Peter Whitehead was, for the 1960's, the Man with the Movie Camera and his subject was revolution. For much of the time he was everywhere. His camera seemed to catch all aspects of the counterculture he both reflected and was a part of. With Peter, rhythm and pacing was all. His practice held an intrinsic instinct for the moving camera: a genius that never left him. Even in his final years his framing was as sharp with a Handycam as it had ever been with either Bolex or Eclair. And then there was, of course, his cutting - the same precision of timing. For much of the time too and in most of his work from the Sixties he had been aided by his assistant and co-cameraman Anthony Stern, responsible for such dynamic sequences in Whitehead’s films as the neons of Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), the Rolling Stones stage invasions in Charlie is My Darling (1966), Jimi Hendrix's “Hey Joe” at the Saville Theatre, ten hours of raw footage for The Fall (1969), and doubtless much more. However, on all these, Whitehead’s masterpieces, Peter edited alone.
I first met him when he was kind enough to pen a few notes for a live production of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville I was staging at IMAX. We followed it with The Fall at the National Film Theatre (NFT). Even as late as 2001 the film was largely unknown. Distributed originally by The Other Cinema, The Fall never featured on any film school syllabus, languishing on 16mm in Peter’s farmhouse outbuildings at Pytcheley, where all his treasures lay. Two cans contained the only print of the final work - and it was gorgeous.
The problem with any public screening of course lay with its soundtrack: The Nice performing “America.” No one would touch it. Although Peter had the film, Immediate Records, long and messily gone, still owned the recording by The Nice, and the composition was of course Leonard Bernstein’s. We got round all this in the short term by wiping every note of music from our NFT screening, retaining only all dialogue, some of which was newly re-recorded specially by Peter, and performing a new live score (by Warp records keyboard man Jimi Tenor and his band) to a packed house at BFI Southbank. In honour of Keith Emerson, who was renowned at the time of The Nice for plunging knives into his keyboard and otherwise abusing the instrument as part of his act, but largely in protest at the NFT’s audience friendly MOR “live piano” musical policy, Tenor culminated his performance by trashing his Farfisa organ, while Peter’s electric Stratocaster copy, lent on a one way trip for this occasion, was similarly (and gleefully) destroyed.
Maybe it was for this reason - or perhaps it was because of the entirely absent music clearances for just about all Peter’s films - that despite screening the original version of The Fall at the Lux later the same year, the NFT passed when in 2002, together with Gareth Evans, we approached the BFI with the “Peter Whitehead Complete Retrospective 1964-69" (later retitled “The Word and The Image”). The season was formulated with Peter’s full involvement and compiled in association with his distributors at Contemporary Films. For the event we had assembled all Whitehead’s work up to and including The Fall: Perception of Life, Wholly Communion, Charlie is My Darling, Tonite, Pink Floyd 1966-67, Benefit of The Doubt, and all the pop promos, - everything in original version, with live interviews and more.
Although this season later travelled round the world (and the NFT too) it was only right that it was the independent sector which came to our rescue in the form of The Other Cinema in London and The Cube in Bristol. Flying largely under radar, no one there cared about the rights (or wrongs) and neither did we. Peter, generous, charming, at times completely exasperating, cared even less, attending every screening in person, introducing his films, sitting for interviews, and fascinating audiences only then discovering him as one of the great British film documentarists of the 20th century.
Contributor: Marek Pytel.
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