Peter Whitehead Was There
by J. Hoberman
Endlessly repackaged, regurgitated, and reviled, the High Sixties are the historical moment on which no one has any perspective – least of all those who lived through it. Peter Whitehead, subject of a near-complete retro this week at Anthology Film Archives, was a man of that particular moment. As much scene-maker as filmmaker, Whitehead personified the late-’60s breakdown of boundaries in postwar Britain. This working-class Cambridge grad was the original rock’n'roll documentarian; with reckless camerawork matched by tumultuous editing, he plunged into London’s sex-drugs-and-protest counterculture with a frenzied there-ness.
Whitehead’s 33-minute Wholly Communion made an immediate splash in part because the then 28-year-old filmmaker captured an epochal moment. June 11, 1965: An unexpectedly large (and mod) audience packed Royal Albert Hall to see Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso declaim with a gaggle of somewhat overawed but no less crazed British confreres. Hardly an evening of deathless verse, the event was a historic manifestation of transatlantic beat solidarity—’pot, impromptu solo acid dances… incredible barbaric color… face and body painting… flowers and flowers and flowers,’ per one participant.
The be-in’s slapdash immediacy, heightened by Whitehead’s improvisational technique, made Wholly Communion a planetary news bulletin; indeed, the 1966 New York Film Festival showed it as a double bill with The War Game, Peter Watkins’ faux documentary of England under nuclear attack. (Seldom has a ‘new wave’ been founded on such disparate personalities as these two Peter Ws.)
The Rolling Stones commissioned Whitehead to film their Irish tour but, like at least one subsequent Stones doc, Charlie Is My Darling has proved legally problematic, with the band controlling the rights. Whitehead’s next released feature was Benefit of the Doubt, a record of Peter Brook‘s free-form vaudevillian anti–Vietnam War perpetual work-in-progress agitprop US. The piece is performed, discussed, and pulverized: Whitehead’s camera peers up at the actors as they fling themselves around the stage, and zooms in on Glenda Jackson so that she’s doubly in your face with her crisp, yowling insistence that ‘I want it to get worse! I want it to come here!!’ Yes, it!!!
Whitehead brought it all together and watched it fly apart with his most celebrated feature, the self-deconstructing Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, titled after a line in Ginsberg’s globally ecstatic ‘Who to Be Kind To.’ This kicky, trippy pre-Blow Up explosion celebrates ‘The Loss of the British Empire’ and the mad midday frugging of Carnaby Street ‘dollygirls,’ not to mention body painting, peace marches, and female fans storming the stage as Mick Jagger sings ‘Have You Seen Your Mother.’ The chin music is scarcely less provocative. Julie Christie praises the Beatles, Michael Caine regrets the loss of “moral fiber,” Vanessa Redgrave gives an agonized a cappella rendition of ‘Guantanamera.’ Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham raises diffidence and distraction to cosmic heights, with an obviously stoned Mick sitting for an interview and treating himself like a sage. David Hockney praises America. Buskers busk, tourists gawk. Tonite suggests an alternative Warhol world in which the filmmaker is never less than a participant.
Among other things, Whitehead can claim paternity of the music video. A program of his ‘pop films’ includes raw vérité promos for the Animals, Jimi Hendrix, Nico, and the Stones’ balefully sarcastic post-drug-bust ‘We Love You’ – a mock dramatization of the Oscar Wilde trial, which was banned by the BBC. Pieces of most of these can be found in Tonite, although Pink Floyd, a then obscure band to which Whitehead had a personal connection, supplies much of the movie’s music.
Tonite and Benefit of the Doubt were shown together at the same 1967 New York Film Festival that featured Battle of Algiers, Made in U.S.A. and Far From Vietnam. Whitehead came for the show and stayed in New York through May 1968 to make his most ambitious film, The Fall. The TV-generated pop LBJ-RFK-SDS iconography is obvious but alive – not unlike the rock version of ‘I Want to Be in America’ that Whitehead uses to jumpstart his long-anticipated U.S. travelogue. Unable to stay off-camera, Whitehead personalizes things by elliptically dramatizing his love affair with a then girlfriend, who is introduced modeling a peace dress. Their madcap courtship adds a bit of downtime in a world where Gloria Steinem pronounces opposition to the Vietnam War ‘chic’ and the city’s ubiquitous demos seem indistinguishable from its discos.
The Fall‘s orgiastic rock riffs and light-smearing strobe motion verge on the abstract; the conflagration becomes literal when Martin Luther King is assassinated and Newark burns again. Romance is trumped, but The Fall does not cease to be a first-person film. In the final movement, Whitehead puts on his red shades and moves in with the Columbia students barricaded in Low Library. There’s fresh material here of free-form Motown dancing and the preparations for police assault, which, when it comes, has the chaos of combat photography; it’s followed by a flash-forward to the RFK assassination tumult as Peter’s own video image disintegrates.
Back in England, Whitehead directed a Led Zeppelin concert film and two problematic experimental features. Made in collaboration with artist Niki de Saint Phalle, Daddy is an elaborate psychodrama in which the elegant, imperious de Saint Phalle revisits the moldering gothic site of her childhood. The artless style suggests early John Waters and so does the material, which – genteel but shocking – re-stages de Saint Phalle’s childhood abuse before careening into an elaborate s/m fantasy that involves setting up Mummy as a whore and humiliating ‘Duddee’ as a dog. Payback reaches its uncomfortable climax when Niki tantalizes her nemesis with schoolgirl jailbait (Mia Martin, a teenage model-cum-heiress who was Whitehead’s current inamorata). Spanking and masturbation verge on the pornographic until Niki decides that Daddy, already killed off a dozen times, is “just a girl in disguise.” Face painted, he gives birth to some broken dolls.
This unforgettably unpleasant movie – more cathartic for de Saint Phalle than the viewer – was Whitehead’s last to receive any American notice. Richard Roud, his chief American promoter, managed to get it into the 1973 edition of “New Directors/New Films,” where The New York Times termed it “a bitter blend of Freudianism and feminism… less a movie than a harangue.” The 1977 feature Fire in the Water brought Whitehead’s film work full circle. A young couple flees the city to a remote highlands cottage where the man hopes to finish his film, a requiem for the ’60s. Not surprisingly, the footage he’s brought is culled from Whitehead’s earlier films. As shards of Tonite and The Fall are shown on the Steenbeck, the woman goes mad. So does the man, at one point bludgeoning a bird to death. (A few years later, Whitehead would reinvent himself as a falconer, employed at one point by the House of Saud.)
Anticipating by several seasons Francis Ford Coppola’s more transfixing ’60s requiem, Whitehead employs Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’ to underscore the destruction of the cottage. Fire in the Water could not be considered a success, but it has a disturbingly unmediated savagery. To watch it is to realize how deeply Whitehead needed an environment of social chaos in which to submerge his own.