Peter Whitehead

The retrospective at the Paris Cinemathí¨que in January 2007 followed by this summer’s Italian festivals of Bologna and Bellaria have witnessed the re(in)surrection of Peter Whitehead’s subversive counter-cinema. There is also a book being published, the first on the British director, Peter Whitehead: Cinema, musica, rivoluzione (Cinema, music, revolution), unfortunately only in Italian. After having spent a long time in Saudi Arabia breeding falcons (see The Falconer by Chris Petit, a good documentary on the director) Whitehead has recently come back to cinema and started working on an adaptation of one of his novels (he’s also a famous cyber-novelist), Terrorism as one of the Fine Arts… a long overdue film on Western fundamentalism and its ‘democratic’ CCTV-controlled identity.

Best known for his records of 60s music and youth culture, Peter Whitehead placed his own desiring subjectivity at the heart of his films and sculpted with light (he was a cinematographer as well as an editor) an alternate vision of the swinging sixties (a term which, according to the director, was coined by the CIA in order to downplay the revolutionary nature of that period). Superimposing warped and unfocused images on the dominant standard of clean and fake commercial aesthetics, his style sought to fight the capitalistic forces specialised in the commodification of the youth’s rebellious urges.

When Whitehead’s camera scratches away the glossy pretence of what he described as ‘that old monotheistic, patriarchal, elitist, conservative crap that through institutionalised imperialism is devastating the Third World and those who oppose this manslaughter’, I cannot help but thinking about his first, seemingly irrelevant, film, The Perception of Life. I watched the film in a quasi-deserted cinema during the Biografilm festival in Bologna where, exception made for this one feature, Whitehead’s retrospective was hugely successful. The film was commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation (Unit for the History of Ideas) and is about the evolution of biologic sciences in relation to the development of microscopic techniques. It was shot through lenses used by scientists from the 17th to the 20th century and it somehow embodies Whitehead’s cinematic action to come: going beyond the appearance of things, trying to analyse them from within after having perforated their surface, just like the eye-slitting in Un Chien Andalou. This curious film is closed by a voice-over asking the audience: ‘Have we arrived to the point where our eyes are meeting our imagination?’… An involuntary poetic declaration?

The Celluloid Liberation Front met Peter Whitehead in Bologna, where 31 years ago the tanks sent by the government entered the city to repress the creative autonomy movement, killing an innocent man and thousands of dreams.

CLF: What can you tell us about the film you’re now working on, Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts?

PW: My new film can be considered The Fall‘s sequel since it enacts the end of representation. The protagonist is Michael Schlieman, a MI6 spy working in the terrorism section of the British intelligence. He disappeared and will publish his ‘confessions’ on the internet, revealing the truth about secret operations carried out by various governments. There is a parallel between the sinking of the French Greenpeace boat, the Rainbow Warrior, and the terrorist state murder of a Greenpeace photographer. Schlieman is now part of an eco-terrorist group… the central element of the film is the killing of an ideal victim. I want to investigate the CIA’s influence on English culture, which is based on misinformation. This new film is influenced by Thomas De Quincey’s novels, Confessions of an Opium Eater and Murder Considered as a Fine Art, and I’d say that it is about fear and control, or better still, about the fear that the state spreads in order to control. After having destroyed the Third World now we are also destroying this planet; Gaia is now, rightly so, revolting.

CLF: Can cinema participate in social struggles, or does it merely register/document?

PW: Yes, partly it can but it’s just a little part. I think that avant-garde art always has to be directly and belligerently dangerous, destructive, but not towards itself, rather, towards the collective inertia. The true aim of art should be to cultivate acts of war… it’s not enough to paint words on walls, these walls need to be torn down.

CLF: Can you tell us more about the magazine you co-founded, Afterimage?

PW: I founded that magazine with Field and Sainsbury in 1970, we were mainly influenced by Cahiers and its political commitment and wanted to bring across the channel some avant-garde cinema such as Godard’s British Sounds (Peter Whitehead was the first one to translate Godard’s films into English) which remains little seen to these days. We were the first to publish the Manifesto of Third Cinema by Solanas and Getino in Europe besides reviewing Guney, Fassbinder and Herzog among others.

CLF: While watching the early Rolling Stones performances in Charlie is My Darling I felt that back then they were using a language that many found dangerous and hyper-kinetic. What attracted you most to that band?

PW: You got the point, the media back then was focusing on the style of the band while for me it was a matter of form or language, as you said. They were adopting the musical culture of the Afro-Americans, an oppressed minority, therefore that music was carrying a strong political message in itself. Jagger himself said, ‘music is one of the things that can change society, don’t let white kids listen to black music if you want them to remain how they are’.

CLF: I’ve just watched your first film The Perception of Life, and in spite of being poles apart from the rest of your production I thought that it somehow represented your cinema quite well. What do you think of that film?

PW: I have to admit that back then I didn’t like the film but, later on I got interested by the fact that it was all shot through a microscope, in other words I was not using the camera, I was using a microscope, and many sequences are shot through the oldest machines used by scientists. We were looking for what these scientists were seeing through those lenses. Perception shows how theories are determined by what is visible. You’re right, in a sense all my films are linked to the idea of using the camera as a microscope. I think that in all my films I enter a situation and I try to analyse it from the inside.

Interview by Celluloid Liberation Front


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