For Peter Whitehead, any notion of the documentary filmmaker being a removed, impartial observer — the kind Susan Sontag worried about in her canonical 1973 essay “In Plato’s Cave” — was anathema to his preference for a harrowingly embedded film style. The documentaries featured in Yerba Buena’s “The Word and the Image: The Films of Peter Whitehead” draw upon cinema verité, pop art, political theater, and news reportage: whatever works best to convey — and, at times, commune with — a given subject. Whitehead was not above indulging trends (e.g. zoom shots aplenty) and his own voracious ego (in interviews he variously claims to have authored the first ever postmodern and feminist films), but his sharp instincts for framing, editing, and social critique ensured his ability to keep pace with a decade on fire. The films in Yerba Buena‘s retrospective, which opens tonight — the first ever such program in North America — are culled from a brief four-year window (1965-1969), but between the early pop films and Whitehead’s deconstructionist opus, “The Fall,” there is a heroic, impossible artistic evolution. Impossible, indeed, because Whitehead ultimately couldn’t document the sixties myth without becoming one himself: the brilliant burnout, primed for rediscovery.
To watch Whitehead’s films in succession is, first of all, to receive a dizzying catalogue of sixties icons — everyone from Stokely Carmichael to Robert Lowell has a place in the filmmaker’s kaleidoscopic movies. In an era defined by icons and iconography, Whitehead’s knack for being at the right place with the right people proved irresistible. No sooner had he completed “Wholly Communion” (1965) — his documentary on a notable poetry reading at London’s Royal Albert Hall featuring Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets — than pop impresario Andrew Loog Oldham came knocking for the filmmaker to shoot promotional material for England’s newest hitmakers, The Rolling Stones. Whitehead took the job — with a smugness typical of artists trading in pure commercialism — and began his ascendancy of the busy London scene.
Watching “Wholly Communion” today, it’s easy to spot the pop potential that eventually made Whitehead such a fixture of Swinging London. The film is shot in the handheld, verityé style fashionable at the time, although Whitehead’s camera is more indulgent than D.A. Pennebaker’s — something that makes sense when you consider that Whitehead is a full 12 years younger than Pennebaker. Whitehead’s transfixed vision reaches an apex during Ginsberg’s climactic reading: the director films the poet from afar, focusing the foreground of his composition upon an anonymous young woman shimmying to the poem’s rhythms. While the proto-hippie girl’s jerks now seem silly, Whitehead nonetheless accomplishes the considerable task of contextualizing art (Ginsberg’s poem) in a cultural moment (the girl) with cool nonchalance. The potentials for iconography must have been tantalizing for a culture vulture like Loog Oldham.
Although the promos Whitehead made for the Stones, Nico, Hendrix, and The Animals are fascinating in their anticipation of music video technique, it isn’t until his more ambitious montage film, “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London,” that one sees Whitehead coming into his own as a filmmaker, already beginning to unpack the sixties myth at the relatively early date of 1967. “Wholly Communion”‘s austere black-and-white cinematography is gone, replaced by the garish, sometimes beautiful color that was, again, fashionable at the time. Of special time-capsule relevance is an extended sequence of psychedelic freeze-frames documenting a vintage Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd performance. If this sounds like counterculture fluff, it must be said that while Whitehead does glory in such performances, he also demystifies Swinging London in a series of rather straightforward interviews, the most revelatory of which puts a boyish Mick Jagger on the hot seat. The singer hasn’t yet assumed the affected rock-star drawl for his everyday speaking voice, setting up a striking a dissonance between the Stones footage in which Jagger preens about, possessed by power, and the interview clips in which a naïve young man shyly muses on London’s youth culture.
This schizophrenic ability to assume a cultural identity while still maintaining a critical distance from it provides the foundation for all Whitehead’s documentaries, but as the sixties spiraled, “Tonite”‘s coherent interview-performance template demanded revision and complication. As was the case with many of his peers — including major influence Jean-Luc Godard — Whitehead responded to souring idealism with a disavowal of artistic objectivity, deciding to infuse his work with pastiche and reflexivity, two elements latent in “Tonite” but brought to the fore in his chronicle of the sixties meltdown, “The Fall.”
“The Fall”‘s pastiche is dense enough to defeat any hope of describing the film in linear terms, but perhaps the movie plays like “WR: Mysteries of the Organism”‘s nightmarish, electric cousin. Godardian political theater, embedded reportage, celebrity interviews, montage, and reflexive commentary all vie for the film’s mainline, leaving the viewer to navigate what critic John Lyle described as “restless noise.” Among the rapid-fire cuts between Bobby Kennedy speeches and underground theatre performances, hippie rituals and conservative platforming, Whitehead periodically shows himself in the editing room, crumbling under the strain of his tense footage. His own image, reflected on a glowing Steenbeck monitor (thoughts of Bob Dylan: “As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes”), is multiplied and confused, rendering his own subjectivity as unstable and distorted as any theoretical objectivity: “This absolute alienation,” Whitehead wrote, “from the outside world and from one’s own inner world, I try to expose in my film.”
Like so many other radical artists who shoulder a cultural movement’s hypocrisies and failures, Peter Whitehead burned out quickly, mostly abandoning filmmaking after “The Fall” for writing and a cultish obsession with falcons. In one latter-day interview, Whitehead reflected that, “I put myself together by putting
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