Monday, October 23, 2006

The World According to Whitehead

(Peter Whitehead, UK, 1969, BetaSP, 120 mins.)

Whitehead in 1968

I am not capable of experiencing the real and never have
been, which is why I have had such an amazing life...I even
married a Swedish girl so I could come to terms with Bergman.

-- Peter Whitehead


Ten years after wrapping up The Fall, Peter Whitehead (b. 1937) dropped out of the cinematic rat race to become a falconer/novelist. Dividing his time between England and Saudi Arabia, it's the unique career path he follows to this day. It's no wonder, then, that his movies has become more and more obscure with each passing year.

Into the breach steps the Northwest Film Forum with the first US retrospective
of Whitehead's cinema verité-style filmography (some works are non-fiction,
others a hybrid of genres). From November 3-12, the NWFF will be screening
eight films. Three are between 30-33 minutes long and five range from 60-120 minutes, including the ninth entry, Pop Films, a compilation of music promos
or what we now call "videos," although I would imagine all were shot on film.

Beginning in 1965 with series selection Wholly Communion, Whitehead hung
up his camera a mere 12 years later, although he considers 1969 the true
end. (He had a breakdown in the wake of Robert Kennedy's assassination).
Consequently, he dismisses Daddy (1973) and Fire in the Water (1977) as "after-thoughts." Subjects include Pink Floyd and other bold face names from the worlds
of music (the Beach Boys, the Animals), movies (Michael Caine, Julie Christie), theater (Peter Brook, Glenda Jackson), and poetry (Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg).
Whitehead in The Fall
As programmer Adam Sekuler notes, Whitehead intended The Fall as a
statement on the decline of democracy (the director also describes it as "the
first totally post-modern film"). Though set in the aftermath of Martin Luther
King Jr.'s assassination, I would argue that it's as much a statement on the
rise of democracy -- an ineffective one perhaps, but a democracy, nonethless.
Whitehead roams around New York between the volatile years of 1967 and
1968, capturing dissent from all sides: famous and not-so-famous protesters against the Vietnam War, along with those for the conflict, holding up their "Bomb Hanoi" placards with pride. Ordinary citizens engage in street-corner throwdowns,
like a high-pitched, orange-lipsticked dowager, who accuses her working class compatriot of Neo-Nazism. Amazingly, they don't come to blows. With the exception of a disturbing performance piece, Whitehead isn't as interested in violence as its after-effects. Just people having their say. If that isn't democracy, what is?
Not everything works. Our entry into this now-alien world is through the eyes of
a British photojournalist, played by Whitehead himself. He resembles Terence Stamp, who appears in Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, and enjoys the "chic" lifestyle -- to quote Gloria Steinem -- of tight-trousered David Hemmings in Blow-up,
a role inspired by Brit shutterbug David Bailey, lover of Catherine Deneuve, Jean Shrimpton, and other lovelies. (Whitehead, in turn, has been linked with Bianca Jagger and Nico.) He's joined by Italian fashion plate Alberta Taburzi, his girlfriend
at the time. They meet when he snaps her modeling a "peace dress."
[According to the press notes, Whitehead arranged a screening of 1966's Charlie Is My Darling for Antonioni. It's believed that this ultra-rare 'Stones doc, not part of
the NWFF series, had a profound influence on the director's era-defining film.]
Beyond following this duo around Manhattan, that's pretty much all there is to
The Fall. But that certainly sets it apart from most other non-fiction portrayals
of the 1960s. Like Blow-up, Petulia, and especially Medium Cool, it's a provocative snapshot of a particular time and place. And like those films, it's shot in the style
of the day. That means swirling psychedelia, pulsating montage, disorienting
close-ups (mostly of Alberta's false eyelash-clad eye) -- even a dance sequence.
Taburzi in The Fall
For viewers tired of being talked-down to in docs, this is the film for you. There's
no narration/commentary, and the dialogue between man and muse is superfluous (I'm guessing it was improvised). In other words, Whitehead doesn't say what to think. Nor does he identify the subjects who appear on screen. Consequently, if you don't know who they are, RFK aside, you may be at a loss. A short list includes Paul Auster, Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Arthur Miller, and Robert Rauschenberg (much less obnoxious than the kook in Who Gets to Call It Art?).
I found The Fall to be self-indulgent at times (some have dismissed it as "narcissistic," an accusation Whitehead strongly denies), like the aforementioned
bit in which Taburzi dances around in a short, silken robe. Time and time
again, Whitehead tries to look up that wisp of fabric, but she draws the material around her hips whenever he gets too close. On the other hand, it's rather
sexy stuff -- and I don't think you can say that about many documentaries.
Misgivings aside, The Fall whet my appetite for more Whitehead, and I'm particularly looking forward to essential 1960s document Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, featuring his Cambridge contemporary Syd Barrett, along with Roman Polanski
and other leading lights of '60s pop culture. Best of all: No tennis-playing mimes!
I had a nervous breakdown because I had become film.
I could not walk down the street without editing, panning, I gave it up totally and went into falcons.

-- Peter Whitehead
Quotes from a 1997 interview with Whitehead in Entropy. The Fall plays the
Northwest Film Forum 11/11-12, Sat.-Sun., at 7 and 9:30pm. The series LET'S
12. Passes available. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill
between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also
call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

1 comment:

  1. I dug The Fall mostly as bit of nostalgia as I dig all movies that give a glimpse of the New York of my childhood. In addition the film covers the student protests at Columbia, an event which my father and sister experienced first hand [my dad was part of the faculty committee that negotiated with the students and my sister was a student at Barnard]. Lastly, I must give Whitehead props for using a couple of Nice tunes, although the snippets of Keith Emerson's organ attacks from 'America' did get a bit relentless at times.