NYC Film Festivals

'60s Legend Gets First US Retro

Filmmaker Peter Whitehead filming The Fall in New York, 1968 (Photo: Peter Whitehead)

By John Lichman

The Word and the Image: The Films of Peter Whitehead, the British filmmaker's first American retrospective, opens today at Anthology Film Archives, focusing on the counter-culture movements that the director chronicled in the 1960s and '70s. Perhaps best known for the short Wholly Communion, in which he captured the collision of American and English Beat poets, Whitehead's work offers something rare from the period: actual footage of cultural icons just beginning to shape the world -- from Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Tonite” (which would inspire the film Tonite Let’s Make Love in London) to the 13-minute John Bonham drum solo of his concert film Led Zeppelin: Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

Whitehead's first film, The Perception of Life, also pioneered inventive cinematography in its expansion of biological ideas; as a student under Francis Crick, co-founder of DNA’s structure, Whitehead filmed using an electron microscope to look beneath accepted, everyday structure. (Not coincidentally, Life is programmed with the planned spoof Tonite.) The retrospective's stand-out film is 1969’s The Fall; originally planned as a New York version of Tonite, the film explores Whitehead's own position as a documentarian against the authentic backdrop of upheaval and assassination in Vietnam-era America. Benefit of the Doubt chronicles the Royal Shakespeare Company's war protest US as devised by famous theater director Peter Brook; through cast interviews (including a chat with future Oscar winner Glenda Jackson) and clever editing, Whitehead reveals a work that transcends the stage as a presentation of the racism and self-doubt during the ongoing campaigns in Vietnam.

The majority of the audience may come for Whitehead’s classic music docs: The Beach Boys in London (Pet Sounds-era), Pink Floyd: London 1966-67 (with original leader Syd Barrett and appearances by John Lennon and Yoko Ono), Peter Whitehead: Pop Films (featuring Jimi Hendrix and “rare surprises”) and the aforementioned Led Zeppelin feature doc. But in deeper efforts like Nothing To Do With Me, shot months after completing The Fall, a philosophical Whitehead confronts his camera in a first-person effort to understand not only what he made, but also what it could mean for himself and the culture he’s engaged in. The same topic is revisited in 1977's The Fire In The Water, but in a more comprehensive and star-studded attempt featuring Lennon, Hendrix, the Stones and The Who. (For whatever reason, the 2006 doc In The Beginning Was The Image: Conversations with Peter Whitehead is not included in the Anthology program.)

Whitehead’s works speak for themselves, presenting an artist who struggled to come up with a straight definition for the turbulent period he documented. A variety of explanations exist in his footage of concerts, poetry readings or fictional non-fiction documentaries on the fall of the Western world. But even if you really can’t wrap your head around the questions Whitehead ultimately poses in The Fall or any of the other 11 films screening here, then it's not hard to just sit back and enjoy the music.

Posted at February 15, 2007 7:45 AM

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