Friday, 17 August 2007
focus on peter whitehead
With matinee idol good looks, an intellectual demeanour, and an uncanny knack for finding the eye of the storm, the films of unsung British filmmaker Peter Whitehead represent an extraordinary insight into counterculture movements of the late 1960s in both London and New York.
Taken together, Peter Whitehead's brief but intensely fertile output forms an intense document of one of the most profound periods of social change in the 20th century - an era where history was literally being rewritten on a daily basis.
"As much a scene-maker as a filmmaker"*, Whitehead was one of the few filmmakers trusted within the perfumed gardens of the 60s rock, film and literary fraternities as evidenced by his most famous film Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the 60s London scene featuring up-close-and-personal interviews from a dizzying array of 60s 'glitterati'; as well as the series of promo films he shot for TV show Top of the Pops with many of the era's most iconic rock and pop artists.
But far from being content to focus on 'in-crowd' glamour and pop culture, Whitehead's keen sense of political activism and willingness to embed himself in the centre of the action also led to his camera capturing some of the key political events of the 60s - including the Presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy, the Royal Shakespeare Company's protest against the Vietnam War, and New York in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, when the anti-Vietnam war protests erupted into the famous shut-in protest of the students of New York's Columbia University.
Focus on Peter Whitehead features six Australian premieres including Peter Whitehead: Pop Films (1966-69), featuring many of his rarely seen promo films for artists such as The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix; The Fall (1969) which captured remarkable footage of political upheaval, violence and anti-Vietnam protest movement on the streets of New York; Led Zeppelin: Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1970) - the definitive concert film of Led Zeppelin, filmed shortly after the band's second LP had been released) and In the Beginning Was The Image: Conversations With Peter Whitehead (2006) - Paul Cronin's new documentary on Whitehead, his work and his remarkable life.
The season also includes Whitehead's two feature films Daddy (1973), co-created and starring French sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle and Fire in the Water (1977), starring Nathalie Delon, John Lennon, David Hockney amongst others. Described as a 'requiem for the 60s', Fire in the Water would be Whitehead's final film for almost three decades. Disillusioned and believing that film could not change the world, Whitehead left it behind, reconnecting with nature through his passion for falconing, and more recently working as a writer and translator.
among the highlights:
Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)
Although Whitehead declared his belief that "Swinging London" was a myth perpetuated by Time Magazine (who coined the term in a 1967 issue), Tonite Let's All Make Love in London is widely considered to be one of the quintessential cinematic snapshots of the era. The film is a potent mix of on-the-spot interviews with many of the most recognisable faces of the decade interspersed with concert footage from the hip bands of the time. Among the cavalcade of 60s pop icons appearing in the film are 60s 'it girl' Julie Christie, Pink Floyd (with then singer Syd Barrett), the Rolling Stones, Lee Marvin, Michael Caine, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, and Terence Stamp.
"This kicky, trippy pre-Blow Up explosion celebrates "The Loss of the British Empire" and the mad midday frugging of Carnaby Street "dollygirls," not to mention body painting, peace marches, and female fans storming the stage as Mick Jagger sings "Have You Seen Your Mother..Julie Christie praises the Beatles, Michael Caine regrets the loss of "moral fibre", Vanessa Redgrave gives an agonized a cappella rendition of "Guantanamera" .. an obviously stoned Mick sitting for an interview and treating himself like a sage.."Tonite.." suggests an alternative Warhol world in which the filmmaker is never less than a participant." (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, 2007)
The Pop & Rock Films (1966-69)
Whitehead is famous for his remarkable documents of the era's burgeoning pop and rock scene, shooting a series of short promotional 'film clips' for such iconic 60s artists such as Nico, Jimi Hendrix, the Small Faces, Eric Burdon & the Animals, the Shadows, and the Rolling Stones. Made for TV show Top of the Pops to use as visual accompaniments to run with the latest hits when the artists themselves couldn't perform live in the studio, Whitehead's films foreshadowed the music video, and included the first ever footage of Pink Floyd with Syd Barret performing live and in the studio, as well as the infamous promo for the Rolling Stones' We Love You. Made just before Mick and Keith's trial for marijuana possession, the clip featured the whole band in period costume re-enacting the trial of Oscar Wilde (with Mick as Wilde, girlfriend Marianne Faithful as Bosie and Keith Richards as the Judge). It was promptly banned by the BBC.
Wholly Communion (1965)
After attending a reading by Alan Ginsberg at London's Better Books, Whitehead volunteered his services to film an international poetry reading being mooted to take place at the Royal Albert Hall. His resultant film, Wholly Communion, documented what turned out to be the first major counterculture events of the era. Attended by 7000 people (another 2000 people were reportedly turned away), the event captured the excitement of the beat poetry movement, with readings by Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso and their British counterparts. After viewing Wholly Communion, the Rolling Stones then-manager, Andrew Loog Oldham invited Whitehead to make a film of the Stones' tour of Ireland. It would be the first of many times he would film the band during the 60s.
The Fall (1969)
Filmed on the streets of New York from October 1967 to June 1968, The Fall features remarkable grass roots footage of a city in political and social upheaval, struggling with issues of war, race, and human rights. Arriving in New York to attend screenings of his films Benefit of the Doubt and Tonite Let's Make Love in London at the New York Film Festival, Whitehead soon became swept up in the dramatic events unravelling around him. He filmed anti-Vietnam war protest meetings, pro-war rallies, poetry readings and public performances. He spent a day filming Bobby Kennedy campaigning for president, and was there for the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the subsequent riots enfolding on a daily basis.
In April 1968 the students of Columbia University took control of several buildings on campus, prompting Whitehead to dash uptown where he spent five days and nights filming alongside them. His driver would pick up the exposed film - lowered in a bucket from a window - and take it to the laboratory.
The Fall features Robert Kennedy, Paul Auster (fresh-faced as a Columbia student), Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Stokely Carmichael, Arthur Miller, Robert Lowell, Robert Rauschenberg and The Deconstructivists.
*J Hoberman, The Village Voice, 2007
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