Peter Whitehead’s Impressions of ‘London Scene’
by Bosley Crowther
The key, perhaps exclusive, criterion of validity for the “new” cinema – does it ‘involve’ the audience? Does it grab the viewer’s emotions and concerns with the forcefulness or excitement of its ‘statement,’ be it achieved through some narrative form or no? – was put to the test last night with the showing of two of Peter Whitehead’s recent British films at the late presentation of the New York Film Festival in Philharmonic Hall.
These films, coupled under the general and clearly come-on title, ‘The London Scene,’ which is just about as accurate as it would be to define the Broadway area as the New York ‘scene,’ might be called documentaries, if it weren’t that they blandly defy or depart without any hesitation from the conventions of this familiar genre.
The first one, haphazardly titled Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London, is a random and ricocheting hodgepodge of candidly photographed scenes of people talking or singing at protest meetings; straight-on, close-up interviews with prominent motion picture people such as Julie Christie, Lee Marvin and Michael Caine; sequences of recording sessions of popular rock ‘n’ roll bands, look-ins and talks with pop artists, and impressionistic shots of people dancing in the street.
There is no form or continuity to it. It just bounces and tumbles ahead, scattering agitation and confusion, and, in the breezy, bumbling things that are said by the very mod people who are talked to, putting across the idea that ‘swinging London’ is a mere manifestation of commercial encouragement of kookie cults that will pass.
I gather this is precisely what Mr. Whitehead intended it to be – an engrossing and amusing observation of scattered aspects of the current mod scene, done so briskly the viewer gets caught up in it but not so seriously he’s likely to be sold.
The second film is considerably different. It is called Benefit of the Doubt, and it is a serious sort of running commentary on a current highly controversial play, called US, which has been put on in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Peter Brook.
Scenes of the play – a fierce and flaming satire on the war in Vietnam, done in a Brechtian fashion – are vividly intercut with intensely passionate talks with the actors, members of the production staff and especially Mr. Brook, out of which comes a stirring comprehension of the thought and emotion that went into the doing of this play.
By this technique of back-and-forth cutting, Mr. Whitehead gets the viewer much involved not only with the evident statement of the stageplay (which is clearly one of outrage at what is going on), but also with the community of theatrical people who are profoundly and intelligently concerned.
Not enough of the play is transmitted – just a few of its more expressive scenes – to permit a full judgment of it. It is not reproduced, that is, as was Mr. Brook’s and this company’s film rendering of the stage play Marat/Sade. But there is enough enacted to make one want to see more, and I hope we will.
The scenes from the play are in color, incidentally – excellent color, as is that in the first film. The conversations with the actors and Mr. Brook are in black and white. This contrast gives subtle definition to the margin between stage illusion-stage statement – and the immediate cerebrating reality.
This, I might add, was one of the livelier programs at the festival so far.
The New York Times, 27 September 1967
© Bosley Crowther/The New York Times
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