The Fall – Peter Whitehead (UK 1969) Doc with Peter Whitehead and Alberta Tiburzi
Viewed 16 Oct 08 Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket price £4 In the beginning was the image
The final shot of The Fall (TF): Peter Whitehead (PW) is peering down the viewer of the moviola and looks up at the camera; the camera pans to the right bringing into view an early reel to reel black and white Sony VTR which displays on the adjacent monitor a grainy image of PW; the picture is poor in definition but strong in its etched solidity as an image of PW. PW has become an image and as we look at his image, the tape runs out and the screen turns blank radiating a white picture noise; there are no sound effects. A shot that is in effect a condensation of the film journey.
It feels that through both the political uprising and social excess documented in TF, as if PW in the course of making his film has stumbled upon realisation about the nature of the image in the media. That at the very moment of filming TF, PW sees that image poised to take over the channels of communication: to pervade and invade our senses distorting consciousness and corrupting perception. TF, at some point in its making (edit stage?) becomes PW’s personal journey in which his camera as a scalpel opens up the vista of a multiplication of new types of manipulated realities which like cancerous tumours will overwhelm and destroy us.
‘The Fall’ is of course a reverberating Biblical idea. It encompasses both the Fall of Lucifer and the Fall of Man. Differentiated events but both conveying a similar idea: the establishment of a new situation in which the forces of evil and malice are let loose in the world, abroad in the cosmos to do as they will. Lucifer and Adam and Eve, fall from a state of Grace into a state of sin. Both are caste from the numinous all embracing presence of God into a world of dark putrescent matter, in which they must survive howsoever they may. Alan Ginsberg who features in TF published a collection of poems in 1971 entitled the Fall of America.
I think that PW’s camera probes not only America’s fall from Grace, the political inability to see or accept the evil that the US was perpetrating in the name of democracy (in particular at this time the war America was waging against Vietnam). His camera also probes the advent of the image and the fall from Grace that this moment heralded, as Western society and culture embraced the image as a primary source of perception, as a primary tool upon which judgements would be made and opinions formed. A situation developing where no one is innocent and also where no one is guilty.
TF is shot by PW at the moment when democracy is shifting from the shibboleths of class and party, to a new situation in which everyone can form an opinion: or more presciently, have their opinions formed for them. In the beginning is the image: and in the image is manipulation. In the media ideas persons places start to exist as a sort of intensified concentrated iconography: nothing else. Increasingly form this point in ‘time’ (and I mean PW’s time. TF is his film; it has guided him to this insight) things would be judged not for their intrinsic worth, but for their extrinsic value to interested powerful parties. Perhaps the crystallising event was PW’s participation and presence at Columbia University student occupation and his witness to the distorted way images of the event were to be manipulated by the media and political establishment. But the PW’s disquiet goes deeper than this specific instance and broadens into a general realisation that this is the way things are and will be.
Amidst the rawness of the footage of a New York in turmoil, PW is the star of his own movie. At first I found his mannered acting out, in particular of the relationship with his ‘girlfriend’ Alberta Tiburzi (AT) annoying and over deliberated. As if PW had seen Blow Up and had decided to make and perform an affected fashionable homage. As the film progresses this relationship declines in prominence, overtaken by PW’s documenting the New York streets and his confessions and ruminations during the edit. However as the film develops, I began to think that perhaps there was a point to the manner in which the personal had been incorporated into the film. For instance there is a ‘Blow Up’ type sequence in the first part of the film when AT models’ a ‘Peace’ dress made up from fabric whose pattern comprises the multiple replication of the CND anti nuclear peace symbol. The CND symbol in its multiple replication becomes a pure pattern, loses its power of protest as it is sinuously subsumed, through the curvaceous posing of AT, into fashion statement. Likewise the relationship between AT and PW also feels like a fashion accessory rather than something real. Relationship as gesture. The director and the model. An exemplar of the media marriage, consummated for effect not affect. In this situation gesture is empty of everything except the selling of the self. Narcissism. It is possible that PW accepted even enjoyed this casting of his relationship with AT; but that he was aware of the process both at a personal and social plane. The process leads directly to entrapment in the appearance of things not the actuality of things: entrapment within the self for the self rather than life for the world.
Looked at from an historical perspective PW documents the streets saying ‘NO!’ to what was taking place in the US. And in this respect the film shames us today. Comparing the anger and ferocity in New York in ’68 and comparing it to reaction to the Iraq war between 2003 and 2008. The question is posed, ‘What has happened to us today? ‘ Why did protest against the Iraq invasion barely register? In’68 with wild swinging camera PW documents an uncompromising rejection of this system that makes war on the world: whether it be Vietnam or students demanding fairness and justice in education. Today we seem so much more contained. Unable to break out of the confines of an intellectual and mental prison in which we are trapped. Our responses tend to be more self absorbed and distracted from what is happening about us in our ‘democracies’. And there is an answer to our shameful contemporary inertia that is located deep in the fold of the Fall as the second half descends into a gloomier mood and PW analyses with his camera and talks through with his Moviola what is happening and what is to come. We are now trapped in the image of someone else’s movie, the movie of the government the big corporations and the media.
In a sense the pivotal point of the film is PW’s documenting of a piece of performance art. PW is filming in a small room where something’s going on. Who are the people performing in the small room? Who (besides PW) comprises the small audience in the small room watching the performance. We see a man and a woman on a ‘stage’ with an upright piano. The woman has a chicken on her lap. The man takes the chicken from the woman and using its feet plays a series of rills up and down the keyboard of the piano. The man returns the chicken to the lap of the woman. He picks up a long handled axe and sets to demolish the piano. The piano is destroyed. The steel wires of the sound-board remain upright amidst the shatte0red casing and frame. The man replaces the axe and takes the chicken from the woman. Holding its body firmly under his arm to prevent it struggling he drags its head back and forth along the piano wire until it has been decapitated and reduced a bloodied stump. He gives the chicken back the woman. The camera pans to the audience who watch in silence. gazing at the stage area. PW has filmed what has happened: we still do not understand what has happened. It was real; the suffering brutal. We have no language to describe what we have seen. Perhaps we reject what we have seen. In TF this scene is the pivot. The mood darkens. We do not understand what is happening.
The film turns to on the unravelling of political events. In particular the revolt by Columbia students and the occupation of the Columbia University faculty. But it is not straight reportage. PW is now aware (at least at the editing stage) that this is an event that is the subject of media manipulation. This is the moment when PW peers into the future and the events are documented not only dynamically as they unfold in the presence of PW’s camera, but also accompanied by PWs insights and reflections as he edits and reconstructs the events of which he has been a part. Looking through the viewer of PW’s moviola we see an empty white screen. Blank.
Finally filmically PW shoots his film to deny himself the fake authenticity of the documentary film maker. There is no match cuts no formal continuities. It is in the spirit of the time. The camera is used in a wild libidinous frenzy denoting more an intense emotive subjectivity that is true to itself not any externalised objective statement of fact. PW’s camera is a statement of the truth owed to the self: to thine own self be true. But there are powerful filmic statements built up within the body of the film at the editing stage. None more powerful than the creation of a pure sound picture of the retaking of Columbia by the military and the police. Shot at night the picture is almost black nothing can be seen but edited onto the picture are the ritualised sounds of the men preparing themselves for violence beating their shields with their night sticks and chanting in unison. It is a moment of the promise of death intended to be heard by the students in the darkness behind the barricades waiting for their own destruction.