Peter Whitehead’s first films were two experimental shorts made while at the Slade School of Art. Only one, The Perception of Life, had a public screening. Inspired by this confirmation that ‘maybe he was a film-maker after all’, Whitehead borrowed equipment and rushed off to film the now-famous 1965 Albert Hall Poetry Reading. Without his previous experience as a news cameraman for Italian television, Wholly Communion would have been impossible – his ability to work in cramped conditions and to catch the essentials with the maximum economy on footage produced a film both spontaneous and expressive. And his concern with the spectator as well as the performer generates a sense of his being a ‘happening’ within the overall ‘happening’. His next film, Charlie is My Darling, was a sad, lyrical documentary about the Rolling Stones, which has been stock piled since the Stones transferred to their present manager. Benefit of the Doubt first appeared at last year’s London Film Festival together with Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Despite its enthusiastic reception in France and Germany, it hasn’t been screened subsequently in Britain. Perhaps its contents – scenes from Peter Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company London production of US intercut with interviews with its producer, actors, and audience – may explain its unpopularity with British distributors. Whitehead is perhaps unfortunate in being best known for Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. The film as seen had neither a narrative guideline nor any explicit comment on the myth of ‘Swinging London.’ Its disjointed impressionism was the result of Whitehead’s having to complete the film in three weeks at the insistence of his financial backers.
Whitehead safeguards as far as possible against such compromises by operating as a one-man team. On all but one of his films since Wholly Communion, he has not only directed but also written his own scripts, photographed, edited, and produced. Limited distribution is the price he has to pay for maintaining his cinema verite approach to filming and his concern with immediate social and political realities. But he has established himself over the last three years as the leading innovatory film director in this country.
Whitehead regards The Fall, now in the final stages of being edited, as the summation of all his previous films. The questions from the following interview on the film have been edited out to give the replies the fluency of a film-maker’s statement.
I never make a film from a script, for one important reason. I don’t believe in imposing myself, or an idea, on a situation and adapting reality to this idea. For me, filming must be a process of discovery and a document of change. I went to New York last fall for the New York Film Festival, was invited to make a film, and stayed there until June of this year.
I set out to make a film about protest and violence. That was all I had to guide me – the compulsion to film a city, a people, a culture, a society that was falling apart.
I filmed mostly the people connected with protest – the students, the hippies, the artists, poets, writers, off-off Broadway plays and so on – and of course filmed the meetings and protest marches.
By the time the Pentagon March was over and 250,000 people had protested against the Vietnam war, it dawned on me that it was all tragically and helplessly irrelevant. Protest had become worse than ineffective; it had become fashionable. A newspaper published a full page of Hippie fashions after the Pentagon March, and Peace Dresses could be bought at the big stores for 25 dollars. Meanwhile everything got rapidly worse. If I was to make an honest film it would have to be about the humiliation and impotence of the protest movement, and as I was on their side, this was obviously a betrayal.
It occurred to me that if legal protest was being successfully ignored by the power structures, illegal protest, resistance, violence was the only possible next step. This would have to be my film, a plea for violence. But how to document an act of violence without doing it? The whole purpose of my making a film was being threatened. In this situation, was a film going to achieve anything except be “too late”? I wrote a script to incorporate all my documentary film on violence and protest as background for the “story” of an artist who gives up art and acts politically – in this case chooses an act of political assassination as the only effective act of protest left. “Young film-maker turns assassin…” I returned to the States with more money to film the fiction. Martin Luther King was shot dead. The cities were being burnt down. I could not film the real violence when it happened. To film something is to witness it, to judge it; and to stand by and not do anything is to exploit the sensationalism of the situation.
Reality, yet again, had far exceeded my worst expectations. The idea in my film had been to assassinate just an average spectator at a political rally, the person who is just as responsible as the President. Didn’t he elect him? Burning flags and disfiguring images of LBJ did nothing, except make LBJ look better in the flesh by comparison. If a few people got shot when the eyes of the world were on a political rally, then the act of protest might be effective again. That had been my idea, but the fact of an assassination, to see how hideous was its reality, and how quickly people forget, reminded me that assassins are usually acting only to bring attention to their own predicament. In this sense, such an act was a symbolic suicide.
I had to admit to myself that it had been a mistake to make a film about protest. What I really wanted to do was to make a film that proposed what ought to be done; not a film which merely observed. To stand and observe is to be alienated. This is when I decided that the film had to be about me, because I felt this was what everybody who cared for the world was going through, this was the identical situation for anyone who looks and sees what is happening and says, “What the hell am I going to do?” I was prepared to make a film to invite people to commit acts of violence as protest. It wasn’t easy. I had to admit to myself I was prepared to take the risk myself. I didn’t have the courage.
By now I had lost the purpose in filming a documentary about non-violence and a fiction film about a premeditated act of violence. I was myself very screwed up at the time. I went and filmed Bobby Kennedy to see if there really was a political solution.
A month after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the students at Columbia took over their University, occupied and liberated five buildings, one of them entirely occupied by Negroes, making the situation very difficult for the authorities. I joined the students and stayed with them behind the barricades for a week until the police bust finally got us all out. Over 200 students and teachers were injured in the worst, documented act of collective police brutality in New York’s history – and that’s saying something. The revolution began with Columbia and has many years to go.
The climax of the film is the participation in this collective act of resistance. Columbia University is a perfect microcosm of America: owned by big Corporations who dictate the rules, blatantly eating its way into Harlem and taking over property that’s needed more urgently by the Harlem community, affiliated to outfits like the Institute for Defence Analysis, working on tactical nuclear weapons. The head of this unit went to Vietnam at the time of Khe Sanh, and the world thought America was about to use nuclear weapons. The “monster” is supposedly entrusted with totalitarian power to decide the discipline and education meted out to its thousands of students. It “owns” the place after all! So finally the film divides into three parts. In the first part, the violence is indirect, or seems to be so. It is images, people talking, television, marches, meetings. It’s what can be seen and filmed, passively observed. The whole of the “outside there” of New York seems to me to be a threat, from which there’s no escape except inwards; there seems no longer any possibility of integration with a world that is totally alien, that only demands by one means or another that we conform to its overwhelming power the power of success.
In the second part of the film is the artist, confronting this fragmentation and violence. He can create his work as protest, as confrontation, or withdrawal. My protagonist decides on committing an act of political violence. To become political he must become violent and therefore decides to film his own act of violence. But then when the real assassination occurs, he sees how impossible such an act would really be, and how ineffective. He withdraws into his own inner fragmentation and madness.
The third part documents his participation in the rebellion of the students of Columbia University. This is a collective act of non-violent resistance. In the police brutality against the students the violence is finally received, it’s inflicted upon himself. Finally, it was done to me. To have gone through Columbia is to know just a little, for a moment, what it is like to be black in America. Finally the violence is real. It’s the New York cop with handcuffs used as knuckledusters to smash your face in because he’s a cop and you’re a privileged student. It’s a real class hate! And I think if I’d had a machine gun that night I would have used it – seeing a thousand armed cops so joyfully charge into teenage boys and girls sitting on the floor, hands over their heads, protesting against the Vietnam war, institutionalised racism and every other crime perpetrated by the law.
Making this film posed this problem for me: was what I was doing effective in the situation, which was, I was to realise only much later, a revolutionary situation? How could my film be really revolutionary? Revolution is action. I’m for Mayakovsky in this. Poetry is the only art for revolution. You can sing it and shout it; you don’t have to sit down to do it! “The streets belong to the people” was shouted from Greenwich Village to Fifth Avenue in one march I was on. You can’t stop on a street corner and do Brecht or LeRoi Jones. You can go and see this nice little play in the Village and sit in it for an hour and a half, you come out and say, “Yes, yes, no doubt about it” – and you jump in your Cadillac and go back home.
In the film there’s a sequence I filmed in a subway, a quiet lyrical ballet we improvised one day in the rush hour, about violence of course. We enjoyed it immensely, but it doesn’t seem to have reduced the violence on the subway. My reason for doing it was to symbolically re-possess this “public object.” We made it our own theatre for half an hour. It no longer belonged to the City Council! I’d like to go round repossessing public stolen objects, with strange rituals – symbolically of course. No, Revolution needs slogans and poetry, posters maybe, but not theatre and films. The French students didn’t rebel in Nanterre because they saw La Chinoise.
Reality is always more powerful. It is to regain our ability to integrate with reality, that we try to change reality. It’s the real world we must try to “be in,” not a symbolic one. What do we have left of reality except what we salvage from the distorted Media? We see only what we condition ourselves to look for, and the Media are teaching us and our children only to look for the possessable, ownable, eatable, and so on. Eventually we’ll see no reality except what is fed us. Ethel Kennedy screamed at the reporters who were falling over the body of Bobby Kennedy at her feet. One replied, “Sorry lady, this is history.” One day I hope that remark will become history too before the Media have finally destroyed our ability to “be” anything except what it dictates.
Obviously the artist helps to create a climate in which some kinds of ideas develop into action. The irony is at the moment that the news reporting Media seem to be the only truly “revolutionary” medium, in the sense that it reports the situation which, obvious to those who need to know is a revolutionary situation. It’s what we see filmed in Vietnam or in the Ghettos that’s enhancing the development of this revolution situation. But unfortunately it has effects both ways. It wasn’t The Manchurian Candidate that made a young Arab boy shoot Bobby Kennedy. The boy who shot Rudi Dutschke believed the newspapers of the Axel Springer Organisation. For me the best act of revolutionary theatre this year was the massacre, seen on TV, of the protestors at the Chicago Democratic Convention. That was the real thing, kids getting their heads bashed in by Major Daley’s trigger-happy cops. The aim was to get it seen by the world, and it was seen by the world, thanks to the brilliant strategy of Tom Hayden, who knows well how to feed the sensation hungry audience. But his “happenings” are his recruiting campaign.
Protest and Revolution are very different. You can have protest art and theatre, but not revolutionary theatre. This is one main point of my film. The second half of the film deals with the artists and their protest, impotent to effect radical change. This was my problem too, only solved when I had a real revolutionary event to film – the student rebellion at Columbia.
The Black Panthers may write long articles in Ramparts and Evergreen Review, but they don’t act out plays in their spare time, nor did Che Guevara entertain his troops doing an impersonation of Omar Sharif in that great revolutionary film, Lawrence of America.
I sometimes wonder if all my films, especially the last two, aren’t acts of aggression against film, against limits put on me by the nature of film itself. The camera is designed on the principle of the human eye and I want The Fall to be experienced as looking out from the inside of my head! But the outside world no longer seems worth looking at, so you have to turn inwards. The problem is to develop a film language that is equivalent to this inward search for significance and meaning. For me film can be this visionary experience, beautifully and pure, yet 99.99% of what I see as film or television or the Subtopia cities we are now having to live in, is vulgar, ugly aggressive and morally destructive. It is not enough to go and see a beautiful face or beautiful island instead. That is escapism. My confusion and conflict, which I do admit to, comes from using a debased language. But I refuse to let it win! My problem therefore is to create a language to confront this fragmentation and aggression in culture, which does not itself suffer from the same faults. Perhaps it’s impossible, or may take a long time. I’ve not really succeeded yet, except that sometimes I manage to in The Fall, I hope. I see America as one huge Commercial for itself, persuading us to believe at any cost that what it is and has and will become is the only possible solution to existence; in America you must win in order to be, succeed so as not to commit the worst sin of all, failure… failure to know what you want! We are taught to know what we want. Advertising only succeeds by forcing people unconsciously to conform, e.g. to buy this brand of food or cultural goods in preference to the next; its aim, by definition, must be to limit our ability to make decisions, to retain our identity.
In The Fall, my protagonist is trapped by images, by his conflict with what he sees. It is hard to have to fight against the whole structure of seeing in order to re-assert one’s identity. In the end he destroys reality, which means he abandons his effort to make sense of the outside world, and gives himself to images, to disintegration. He is saved by finding an outside situation with which he can integrate himself, the Columbia Rebellion, in which the students are all fighting the same struggle against the Corporate Institutionalisation of their society, their emotions, their ideas, their visual world.
I talked earlier about the debased language that filming is becoming because of its misuse. I feel strongly about this because film is the most powerful medium of illusion and involvement that exists. It is a dangerous power in the hands of the increasingly dehumanised technological society. The computer is not so much a threat as TV. For me, film can be something mystical when you film something you can develop a relationship with, the object filmed that transcends seeing and “looking at.”
In The Fall I am trying to become somebody else by making this film, by trying to reach the real world again and to break away from the symbolisation that most people are in danger of accepting as “for real.” What you see on that screen isn’t real; you must remember it’s film you’re looking at. But once over that mental adjustment, film can be the medium by which we could regain contact with the world. It can, if used properly, not alienate us from the world, but bring us back to it.
This is why Andy Warhol puts a camera in front of the Empire State Building for twelve hours. He’s hoping you might see it. Or go and look at it. It’s really there, not just an idea you’ve been sold on TV. He hopes in those twelve hours you might not only think twice, but a thousand times twice. It’s Warhol’s aggression against the fragmentation of images and objects and everything that editing is, in commercials, shows, films and so on.
I go out to film with great reluctance and with great difficulty, knowing I’m perhaps fighting a losing battle. The Fall starts with a blank screen and then the close up of an eye that’s it. One or the other. I’m trying to see again and sometimes I think only when I’m looking through my camera and I see. I’m threatened by the possibility of becoming pure medium myself, instead of experience. But that’s the risk I take of trying to make total cinema. In The Fall it’s as if you are looking through the eyes in my head. It is looking through my eyes.
And for me it seems vital to make people look for a real world again. Otherwise they are in danger of being engulfed by a world of prefabrication, a world that has as its blue print for construction, the control and development of our needs, not only to survive, but permanently to compete, to have more than everyone else. In other words, to possess more of that prefabricated world. And this total loss of any inner life will mean the total loss of humanity as we would still like to think it might become.
Cinema, December 1968
© Peter Whitehead/Stephen Crofts/Cinema
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