“I’d like to think that if my films are about anything… they’re not about what’s
been going on, but rather about people who’ve been involved in this extraordinary
thing that’s happened in the last ten years: the explosion of the media.”
All my films have been about artists of one kind or another – either poets or pop stars or people in the media, or finally with The Fall with myself. I’ve always lived with artists and I’ve always been fascinated by people who need to make art. All art is a form of sublimation. There must be an energy available that makes people make things.
The first film I ever made professionally was a scientific documentary called The Perception of Life. Although I didn’t like it at the time I’ve become more interested in it since because the whole film was shot through a microscope. It was a half hour film made for the Nuffield Foundation about the history of man’s concepts of living matter. It was a history of biology and it showed how the theories of the structure of living matter have changed as the microscope got better and better. In other words, I wasn’t really using a camera, I was using a microscope and a lot of the sequences were filmed through some of the oldest microscopes that scientists have used. So what we were looking at was what they saw through the microscope. The film showed how their theories were determined by what they could see. And in a kind of way, all my films are related to the idea of using a microscope – all in a way related to the idea of using the camera as a microscope. I think I always go into a situation trying to analyse it.
After that scientific documentary I got into a position where I could start to make the films I wanted to make. The first film was Wholly Communion, the film of the International Poetry Incarnation in the Albert Hall in 1965, which was an event to which 7,000 people turned up and 5,000 had to be turned away – really the first coming into consciousness of the ‘Underground’ movement. I went there principally because I wanted to film Allen Ginsberg and I ended up filming the whole event. What I came away with was a film about two things. It was first of all about participation. It was about me being there. I had to film it that way because I had no choice. The sequence I shot of Gregory Corso, which is between two heads and two people talking, I shot because Ginsberg grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me on the floor. And that was the only position I could actually film from. So arty pretensions I had about making an objective statement on what happened in the Albert Hall that night are absolute nonsense. One of the qualities of the film, though, for all its wobbly camera-work and its zooms is the feeling that you are there. You’re not stuck in a box on a tripod. I was part of the audience. And I think that all of my films since that have been concerned first of all with this idea of participating in an event, being part of it, not intruding on it and not imposing on it.
The other important aspect of Wholly Communion was that it was a film of people communicating. In a funny kind of way the first film was too, because it was about a number of scientists who’d communicated theories about matter. But the first important film I made was Wholly Communion. That poet standing in an arena with an audience of 7,000, trying to communicate across that space – my films since have all been about that person standing in the open space trying to communicate.
The next film I made was Charlie is My Darling, which was the Rolling Stones trying to communicate across that space; the Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland; the Rolling Stones communicating to an audience with their music. What I liked most about that film was the fact that when the Stones were talking they were really quite inarticulate. There was a kind of groping. There was an extraordinary inability to describe what they were doing. In fact, Brian Jones was the only one who was really articulate. Yet there was this incredible transformation as they went from dressing room to stage. Suddenly they were there and bang! there was the music and this amazing direct, instinctive communication with the audience.
After that I made two films simultaneously. One was Benefit of the Doubt, which was actors – the actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company – once again trying to communicate across that open space; trying to communicate about the war in Vietnam. The film attempted to analyse the situation of the actors and writers involved in us, a production concerned with the war. Just as in a sense some of the poets in Wholly Communion, like Adrian Mitchell, were protesting as well as communicating, these actors and writers were protesting. Just as the Stones were protesting. The Stones protested as much about America and American power and alienation as did the poets in Wholly Communion or the actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The other film was Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, which in a way was about a number of people involved in the media. They were all fictions. Each and every person in Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London is a fiction – part of the myth of Swinging London. I wanted to show them all just as people sitting in a chair talking, not as the myths they had become. And everyone went along to see this swinging film about Swinging London and came away with the impression that people were just sitting around talking. But to me that was part of what it was about. These people – real people – had become myths.
The Fall was really a natural progression from Benefit of the Doubt. It seemed to me inadequate to be an English actor on the English stage trying to do something about the war in Vietnam. I thought it was important to know what the whole thing was about, so I went to America. I started to film the collapse of the protest movement there and that culminated in me participating in the Columbia revolt. I was behind the barricades for seven days and I tried to film and document the whole thing. What was exciting for me in a way was that I was finally participating. So I put myself in the film. I was the man with the microscope. I was the medium between what was going on outside and what was going on inside. Although when I was shooting the film I thought it was about New York, when I had finished it I became aware that it was about me. I tried to show how this exterior image of violence had transferred itself from the outside to the inside. It was really a portrait of myself masquerading as New York collapsing. And I was accused of being narcissistic in making the film. Well, the media is narcissistic. People sit at home watching television, and they either watch themselves on the screen or other people whom they would really like to be. It’s a form of collective narcissism. In a way Daddy is continuing with the microscope, with the camera as a microscope probing into my relationship with Niki de St Phalle, probing into a person who to a certain extent is a myth – to a lot of women, Niki de St Phalle is a myth; she’s not particularly well known in England but she’s well known in America and France. She’s known as a liberated woman and her sculpture has always symbolised the sexy, triumphant, liberated female. So I set out to make a film that once again is a mixture of participation, in that it was a relationship between Niki and myself that I tried to document, and analysis, since it is an attempt to understand someone trying to communicate her experience. Niki is rather like a mixture of all those people in the earlier films – poet, actor, myth. Here she is trying to communicate.
She was introduced to me by a friend and was interested in making a film, so we decided to try and make a five minute cartoon film together. Although it was pretty quickly abandoned, it was how I got to know Niki and how I became interested in her work, her drawings, her sculpture – in fact all the symbols and images she uses. The five minute cartoon, in a way, is still in the film. It is the book which the little girl reads, which is a real book and the images in the film are from it. That book did evolve through the making of the film and in a sense is a residue of the original idea we had – just to film a series of images.
I become more and more interested in Niki’s symbolism. What interested me most of all was the fact that she herself seemed to be very hidden. There was a great difference between her work and Niki as a person. I started to wonder why she was hiding herself or what she was trying to hide; why there was, in my experience of her anyway, no immediate relationship between her work and herself. This was my first impression.
Then what evolved as our first real project together was a kind of pop art film that was going to use images from her work, from her drawings and sculpture, bits of old film of things she’d done in the past, together with a number of created situations, like little charades let’s say. It was all going to be incorporated into an hour long film we were going to call Dear Diana. The dialogue on the soundtrack was going to be a conversation in letters between herself and a girlfriend and it was really going to be a kind of send-up of women’s lib. Basically, it was going to be these girls chatting on about all their men-friends and their sex lives and all that kind of thing, quite serious and also something quite flip. Niki has made a number of lithographs and drawings which are imaginary letters. She had this imaginary character, Diana, who was presumably a kind of Nana, whom she used to write to and this is how the idea for the film evolved.
At some point or another, when I got particularly involved with Niki, the film took a turn for the worse perhaps – it became serious! I suddenly thought why make a flip pop art film? I’d been seduced by the pop art image in the work. I’d been seduced by the idea of making it superficial and flip and full of joy and colour and all that – all the qualities that I had associated with Niki’s work in the beginning, the qualities most people had associated with it. However, I realised that this wasn’t the case, that this childish vision, this childish, naïve kind of work was not simply flip and superficial and joyful; it was really rather serious and what she was dealing with were issues that were very important. So I started to try and impose on Niki another kind of film altogether – rather more serious.
This came about after we made a tape one night – this was while we were still on the Dear Diana number. I though how about trying to get some of this dialogue by just taping Niki; got her drunk and taped it, and she completely collapsed and the whole thing came out, the whole thing about her past, her childhood, and I got a lot of material which made me totally reconsider the film I was making.
Making the film made me realise that this deliberate childish naivety in Niki’s work was not because she was remembering a particularly good period in her life – it wasn’t that this childish vision was still alive; in fact, it was exactly the opposite, that she was fixed at a certain age and she hadn’t really grown up. There was something wrong about why she was fixed at that particular age psychologically. She was still seeing the world through the eyes of a child. It made me want to psychoanalyse her and I suppose I set out to psychoanalyse her on film, because it was clear that it boiled down to her relationship with her father and her early experience of him when she was young.
I got her to tell me as much as she would at that time about her relationship with her father. One particular story kept on cropping up time and time again about playing blindman. I was fascinated by this story! And that was really the beginning of the film because I realised it was Oedipus. Who is the man who is led through the world by his daughter? Oedipus, led through the world by Antigone.
Turn East, turn West, catch as you can. What are you doing Daddy?
What are you doing? I want to cry. Mummy can’t see. Blind man,
blind man, do you think you have caught me? Daddy what do you mean!
I want to scream, Don’t tell Mummy, don’t tell Mummy.
Turn East, turn West, down on your knees. Sure you can’t see?
Mummy can’t see? But I am your eyes, Daddy.
I will lead you through many countries, I will conquer the
world for you. Don’t tell Mummy, don’t tell Mummy.
If you are God, Daddy, what are you doing on your knees?
The whole question of the phallic woman and the castration of the father seemed to come back to this one situation where she was Antigone leading her castrated father through the world. Her blind folded – blinded – father. And the film really sprang out of that one story – the whole idea of Daddy wanting to see everything, to know everything.
I then wrote a script which was presumably my fantasies about the father-daughter relationship mixed with her fantasies about the daughter-father relationship and this was the script we decided to film. However, no sooner had we started to shoot it than we had to abandon the script altogether because there were certain things in it that Niki could not admit to – would not admit to, namely that the little girl had also been responsible in the situation – that it was as much her fantasy about seducing her father as it was he seducing her. In other words, although the situation was entirely imaginary anyway, it wasn’t just the father seducing the daughter, it was the daughter seducing the father. As you probably know, Freud when he was doing his early work, was shocked by all the daughters who explained how their fathers had tried to seduce them, and it was only later that he realised the situations were mostly imaginary. Probably they were all very disappointed that their fathers hadn’t!
So the original script was abandoned largely because at that time Niki would not admit to having been the sexy little girl: she had repressed her own sexuality, and so the film took off instead into another direction altogether, into a fantasy about revenge against Daddy… against men… for that oppression she felt came from men and I let her go as far as she possibly could or would in this direction. It was almost as if she had to get rid of all that – and where there is repression there is inevitably hate – in order to be able to come back to the situation of what had happened between she and her father. The film became much more a general story about repression, by men, of women, than the personal story of Niki. We finished the film and it was so loaded in the one direction we saw we’d lost something completely. The film was an hour long but it was only half the story. Niki couldn’t admit it until that version of the film was finished. Then she realised it was not the whole story because we’d eliminated – or she had eliminated – totally this whole area of the sexy little girl who tried to seduce Daddy.
I went away and wrote a whole new sequence which has now become most of part two of the film, which is where we brought the third character in, played by Mia Martin: the sexy little girl. The whole secret of the thing was Niki admitting to her own sexuality. She had suppressed it, repressed it, but in the course of making the film became aware of what had happened and even remembered incidents that had really happened which she had forgotten. The film was a catharsis. She was able to admit a number of things about herself that prior to making the film she was not able to admit, and these are now in the film.
I think it’s very important to say that although the film is about Niki, I don’t think it would be relevant at all if it was just a private case history. It is not at all: it’s a study of the phallic woman and a lot of women – I would say every woman – will see certain things in the film that relate either to their personal experience or to their fantasies. They must do, because every woman develops a super-ego out of the remnants of her Oedipus complex. The super-ego in the male, said Freud, is formed out of the remnants of the Oedipus complex with the mother. And exactly the same goes for the female. And the father figure in the film is clearly the super-ego – sitting in judgement on his throne, watching everything that goes on.
It’s really about repression. It’s about a woman in love with death and someone who’s in love with death is in love with death because they’re not in love with life. Consequently, there is an act of repression somewhere. Is it self-repression, does it come from the family, or what?
This idea of a woman in love with death means that Eros and Thanatos are inseparable in psychoanalytical terms. Eros is the so-called libido – the desire to unite with things. Thanatos is the death principle or the reality principle – in a sense, the desire not to unite with things but instead to know them and reflect upon them. It’s the opposite. And a certain amount of repression is necessary, otherwise we’d unite with everything: we’d go mad. We would become everything we experience.
Daddy, my Eros, my bird of death, you are my sun.
Daddy, when I close my eyes I see you in the darkness,
you are watching me, protecting me;
in the darkness we will be together for ever.
The relationship between the rational and the irrational – which to a certain extent is the relationship between the male and the female – is explored in the film. After all, it evolved out of my relationship with Niki: someone who had a camera and someone who made objects, someone who had something to show and someone who had something to see. It started off with me in the position of the person with the camera trying to get her to reveal herself – her fantasies, her unconscious, the reasons behind her symbols. In the end the film became much more about Niki admitting to the male role she plays, in her work and in herself. And about me admitting to the potential I have for femininity. So although it’s about two people in relationship, it’s really about four people. Freud said that when two people make love there are four people present. Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is based on this: there are four people in the quartet, but in reality there are only two lovers. So, on this level the film is about the relationship between the male and female role – between reason and instinct. The male element in the film – the rational element, is Daddy sitting in his chair immobile, wanting to know, to know. And the female part is Niki: the female acting out all these unconscious fantasies. As long as he wants to know, as long as she wants to know, they’re incapable of getting through to their unconscious. This is the reason for the symbol of the blindfold, Daddy being blindfolded. It is the surrender of, the release from the desire to pursue that rational knowledge. And that repression: wanting to know – instead of being able to let go.
Daddy, Daddy, it’s so dark in here.
Where are you Daddy? Are you there?
Blind man, blind man.
It was your eyes I wanted to kill.
Daddy, that saw everything, that knew everything,
that forever lusted after their prey.
Now that my eves are closed
I can fall into that darkness and join you.
Now that you are no longer watching me I am free.
Somebody saw the film and said that it should be called Blind Man, it shouldn’t be called Daddy at all. But one hopes that Daddy represents the patriarchy – the sculpture of the penis in the coffin – and that the film is about Niki’s fantasies of overthrowing the patriarchy, overthrowing male power.
Already there has been a swing in the culture away from the rational. The pre occupation with hallucinogens, with oriental religions, with Tantra, with astrology – this whole reawakened interest in the unconscious is really a swing towards the feminine, a swing back to the mother. The mysticism that is happening at the moment is a revolt against reason, and a lot of people find it best achieved in their sexual relationships with other people.
One of the problems involved in attempting to re-establish a matriarchy is that so many women have an awful problem about their masculinity – they don’t want to be butch. They don’t want to appear unfeminine, just as so many men don’t want to be feminine. The reason why Niki identifies so closely with the male role in the film is to get the mother – this is brought out in the lesbianism scenes. There is the sequence on the bed in which it’s suggested that Niki is making love to the Nana figure – the mother figure. And she asks, ‘Am I not better than Daddy?’ The mother replies: ‘You were always better than Daddy.’ Clearly, as a little girl, Niki found her mother sexy but was rejected by her and could not make contact. So she identified with the male role in order to seduce the mother, in order to seduce the female. Which means that all her sculptures – all those sexy, voluptuous sculptures, are mothers. She’s recently transformed them from Nanas into kind of ghouls and called them ‘Devouring Mothers.’ Before she made the Nanas all her sculpture were big monsters, which in a sense could represent this huge, libidinous overflowing energy from the unconscious. But the unconscious is always feminine, the unconscious is always the devouring mother. Always. So Niki is afraid of that force, and yet wants it. She really wants to be loved by the mother. Hence the metaphor for the rebellion against the patriarchy. You cannot reestablish a matriarchy without everyone being in favour of the mother, wanting the mother to have power. And that is the subject of the film.
It’s inevitable that Daddy is going to shock people because it deals with sexual politics, it challenges the family, it challenges the role of the father, it challenges the role of religion. Swift had something very important to say about religion: ‘All religion is a perversion of sexuality.’ In the film it becomes clear that the Church is part of the repression, part of the patriarchal repression. Daddy also challenges the incest taboo; it’s inevitably going to shock people-and hurt people. I think people are going to be very offended by it, but I have had some very interesting reactions from people who’ve seen it, especially from women. Men seem to worry about whether they’re turned on or not. And if they are turned on, they’re a little bit afraid that they’re masochists perhaps, or if they’re not masochists whether they really have a kink about little girls. So either way, the men are a bit upset if they get turned on by it.
Women have a very different approach to it of course: they wonder, ‘Is that me? Do I have those kind of fantasies? Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it.’ A lot of women have said, you know, it’s very interesting, but that’s Niki de St Phalle, it’s not me. But a lot of women whom I know who’ve seen it have had that reaction and then come back later and said, ‘It’s very strange but I had a dream last night and I remembered my brother. You know, I had exactly that kind of relationship with my brother.’ There’s always been someone that each and every woman’s lived out this kind of myth with. It’s not necessarily with the father or the mother. It can be with surrogate figures.
The really important thing with Daddy is that it’s really just a fairytale about a girl who played blind man with her father. I’d like to think it worked on that level. I mean all this psychoanalytical bullshit – analysis after the event – is alright but the basic story is so simple. The film is open to analysis in terms of archetypes, though. The father figure clearly represents the super-ego, but this is normal in the sense that the person who has power will always be a symbol in the unconscious mind for that power over oneself – the power of judgement and self-repression and self-castration. If we overdevelop our super egos, we overrepress ourselves. Niki’s clearly in the position of being over-repressed. But like all overrepressed people, when she lets go, she really lets go.
I would like to think that in all my films I have not been analytical until I’ve shot the film. There are two processes involved: one is filming, the other is editing. For me, filming or photographing is essentially feminine; it’s a surrender, I have to be fluid, I have to be given to the situation. For me, filming is to sit in the corner hidden, totally passive and receptive. I become male, I become analytical, then I get on the editing machine and then I start being rational. I start cutting up the film into little bits and pieces. And this is precisely the process I tried to document in The Fall.
The Fall is divided into three parts. Part 1 is ‘The Image,’ which in a sense was the fluid image, the feminine, the surrender. It was me going there, to New York, and passively giving myself to this city, to this culture. I was being raped by it, if you like. I then take it back and Part 2 – ‘The Word’ is not when I have a camera but when I have an editing machine. And Part 2 opens with the editing machine and I start cutting, analysing and thinking. I start that other process – my rational process. Part 3 of the film is where the two come together – ‘Word and Image.’ Where in fact I was acting in an instinctive position. You’re instinctive when you’re in Columbia faced by a thousand police. You know there’s no time to be analytical when you’re in the throes of direct action or revolution. I would say that when you ask me to talk about my films what the hell else can I be but analytical? But if you come with me when I make a film I am something entirely different – not at all the male authoritarian.
(The passages in italics are dialogue extracts from his film Daddy)
Films and Filming, February 1974
© Peter Whitehead/Films and Filming
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders