The Word and the Image
The Pop Films of Peter Whitehead
Fans of avant-garde film have cause to rejoice this month, as a long-overdue Peter Whitehead retrospective arrives at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. During his short but celebrated career in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Whitehead was one of England's most influential, enigmatic, and intellectual cinema artists, and he worked with many of that revolutionary era's greatest pop and underground luminaries. He was a director sui generis, and The Word and the Image retrospective is an aesthetic tonic for film fans who have tired of Hollywood clichés and are searching for an idiosyncratic, experimental movie experience.
Like Godard before him and Ken Jacobs after, Whitehead concerned himself with the immediacy of experience rather than the delicacies of narrative structure and character development, creating collages of images and words and leaving it to his viewers to parse out their meaning. His films were provocative, erudite, and willfully difficult, demanding critical thought and interpretation.
The series begins July 9 with Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, Whitehead's documentary about "Swinging London"; and ends three weeks later with his masterpiece, The Fall, a disjointed look at the Vietnam war and the effect it had on New York City in the late Sixties. A disorienting, media-drenched kaleidoscope, The Fall moves frantically from footage of President Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy to first-person close-ups of anti-war rallies, pro-war rallies, and the Columbia student riots of 1968.
The Alamo will also be screening the exhausting Daddy, a psychosexual trip through the disturbed mind of a young woman intent on exacting revenge on her father; the gorgeous and hypnotic "Wholly Communion," Whitehead's breakthrough vérité about the legendary Albert Hall Poetry Festival in 1965, starring Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso; and the less severe but no less challenging promo films he shot for Sixties pop-music icons the Rolling Stones, Small Faces, and Pink Floyd early blueprints for today's music videos. Looking down the list, one begins to sense that Whitehead filmed every significant moment and every significant personality of that volatile period.
"The artist's job," Whitehead says, "is to document the moment in history that he is alive." And few filmmakers documented as thoroughly, or had names so firmly associated with, a particular historical moment. So, it is understandable that as the defining impulses and ideas of that era started drying up, Whitehead began to redefine himself outside the cinema and outside the times. "By the late Sixties and early Seventies, protest had become fashionable," he says. "The counterculture had become fashionable. Everything had become fashionable, and I felt that I wasn't living directly. I found I couldn't have direct experiences looking through a camera's lens."
So at the height of his fame, the director simply capped the lens and stopped making movies. Just like that.
During the next 20 years, Whitehead traveled throughout Pakistan, North Africa, and the Arctic studying the art of falconry, eventually ending up on the peak of Jebel Soudah, the highest mountain in Saudi Arabia, where he built and maintained the largest private falcon-breeding center in the world.
"I went to rediscover myself in the wilderness," he says. "When you're hanging from a cliff face in Morocco looking down 100 feet to the sea, you are inside your life. No time spent looking through a camera could ever equal that."
Now 69 years old, Whitehead lives the quiet life of a novelist, passing his days at his home in England, "Just an old misanthrope," he laughs, "writing my books."
So how does he feel about the films that will be screened during the Word and the Image retrospective? Are they relevant now? Can they tell us something about our own particular world-historical moment?
"Honestly, I don't care about the films, if they're relevant or not," he says. "Films are like all art. You make them, and then they take on a life of their own that you have no control over. I don't know if they'll mean anything to anyone. I hope they do, but I don't really care."
All screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown
July 9, 4:30pm, and July 10, 7pm
Tonight, Let's All Make Love in London; "Wholly Communion"
July 16, 4:30pm
The Beach Boys in London, "Nothing to Do With Me"
July 17, 7pm
July 23, 4:30pm, and July 24, 7pm
July 30, 4:30pm
Fire in the Water
July 31, 7pm