtle flourishes, you'd think they were shooting a perfume ad, not a grisly homicide. Devoid of blood, stabbing, or any of the usual things that transpire during your average movie death, this film instead gives us a goldfish struggling to swim inside the rib-cage of a domestic pig. Since the chances of that occurring naturally are quite remote, it's obvious that this heinous act was premeditated. But still, you gotta wonder what compelled the killer to place a goldfish in the pan containing the victim's meaty dinner. Anyway, the target of this bizarre attack is Joyce Patell (Kate Waring), a fashion forward woman who just got back from doing some shopping at the mall (one of the store's employees can't help but visually devour the back of purple nylon-encased calves as he helps carry her purchases to her car). Unaware of the threat that lies on the other side of the door that leads to the inside of her lavish estate located in the desert, Joyce goes about her chic business with an effortless aplomb. As she's talking on the phone to a female acquaintance in her kitchen (and judging by the words peppered throughout the sentences she utters, she's dissatisfied with the results of her latest trip the salon), Joyce is suddenly confronted by an unknown assailant wearing gloves.

Other than the sight of Joyce getting the back of her head smashed into the glass door of her microwave oven (which, you got to admit, is still pretty uncommon), everything about this particular sequence oozed style and sophistication. The fluid camera work (the camera darts around the kitchen like a bandit) and the chaotic editing dominate proceedings for the next ten to fifteen seconds as the struggle between the victim and the perpetrator cause their surroundings to become severely unhinged. In other words, a suffocating goldfish, large amounts of red wine, fresh cut flowers, the owner of a shapely pair of legs kicking in protest over the ill-treatment being leveled on the torso they're attached to, multiple close-up shots of eyeballs, and snakeskin print pumps crashing into glass cookware are what we experience during this turbulent encounter.

After starting off like a Yes video ("Owner of a Lonely Heart") crossed with a parody of a Calvin Klein commercial, White of the Eye settles down a bit by introducing us to its signature players. The first we meet are the New York City born Joan White (Cathy Moriarty) and her ten year-old daughter Danielle (Danielle Smith) as they're making cookies in their modest home in Globe, Arizona. What struck me immediately was the luster of Cathy Moriarty's blonde hair (it was so fucking manageable, I nearly cried). But then it dawned on me, Joan, on top of having great hair, is an amazing mother. Not only does she make cookies with her tomboyish daughter, she teaches her the difference between "social" and "anti-social."

The sound of opera on the soundtrack mixed with aerial shots of the arid landscape are how we're introduced to Paul White (David Keith), the Grand Canyon State's premiere home stereo expert, as he's driving home in his green van, which equipped with Baja tires. In order to showcase the love that exists between Paul and Joan as a married couple, we're shown them sitting on the couch together. We learn, as they're talking, that Paul has the unique ability to know exactly where speakers should be placed in any given room; they don't call him "the human tuning fork" for nothing. As they're making out, a news report comes on the television detailing the murder of yet another wealthy housewife.

Magically sucked into the television, we're transported from White's living room to the scene of the crime where we find Detective Mendoza (Art Evans) poking around Joyce's messy kitchen, which is covered with more than just red wine (her blood is everywhere). Of course, I thought to myself, as Mendoza did the whole "look at me, I'm veteran detective investigating a homicide" bit: Yawn, not another cop on the edge trying to catch a serial killer. But most of those pesky thoughts quickly melted away the moment Mendoza decides to wash his hands in the murder victim's toilet. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a man who's not afraid to...wash his hands in a toilet. Wait a minute. That doesn't sound right. Whatever, let's just say I liked his idiosyncratic approach to detective work and move on.

According a flashback sequence that goes back ten years to 1976, the reason Paul and Joan are couple has a lot to do with Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing." Driving through the desert in a van on her way to Malibu, Joan mistakes the 8-track tape deck, which is currently pumping out the disco classic, for an ashtray. Without thinking, her boyfriend Mike (Alan Rosenberg) pours soda on it in order to quell the smouldering. And, as most people know, your average 8-track tape player isn't equipped to handle cigarette ash and sticky liquid, so they stop at the nearest garage with the hope of getting it fixed. Well, actually, truth be told, Mike is the one who hopes to get the state of the art audio component looked at, as the mid-1970s version of Joan (whose hair is crimped to the point of casual gothiness) couldn't careless; Mike, on the other hand, can't live without his Hot Chocolate. Of course, it just so happens that the mechanics grandson is a whiz when it comes to repairing broken stereo equipment.

We flash-forward back to 1986 to find Paul doing what he does best, singing country and western song while installing high end stereo equipment. Since the house he's installing with sub-woofers and tweeters just happens to be next-door to the home where a woman was brutally murdered, this gives Detective Mendoza the opportunity to have a friendly chat with Paul about Mahler, stereos, and tires. I'm curious, did you wonder why I pointed out that Paul's van had Baja tires? You didn't? Well, the reason I went out of my way to mention the type of tires was because Mendoza couldn't help but notice that the tires on Paul's van were the same kind that left tracks in the sand outside the home's of the murder victims.

Scrambling to find his wife's daybook in order to nail down his alibi in 1986, and taking Mike mule deer hunting in 1976, Paul is a busy man no matter what decade it is.

Whether it was the sight of a distinguished detective putting on a red beret or a cop powdering his armpits, there was something decidedly off about this film. Similar in tone to that of Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion, White of the Eye is a classic example of Americana as filtered through the mind of an Englishman. Just look at the casting. I mean, would an American director cast an Asian-American actor to play a sheriff's deputy? Maybe. But I like to think that Donald Cammell thought by casting David Chow as Fred Hoy, a flossing deputy with an Arizona accent who's friends with Paul, that he was giving his film a unique flavour. Not that it needs anymore, unique flavour, this is, as the film is chock-full of unexpected weirdness. And I say, "unexpected," because I don't usually expect much in terms of creativity when it comes to serial killer flicks.

On top of being the preeminent expert when it comes to high fidelity, Paul's pronounced trouser bulge, it would seem, is just one of the many feathers he has in his cap. Wanting to explore its torque-transmitting thrusts in a non-flaccid state, the wealthy housewives of Gila County are literally gnawing on each other's ankle bracelets to get the chance to ride its fleshy cargo all the way to pleasure-town. Okay, they're not, what did I say they were doing? Oh yeah, "gnawing on each other's ankle bracelets," (great mental image, by the way. thanks, I'm awesome), but some of them are pretending to have satellite problems in order get his first-class crotch indentation into their spacious homes. And by "spacious homes," I mean their not-so spacious vaginas.

As she stood on the balcony overlooking her swimming pool, I thought about the Suicide song "Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne" as it perfectly encapsulates the aura that surrounds Ann Mason (Alberta Watson), a perm enthusiast who sets the trends in Globe. Wearing a fur coat and holding a martini glass, Ann beckons Paul to come up to her bedroom to take a look at her wonky television. Attempting to seduce, what she calls "a stupid hillbilly," the moment he enters the room, Ann tries everything she can think of to get the well-hung man to notice her. Since her waterbed and fuzzy bedroom slippers are failing to yield any open air cock, Ann resorts to plan B, which entails showing Paul her unobscured bikini area from an elevated angle. Quirky observation: Judging by the generous breadth of her stance and the confident air she emitted as she presented it to Paul, Ann's pussy is an immaculately manicured stretch of highway that only a select few have travelled.

While Ann is moping at home, no doubt, nursing her unloved crevices with expensive sex toys, Paul having sexual intercourse with Joan as a television tuned to a dead channel flickers in the background. However, don't feel too badly for Ann. You'll see what I mean when Joan and her friend Caryanne (Pamela Guest) are walking the streets of downtown Globe. As they're walking and talking, as girlfriends are want to do, they spot Liza (Mimi Lieber), a woman who could easily win an Ann Mason look-alike contest if such an entity existed, and begin to ridicule her "Brillo pad" hairstyle. Although, Caryanne is one to talk, since her hair is looking  a tad Brillo-y as well. Anyway, this scene proves once and for all that Ann Mason is an influential figure in Globe.

If you recognized Mimi Lieber as Rula (the psychic who Elaine repeatedly scolds for smoking while pregnant) from the Seinfeld episode titled "The Suicide," congratulations, you, like me, watched way too much Seinfeld back in the day. At any rate, I'm not gonna mention anything else as far the plot goes, but I will say the scene with Mimi in her bathroom (I dug the way her floral nightie matched the wallpaper) was definitely the most disturbing bathtub scene since Charles Napier got his stomp on in Russ Meyer's Supervixens.

Besides, "You Sex Thing" by Hot Chocolate ("I believe in miracles!"), a song that haunts the proceedings like a fever dream, the music in White of the Eye is mostly provided by Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) and Rick Fenn (10cc), who mix electronic sounds with guitar riffs and Indian-style drumming.

Sold as a run-of-the-mill psychological thriller (if you watch the trailer, you'll see what I mean), White of the Eye is–to be blunt–deeply weird. Of course, I realize that it's easy to call something "weird," and putting "deeply" in front of it doesn't make it sound any weirder. But you have to believe me when I tell you that this film is weird. It's up there with Motorama and Rubin and Ed in terms of weirdness. You'll notice I didn't say, Eraserhead or some other, more well-known slice of cinematic weirdness. Well, that's because Donald Kammell earns his weirdness. What I mean is, he doesn't shove it down our throats. Slowly pealing away the layers of normalcy, the film gets more and more bizarre the further we delve into the minds of the characters. It gets to a point where all we're left with is a man dressed as a misogynist samurai with hot dog-shaped explosives tied to his mid-section chasing a woman wearing a coat adorned with peacock feathers.


  1. These arty thrillers from the 80's are so entertaining in their difference. My favorite scene was the birds eye view of David Keiths dramatic crotch in long johns acting its closeup heart out.
    Plus I love me some Alberta Watson.

  2. I just watched The Keep with Alberta Watson. Anyway, yeah, I dig David Keith's crotch.

  3. Dude, I was shaking and laughing at this wonderful witty review! Bought the movie on Blu-ray on an impulse and thoroughly enjoyed it. You should have done the audio commentary on it! 😂

    1. Thanks. I'd forgotten about this movie. The Blu-ray looks great.

  4. This movie's bonkers! Definitely checking out Motorama and Rubin and Ed now. What else would you compare it to? Have you seen Tough Guys Don't Dance?

    1. Compare it to?!? Hmmm, I'd put White of the Eye in the same category as Track 29 and Crimes of Passion. Films by British directors set in America starring blonde (American) actresses.

    2. Ah, CRIMES OF PASSION and TRACK 29!!! YAY!! Adding to that mix, the wonderful WHITE OF THE EYE!!! Throw a little 3 WOMEN, SUSPIRIA and PERFORMANCE into that stew, and you literally have my favorite picture(s) ever made!!

  5. This has to be one of the best film reviews I’ve ever read. Not only have you managed to articulate my feelings towards White of the Eye, but you also made me laugh frequently throughout its length. It’s comforting to know that there are people out there who admire and appreciate this particular kind of bizarre movie.

    I’ve been a big fan of this film since buying the Blu-ray 3+ years ago during an obsessive round-up “American Giallo” films. I think it would pair well with Manhunter, which is another atypical serial killer film, though nowhere near as weird.

    What’s your take on Demon Seed (1977)? Sorry in advance if you’ve already reviewed. Cheers!

    1. Thanks for the great comment.

      I haven't reviewed Demon Seed... a glaring oversight on my part.