Peter Whitehead was a working-class kid from Liverpool who got into Cambridge, where he learned to speak in the posh accent we sometimes hear in his films. His subject was physics, but that seems to have led him to cinematography, which he pursued after Cambridge while studying painting in London at the Slade School of Art. He switched to filmmaking at a crucial time in British cultural history, the early 1960s, when poetry, painting, and pop music (the three P’s) were being transformed by various art and literary movements, and music and fashion scenes, into Mod, the portable style that for a decade turned London into Swinging London, the place where high culture finally gave it up to youth culture.
Whitehead got a job as a newsreel cameraman covering London for Italian TV and then met everybody who was anybody, writers and painters, theater people, movie stars and rock musicians — especially rock musicians and specifically the Rolling Stones and their producer, Andrew Loog Oldham. As the prime film chronicler of the music of the British Invasion, non-Beatles division, he captured the exact moment of a pop-star ascendancy that left everyone else mere mortals.
His confrontation with America was as inevitable as the Rolling Stones.’ By 1968 he was filming in New York. He made first-person documentaries and experimented with video before Godard did. Like Godard, who also worked with the Stones, perhaps because he had seen Whitehead’s films, he removed himself from the world of pop and immersed himself in politics, the fourth P. Then he quit. He devoted himself to falconry, the least predictable job switch in film history. By 1991, when the first Gulf War began, he was some kind of official falconer to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where, we read, he drove around in limousines with Arab princes. To film New York he drove around in a chauffeured Cadillac. He liked big cars.
It’s a mysterious career. To Whitehead’s credit, it’s not a career in the normal sense at all. Unfortunately it’s also something of a non-career as far as history is concerned, because for a long time most of his films weren’t available. Now a retrospective of his work is traveling under the Godardian title “The Word and the Image.” The films play at the Harvard Film Archive September 8 through 14. It’s a promising school year that begins with these.
WHOLLY COMMUNION (1965; September 8 + 13, 7 pm), Whitehead’s black-and-white record of a multi-poet reading attended by thousands at the Royal Albert Hall, is a document of Beat poetry at a time when poetry mattered. The filmmaker’s restless camera zooms; the image freezes on American, English, Austrian and Russian poets who read, argue, shout, and get drunk. The first shot, of a statue in Hyde Park back-lit by the sun, nods in the direction of classic British documentary before big-beaked Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi brings on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who announces, “Americans love travel!” The event is confused and glorious. Doomed lyric poet Harry Fainlight is interrupted but carries bravely on. Adrian Mitchell, England’s “shadow laureate,” performs his famous lines “I was run over by the truth one day/Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way/So stick my legs in plaster/Tell me lies/About Vietnam.”
After Ernst Jandl, looking like a belligerent accountant, yells one of his sound poems in German, Allen Ginsberg, the star of the evening, gets off the floor where he’s been lounging in the arms of the avant-garde filmmaker Barbara Rubin, who’s dressed like a Russian nun. As Ginsberg reads, a hip chick in big sunglasses and a polka-dot dress accompanies him by waving her arms as if she were playing an invisible theremin. The crowd is riveted by this display. You can tell everybody’s concentrating by the way they’re all smoking.
This kind of hypnotic confusion, organized but on the verge of explosion, becomes Whitehead’s theme, the thing he finds in the social fabric of his time, the principle defining his method of shooting and editing and the way he uses sound. BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT (1967; on the bill with Wholly Communion), his film of Peter Brook’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s play US, is a key Whitehead film in the way it combines spoken word, music, and politics. The play was hated in its time; the film is wild, a violent reaction to Vietnam featuring a song called “Zappin’ the Cong.” It includes its own analysis: Brook and the actors (Glenda Jackson is one) speak directly to Whitehead’s camera, and Whitehead cuts this into the action of the play without slowing it down.