The Wormwood Star (1956) is a short documentary film about Marjorie Cameron, an artist, occultist, and actress. The film is not a “documentary” in the traditional sense, but is more in line with the early avant-garde practice of pure cinema. Curtis Harrington, the film’s director, describes Wormwood as “a poetic tribute to Cameron.” The subject of the film is not explicit; Cameron’s biography is not explored nor is she presented amid her daily routine, and so there is no effort to humanize her through narrative. Rather, Cameron is presented in two distinct movements. First, she is shown in a series of tableaux. Time is frozen as she poses among occult artifacts. The camera frames her body and environment in fragmented and symbolic succession: her hand on a book next to a rose; close ups of her lips, her eyes. The camera then enters a mirror that reflects Cameron’s face and we enter the reflection of her being. The rest of the film catalogs a series of Cameron’s paintings with a voiceover of her reciting some original poetry. The paintings are very reminiscent of the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Gustav Klimt, Alastair, and Harry Clarke; a mesh of symbolism, surrealism, and the profane. Here, the occult seems to become a metaphor for the subversive, the outcast, the blasphemous pleasures of life, the dark “magic” of film, etc.
There is a really amazing web of people connected to Curtis Harrington and Marjorie Cameron. Harrington’s interest in the occult is not a simple way to shock his audiences; like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, Harrington explores the occult with a serious understanding of its complexities. Harrington was an active member in the West Coast film community. He worked as cinematographer on Anger’s Puce Moment (1949) and acted alongside Cameron in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). His first feature film, Night Tide (1961), starred Dennis Hopper, and Roger Corman produced the bulk of Harrington’s output in the late 1960s. He even had a cameo in Orson Welles’s unfinished The Other Side of the Wind and directed episodes of Charlie’s Angels (thank you Wikipedia).
Marjorie Cameron was an enigmatic figure. Apart from being a painter, poet, and vibrant member of the counterculture movement, she was deeply involved with the American occult (or magick) scene of the early 1950s. Her husband, Jack Parsons, was not only an earlier pioneer of rocket propulsion, but was also an outspoken Thelemite. Along with close friends Aleister Crowley and L. Ron Hubbard, Cameron and Parsons staged the Babalon Working, a sex-magic ritual designed to reincarnate a divine female. Oddly enough, even though nothing miraculous occurred, the practitioners were not swayed into disbelief: Crowley was ranked seventy-third greatest Britain of all time (alphabetically, he beats out Charles Dickens!); we all know what happened to L. Ron; Parsons was blown up in a mysterious accident; and Cameron moved to Mexico and faded into obscurity. For a quick overview of Cameron’s biography, watch this short film created by Scott Hobbs, who runs the Carson-Parsons foundation.
– Paul Gonter