I Destroy Therefore I Am…
Although the idea of student revolution in England has not been taken too seriously, in other countries over recent months it has taken on a strong political significance. Protest was beginning to have little effect. Finally it became violent and developed into student rebellion. The Fall is the first film that participated in the revolution. It was made by Peter Whitehead who is probably the most creative and original of the young British film-makers. His approach and work could form the basis of a new independent British cinema. After his success with Wholly Communion and Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, which won several festival prizes, Whitehead was offered several major films to direct. But instead of becoming part of the commercial ‘system’ he chose to make his own personal film, where his only responsibility was to himself. Here, in an interview, he describes how he went to the United States and found himself part of the birth of a revolution. As well as directing and photographing The Fall, Whitehead plays the film’s central character.
There are certain moments in our life when we transcend ourselves, our self-preoccupation, our search for self-realisation, and manage to achieve what I like to call communion with the outside world. This is not necessarily mystical, it means really being totally integrated with what we experience of the outside world whether it’s a person we love, the objects we live with or work with, the city we live in and so on. When the outside world is threatening, it alienates us. Nowadays, we find it increasingly more difficult to identify with the outside world, as it indulges in violence, consumes itself with obscenities like the war in Vietnam, or when the Media become the weapons of frustration, provoking our needs and deliberately never satisfying them.
Frustration, deliberate alienation, and then ‘supply’ is the moral basis of the consumer society.
You can only escape into inner space and try and create relationships there. This is possible for someone who has travelled the world and knows what it’s all about. It’s not possible at sixteen when you’re bored with Methedrine, when you believe the world is really only there when there’s mescalin in your blood and when you don’t really know or care if your parents are still alive in Liverpool. The vacuum inside can be as easily filled with the horror of the Hydrogen bomb, as is the world outside, even if it is only the ‘insane’ who believe it is really inside them!
This absolute alienation, from the outside world and from one’s own inner world, I try to expose in my film. Finally, in the face of this destruction by the outside world, you must project your own inner death and despair against it. You must revolt. There must be revolution. There is. It is very young and immature because it is largely being created by young and immature people, but I believe, deep down, it is the only solution. There must be a return quickly to an education, a cultural education, that leads people into the revolution and beyond it, beyond simply destroying the outside world of THEM, to creating OUR world, outside, in which there will be far, far more we can identify with and with which we can happily and proudly communicate.
But it has to be done quickly, now, because, let’s face it, this is not 1917. It takes two hours to get film on the TV sets of a rocket attack in Saigon. The Computer is creating society at its own speed. and so it must be destroyed at that speed too, if it cannot be turned to the service of the revolution. Let it be programmed to teach people to return to the real world, instead of making them retreat from a prefabricated, symbolic, competitive one. Its miraculous powers can be used not to develop more weapons, but to cure more social and psychological terrors.
For me my only weapon is film. But film is something that is, in the deepest psychological sense, a document of my looking at and seeing and accepting as significant the world outside myself. Someone I look at and love, or something beautiful that can give me peace. For me it can be something of this communion and it can even be something mystical. Anything can be imbued with this significance, if we set out to impose on reality something worthwhile and beautiful.
We are in a sense always alienated from reality. This is the absurd. We are alone. We are helpless to create ourselves without using out experience of the outside world, and so on. We are alienated and this is something we have to come to terms with, all of us, before we can say ‘What the hell, it’s the same for everyone, but there are moments when it’s all worthwhile.’ In other words, joy in life comes from finding someone or seeing something that is so REAL to us that we forget ourselves, our solitude, for a second, a minute, years maybe. We escape this absurdity by consciously and deliberately believing in those moments of communion with the world outside of us. We have to go through the discovery of this absurd alienation, before we can start the journey back. But there are thousands and thousands of young people growing into this hideous world who don’t know anything except it just all looks totally alien and not worth a spark of effort. Left alone they will blow it up, from anger and resentment and disappointment because they never knew real joy, except when they lost it. They don’t believe in a way back. For me, I get back there, from my own madness, by filming, by putting bits of him together and making it make sense and say what I believe has to be said. I no longer must witness and withdraw, I must commit myself to the re-creation of the world. I hope to hell I’m not just mad and alone with a language that no longer makes sense to anyone, anyone at all, anywhere.
When I went to America to make The Fall I had no idea at all of filming there. I had no plans. I had gone to the New York Film Festival as my two films. Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and Benefit of the Doubt were opening to the public for the first time, on a single programme called ‘The London Scene.’ One film about the London Scene, I suppose, but the other, my film of US, about protesting against Vietnam. A strange film for an Englishman to take to America.
Anyway, they were well received and I was offered some money to make a film about the New York Scene. But I had every intention of continuing where Benefit had left off. For that, the most important place in the world to be filming was America. There seemed nothing more to film in London except my boredom, despair and apathy. All the movements seemed to be dead, the beat, hippie, underground, pop scenes had all become indulgent or fashionable. If something was to be done, by me or anyone, it would not be done in ‘America-owned’ England. I might add, I was right. We are still ‘protesting.’ Other countries are in revolt. Anyway, this was last September, and I agreed to stay in America and make a documentary film, with complete freedom fortunately, so I could do, find and film whatever I liked.
I had thought of going to film in Vietnam, or South America, but I had to admit that it was more reasonable to film in New York, the city in which were all the symptoms of the disease that, I believe, was carelessly destroying the world. At last there was an opportunity to film everything I hated, and everyone else who hated what I did. I set off to film the people, events, happenings, artists, victims, places that seemed to me to be relevant to exposing that sickness in the society, already reflected in a culture itself obsessed with violence. Violence and protest. The more violence the society condones abroad and in its own ghettos, the more violence spontaneously manifests itself in the culture. This is a cliché for America, but obviously everything was so much worse, and anyway, America has the power, and is willfully exercising it. Slowly, by filming, I got more and more involved in the Peace movement, Pro-war Rallies, the sub culture of the Underground, the Village, as well as the odd event of fashionable New York that seemed especially hideous. With this scenario, it was only difficult to limit the material, not to find it. After six weeks of filming, the now famous Pentagon March occurred, the climax of collective legal protest, the great ritual act of hate before the shrine of American Military Power and indifference. I had been involved in the last stages of this movement of the Left, but I was sickened and disillusioned. Far from being exhilarated, I was angry and shattered. The whole event, the whole scene was getting nowhere. It was being humiliated.
I came back to England with hours of film all of which seemed to have built up to nothing. No great breakthrough. Only breakdown. Legal protest was dead. I had wanted my film to be MY act of protest, obviously. I had chosen to film there, in preference to filming anything else in the world, but this act of commitment had led me only to witness, and film, humiliation and defeat.
I started to write a script, for the first time in my life a fiction script, that would incorporate the documentary film. It was impossible to make a documentary film about protest, this was protest at one remove. My problem was to make my film an act itself, if possible. Protest had become worse than impotent, it had become fashionable, which means being finally made palatable, possessed and castrated by the Media. After the Washington March one newspaper published a page of Hippie Fashions. At any of the big stores you could buy your conscience for 25 dollars, a peace dress decorated with CND signs. To expose the protest movement itself as finally impotent to effect real change, full of people acting out their own catharsis by participating in do-it-yourself off-off Broadway plays, poetry meetings and so on, was an act of betrayal; I am on their side. I hate what they hate. But participation in Destruction Happenings, inside ‘art’, was as morally insane as ignoring the facts of the Asian War, the Race riots, the development of Alphaville.
I decided therefore to make a film about what ought to be done; that it was inevitable now that one had to act violently to confront a violent society which had law, if not morality, on its side. I started to write a script about my own experience, passively making a documentary film about protest, deciding that this passive, non-violent action was useless, and deciding to film the ultimate act of protest, a public act of violence. From this basic idea I developed the ‘plot,’ shall I say, for my film, which was to be about somebody who planned an act of political assassination. My protagonist would kill somebody at a political meeting, when the eyes of the mass media and therefore the world were watching, and believing. This was the only way of achieving effective protest, to sacrifice oneself to their appetite for violence and sensationalism. It seemed to me morally right to go from this passive documentary non-violence into the idea of a thriller film about somebody who sets out to kill as an act of political protest. This is what I went back to America with the intention of filming. I would film fictional inserts, of myself, deciding finally to commit an act of political assassination on film. The day after I arrived, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Now this absolutely shattered me. Obviously, it was such a terrible loss, the apostle of non-violence and racial justice, but also because I got so involved in my imagined act of political assassination. I felt responsible for the act.
I imagined I had done it myself! A Romantic identifies with injustice whether he likes it or not; every white man too should have felt shame, would automatically feel in a way responsible for the murder of Martin Luther King, but I felt even more so, having imagined myself killing somebody. In my script I wasn’t going to kill any person in particular, to make the mistake of blaming any one single person. I was going to kill, symbolically, ‘the man in the street.’ It is the man in the street, in a sense, in a democracy, who is responsible. In America, it’s the American who is responsible for condoning the war in Vietnam, not just LBJ. So, at a big political rally, rather like in The Manchurian Candidate, if you like, my character was going to assassinate one person in the crowd, Alas there is no shortage of scenarios for assassinations. But I got so involved with what I really believed to be this act of violence that when it really happened – and it happened to be someone I thought very highly of, who represented non-violence, I was completely thrown back inside myself. I was in Washington at the time. The negroes were on the streets looting, burning the place down. My initial reaction was to feel that I ought to go out and film it. What an opportunity of documentary film about violence! I couldn’t move. I sat and watched television for a week. Safe in my home like everyone else, I watched it happening ‘out there.’ I couldn’t actually go out and film. I think it was because for me to have filmed negroes burning the place down and going mad was in a way to judge them, to witness them was to judge them, and as far as I was concerned their violence was right. I was on their side, and if I was on their side, I should have been looting with them.
I couldn’t stand next to CBS cameras filming it for television so that everybody in America could sit and watch it on their television! Or so everyone would say: Peter Whitehead filmed some exciting shots of those houses burning down. How brave! I wanted to burn the houses down. And I couldn’t film myself doing it! So I sat there screwed up. I didn’t quite know which way to turn, because my idea of the non-violent film documentary had gone and my idea of my fiction film had gone too. I had to admit my imaginary act of violence was a fake! I couldn’t do it. I could not commit the act of violence even though I believed in it. You must want to die, before being prepared to die for a cause! This, therefore, was my true experience of what had happened. I did finally go out and film, but I filmed only the aftermath the biggest fire in Newark’s history. I could film the ruins of the ghetto. I filmed the memorial service for Dr King, in Central Park, where all the notables stood in line and sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ hand-in-hand: going along the front line, black-white-black-white. What happened the following day? Everything was forgotten. America returns to normal. Martin Luther King is dead.
By this time, of course, I had a lot of film. What about? – going out with an idea, and discovering it was a wrong one! Also I could no longer distinguish who was violating who. The exterior violence and my own were inseparable. How could I go into an editing room and make sense of it all, the subject of which was my own failure, my own fear? The only way out seemed to throw away the whole idea and make a musical, or go mad. I was pretty screwed up, I must confess.
It was at this time I did some filming with Bobby Kennedy, trying to suggest that my ‘character’ does try to commit himself to a possible political solution. At this time Kennedy and McCarthy were symbols of political idealism but obviously incapable of really effecting the kind of radical transformation that society needed to prevent its own self-destruction, They seemed to be the last two political figures capable of preventing all this energy going into organised insurrection. Suddenly Civil War seemed a ghastly possibility.
But what happened next was, the students at Columbia University rebelled. I went to the University were I found somebody who fortunately knew the films I’d made; he invited me to join them and so, suddenly, I was part of the revolution. I was together with six hundred other students locked away behind barricades, living in buildings ‘liberated’ by the students, I filmed the students living in their/our commune, their political strategy meetings, defence meetings, electing their action committees, and so on. It was the most marvellous thing that had happened to me in years! Suddenly I was with other people who were acting out the kind of violence I had imagined; instead of being my mad crazy single act of violence, this was the collective act of resistance: these students, feeling as I had done, reacted against their collapsing society, by reclaiming what was theirs! Their own minds. Their own education! These students were sacrificing their entire lives in that society into which they were going, whether they liked it or not, they weren’t just hippies, these kids, you know, they were intelligent, privileged, middle-class students, and many intelligent people and leaders from lots of different communities who came and joined them.
In America, the University is not owned by the State, but by big monopolistic corporations, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank and so on, so the evils perpetrated by the Corporate Owners of America are perfectly symbolised in the Trustees’ authoritarian rule over the conduct and policies of the University. It is a microcosm of America and its failures.
I stayed with the students, at last filming an outside event that I could really believe in! Finally came the police ‘bust’ which was for me the definitive experience, the climax in a way, not only of my film, but of my own search for a truly significant action in and against a world which seemed beyond redemption. Suddenly my film had the possibility of form, and purpose. I could come back to England and edit it. The film now seems to have a three part structure beneath the narrative. The first part is innate violence, the violence out there, outside, in the world; the exterior violence that one experiences and must respond to. Part II is the imagined act of violence to confront this exterior violence. I was going to make it a thriller, which proposed violence as the only effective act available to anyone who cares. Part III is when violence is finally done to you, which means, of course, violence was finally inflicted on me. And it was. When the police finally came and cleared the buildings and campus of the University, the police brutality was the worst in New York’s history. I was in Mathematics building on, I think, it was the Tuesday night, when a student came in – it was about eleven o’clock and we’d had a party that evening. He told us there was definitely going to be a police ‘bust’ that night. We sealed off the building, put up the barricades. Everyone who wanted to leave was told to get out. I got rid of all my equipment at this time, and all my film – except my Bolex camera and one roll of film, knowing full well that the police, on all such occasions, expose the film, destroy the cameras, and do as much damage as they possibly can. The police came. I was sitting at one of the windows, about two o’clock in the morning, and outside the police lined up in formation, pickaxes, night sticks, guns, and, as we learned later, some of them used handcuffs as knuckle-dusters – there’s photographs to document this. I was sitting at the window, looking outside at a thousand police. Inside, there were two hundred and fifty students in our building. We were told that if we didn’t clear the building in five minutes – which by now was impossible – we’d get beaten up. They warned us. They kept their promises. They enjoy it.
I had a hundred feet of film in my camera, of which I’d shot about half while the students were barricading up the building and preparing themselves in case the police used tear gas or Mace. We all put vaseline on our skin and plastic bags over our heads, and you have to wind cellotape round your wrists because if Mace touches you anywhere it gets in through the skin and spreads in your blood. I filmed all this, and I had fifty feet of film left. Two minutes. The building had five floors, and a huge spiral staircase in the middle of it. The police started to break their way through the front door with their pickaxes. A number of the students – the more radical ones stayed at the bottom of the huge staircase, to be taken out first. They usually got the worst treatment. We’d all agreed not to resist arrest (there was little point in doing that at this point, because one wants to get arrested, that’s one of the essential points of resistance). I filmed the police, and the film ran out just as they were coming through the door. It would have been suicide to try to film them attacking students. I ran up to about the third floor, took the film out of the camera and put it in a can, threw it out of one of the windows in order to retrieve it later. I went back out to the staircase. The other students had barricaded themselves behind the doors on the top floor. I ran up to the top floor, but was absolutely alone on this wretched staircase. I looked over the balcony, and there up this five flights of stairs – rather like an image from A Generation – were trooping hundreds of police, three at a time in close ranks up the stairs, close file, three at a time, up the stairs. I was absolutely terrified, I must admit. There were two or three plain-clothes cops – one of whom reached me first, grabbed me and shoved me up against the wall, searched me to see if I had anything, any weapons. I had merely my camera! I told him. I’d walk out. He pushed me down the stairs towards the police who were coming up. During my descent down the five flights I must have passed a hundred police. Nearly every one of them hit me with whatever they had in their hands.
They did every thing they possibly could to trip me up, because once you’re on the floor, that’s it, you’re resisting arrest. Then they knock you out and carry you out. By the time I got to the bottom I was black and blue. I had done nothing violent except walk down the stairs. They had done everything they possibly could to provoke me. By the time I’d got to the bottom I think I really had become an assassin, it really had happened, in a sense. I saw that these cops just absolutely enjoyed every second of it, they had only one intention, and that was of having as much violence as they possibly could. This shocked me. I don’t know why, maybe I’m a bit naive, but I was shattered. Violence from tension yes, but not just for the fun of it, for spite!
I was more angry than hurt, of course. I just knew it was hopeless. I mean, if one was going to be like this it was just violence was totally inevitable. So finally violence was inflicted on me. I went outside to be arrested, and because I was absolutely alone, because I had a camera – it was very strange, there were two rows of police outside, and a lot of press people behind them. They all rushed forward to film and there was just solitary me. They sort of groaned, disappointed of course, not to have some bleeding corpse to film and photograph! Because it was me standing there looking angry as hell, and as English as hell, nobody knew quite what to do. The police didn’t know who I was, maybe or something. Anyway, I just turned my back to the police, put the camera up to my eye, stepped to the left, and disappeared amongst the photographers. I wasn’t arrested. I retrieved my film, got some more film from my assistant who was outside, nearby, came back and filmed my friends coming out of the building. Now this of course is when it happens, when the violence is also inflicted on someone you believe in, belong with. These were now my friends. They were brought out bleeding, weeping, hardly able to stand. Unconscious. I think there were two hundred and fifty students taken to hospital that night, from the five buildings. Later the police cleared the campus, and there was a lot more violence. Suddenly ‘police state’ is not an exaggeration in a left-wing magazine. It’s there. This, I suppose, is the end of the film. Except the day I left Bobby Kennedy was shot dead. Again I could no longer distinguish between fiction and reality, and both were intolerable. I collapsed. I fell to pieces. I’ve put myself back together by giving form to the film, by making it ‘make sense’. Some will say the film is mad; I am mad. I say the world is hardly in a position to judge!
I decided to put myself into the film, to act myself for a number of reasons, the most important of which was I wanted the film to be a confrontation between my own ability to act or not to act I don’t mean act in the sense of being an actor. I mean to act as an artist, or as a person in society. I wanted it to examine my motives, my motives, to ask myself why I wanted to make that particular film, or propose that experience, those reactions. After my films were shown at the London Festival, I was offered half a dozen feature films. I could have been making a nice musical in Spain, and earning myself 50,000 dollars. Why, on earth, was I in America making a film with hardly enough money to even exist, on a subject about people in a place that I hated passionately? I wasn’t too sure myself. You identify as a person with certain experiences and for me, a person who makes films, it’s my responsibility, it’s my act of commitment, simply to be honest to my own experience. Every time you film in a way it’s a kind of lie, because as soon as you edit it creates an illusion, or distorts the situation – a film of something is not the something itself! – therefore to be honest to my own experience is not to just have a narration! I had to put myself in the film. I had to make the film about myself. It’s like the difference between a novel I might have written about myself and a dairy. I wanted it to be a kind of diary, but not a diary in the ordinary sense, like on September 17 I filmed Bobby Kennedy at the protest meeting blah blah-blah whatever it was.
I have this psychological compulsion to make reality significant: constantly I have to film or write about it as well as experiencing it! I have to do something with my experience in order to feel whole. Without processing it, it seems absolutely meaningless. Now I could go off into lots of theories about the divided self and schizoid disintegration and so on, which is very important to me but probably not at the moment to an audience – my initial reflex experience of reality, is to be threatened by it. I’d sooner dream! I admit I am threatened by the prospect of either being alone and facing oblivion inside myself, or by committing myself to a society which seems merely to alienate me and thus destroys me too. My problems as a human being, of meaningful existence, are best communicated to other people by the medium of film. This is why I make the kind of films I make. For me, film is a diary in the sense that every time I film something it’s a record of something that I did, it’s a kind of proof of my existence. If I had a piece of film which I show to other people which was filmed by me, maybe my talking to somebody I stop in the street. it’s a kind of proof that I was there at that moment, that I was looking through the camera, that I was speaking to this person, that I asked them that kind of question. Now I think most ordinary normal human beings don’t need this kind of proof. They know they exist, they accept that they exist, they accept that they have a name and that they do this, they do that, and they communicate with other people. I mean, a really secure person doesn’t ask the kind of questions I’m constantly asking myself and of reality. They seem content with illusions that worry me too much! I need a kind of proof otherwise I am threatened by non-existence, I am threatened by the possibility of self-destruction. Unless I can make life more significant by my actions than it is, I will have to kill myself. And for me it’s a constant struggle to give form to reality which seems merely to alienate me and thus destroy me. I have to destroy ‘it’ to reassert myself again. Now, in terms of filming, I film something as a kind of proof, even if in the course of this six months in America I proved I was disintegrating. I proved to myself that my alienation from the moral values and social situations that threatened me was justified. In order to get back into a situation where I could accept the world as not mad and accept myself as not mad I have to put this film back together. It is as if all these little fragments of film are me, and to put them back into form is to give myself coherence and peace, I’m reintegrated with experiencing the world, not just experiencing myself. I’m an introvert, absolutely an introvert, and it’s always seemed to me ironic that I make films. Filming is a challenge and so from time to time I venture out and I try to communicate with the outside world. I’m still looking for a world worth integrating myself into! From the objective point of view, though, from the point of view of an audience, what’s my film about? If the ideas I have about it are so alienated from what it’s really about, then I might really be mad! If I can make other people believe that my film is about something real, what I believe, I’m no longer mad! I believe it’s about somebody who has to translate himself into symbolism in order to feel real. This is dangerous as McLuhan points out. The schizoid person is threatened by this dualism, and in a world which is violent, it’s more and more difficult for a person who wants to destroy himself not to identify with the world that is also destroying itself: a kind of collective neurosis, collective schizophrenia which one might really believe in in America. My character, my protagonist, translates himself into film, into a symbolic existence. I did so. I made the film about myself, and the first image in the film is a blank screen, the second image is an eye looking at it, and the third image is myself on a screen. I have translated myself into symbol.
If my film has people in it, let’s say Robert Kennedy or Mayor Lindsay, somebody else would say – ‘those bits are documentary.’ It’s not Peter Whitehead in it, but Mayor Lindsay. But it’s not, it’s Lindsay as I see him; my experience – which is why I put myself in the film, knowing full well I lay myself open to all kinds of criticism. It seems monstrously arrogant to make a film about myself, but how the hell can I tell the audience, prove to them, that what is important is to examine our own response to the world, and more important our response to the Media, which are in danger of becoming the whole of experience for people. Soon they’ll not believe anything unless they have it verified on TV! – given ‘significance’ by being televised or filmed. Our experience is made to conform by the Media, manipulated by the people who own it, that’s all. I want people to examine, re-examine their response to the world, their ability to see it as true or false. It’s the basis of any morality, this belief in one’s own experience. So in this film I say examine your response to the society, to the Media, to its oppression, to the figures who with their political privilege wield power through their public existence. I have used this film to re-examine my own existence and hope it will thus become valid for someone else, not because I tell them about it. I try to let it happen to them, by letting the film that happened to me, happen to them. They see it as it occurred to me. In this sense it is as much a document of my own existence, as it is of the existence of a number of events that happened in New York from October last year  to June this year. I participated in those events, and expressed my alienation from the society and ‘our’ revolution against it, in fragments of film. If I prove that I chose to participate in those events for valid reason, then my film will be a success.
Films and Filming, January 1969
© Peter Whitehead/Films and Filming
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders