since 1978 he remains, however, the most important representative of the avant-garde cinema in the UK. And this is so, even though he has shot films other than experimental films. Peter Whitehead is among that group of film makers who have shaken the European film making scene. Despite his hasty cessation of his film making activities, Whitehead continues, even today, to influence the young experimental film makers in Europe as well as in the USA.
In order to prove this thesis, let's place in parallel the film making work of Peter Whitehead to the work of five young experimental film makers, four European (Isaac Julien, Mara Mattuschka, Ian Kerkhof, Dionysos Andronis) and one American only: Richard Kern. Let's concentrate on a few aesthetic common points which will feed our debate.
Whitehead has inherited the aesthetic novelties of the 'Cinema Direct' and he has transferred them poetically into his own films. The use of a lightweight camera, also the minimum of persons working in the film crew - the camera man, the sound engineer, etc. - Whitehead has replaced them with one person.
In this way, in practically all his films, Whitehead is the only one in charge during the shooting. This gives to his films a great/strong flexibility in the camera movement which can appear brutal but which is, in reality, very astonishing and efficient. In
Wholly Communion (1965 - 33 min) the successive zoom in/zoom out on the readers at the Albert Hall Festival of Poetry breaks the aesthetic rules of television documentary and introduces a creative dialogue between the audience and the film.
In the same way, Richard Kern (born 1954) is happy to film events being the only person in the film crew. This has not, however, reduced his competence as a film maker nor the length of his films. In
Right Side Of My Brain (1984) the camera runs for 30 minutes following the characters in the intentionally unlit interior and exterior scenes. This helps to underline the psychological instability of the heroin as well as the darkness of her soul.
Whitehead is content to record the artistic documents by practising their placement in the abyss. In the
Benefit Of The Doubt (1967 - 60 min) Whitehead emphasizes the distance between the audience and the filmed theatrical show (the play Us of Peter Brook) by complicating, with his new stage direction, his starting point. Equally, in
Wholly Communion it is the recited poetry which defines the protagonists, whilst in Daddy it is the sculptures of Niki de St. Phalle. The eye of the film-maker filters with a new touch of distance the pre-existing artistic production.
The Bulgarian-Austrian 'Mara Mattuschka' (born in 1959) on the instruction of Peter Whitehead made the same use of documentary recordings. Her hysterical monologues are accentuated by the double stage direction of the film producer (who does not fail to complicate the narrative structures thanks to the game played between the improvised and the non-improvised. Her film
Cerolax reminds us of the Benefit Of The Doubt where "this new art form, let's say, emphasizes in the comedian a new notion of responsibility, taking into accounts all the facts. If, of course, the written dialogue exists, it can happen that the actor overrides it by using his own inspiration, his own exaltation, his indignation, his dream ...
"(in Positif Magazine ...)
By mixing intentionally the cinema to other art forms, Peter Whitehead becomes the defender of a new form of cinema which is not 'multi-media' art, nor is it mainstream cinema but something rather more powerful. The
Wholly Communion film is full of recited poems which completes the poetic values of the movie format. It is not by chance that it also exists in a collection of poems published the same year (1965) by Lorrimer.
The same is for
Benefit Of The Doubt which is neither theatre nor cinema. As for the latter, if we are dealing with a filmed play, it is nevertheless taken from the seventh art, in so far as it takes a visual depth, a photogenic, and intensified image, a dimension of movement which is in part lost in the theatre (op. cit) - Mattuschka also escapes the theatre image with her personal way of using the out-of-focus as well as using jerky and neurotic shots.
In all Peter Whitehead films the frequent use of hard rock music backing is obvious. This type of music inspires him directly - not because of its mass popularity but rather for its power as well as its utopian dimension. This last dimension makes the link with its aesthetic propositions. The direct inspiration of the hard rock music attributes to several of his scenes the character of a 'cine-clip' belonging to a bigger production, but rather than utilising the aesthetic of the video clip which has all the artifices of technology, with Peter Whitehead the cine-clips incorporated in his films are shot in the manner of a craftsman using one camera only.
In the film
Tonite Let's All Make Love In London (1967) there is an original cine- clip sequence shot by Peter Whitehead with The Rolling Stones and their song
We Love You.
Across the reconstruction by the members of the group of the condemnation scene of Oscar Wilde locked in prison the director places the first stone of his edifice - the theme of the film pins on the sexual liberty of this revolutionary epoch and its negative defeat by the media.
It is true that the cine-clip has remained famous thanks to its simplicity of presentation but also for its economy as regards the requirements of the mass public.
The Whitehead cine-clip aesthetic has directly influenced many recent film makers. Even Derek Jarman used a similar method in
Edward II (1991) where Annie Lennox is filmed using only one panoramic shot.
The caricature is a stylistic intention of Peter Whitehead in his film
Daddy (1973). Niki de St. Phalle holds the leading role pretending to be Lili Marlene whilst the other actors are very grotesque. The character of the Colonel father incorporates the power (and its parody) whilst his military uniform is always accentuated. Niki is also very caricatured by wearing cartoon clothes. Peter Whitehead achieves very well the expression of the eternal violence between the two sexes and has shown to us that this violence is unavoidable since the two sexes are inseparable and inter- dependants.
This metaphorical use of human caricature in order to suggest the oppressive rapport of the sexual battle is very similar in the work of Kern. In all of Kern's films one can find the roles of executioner and victim which are attributed most of the time to a man and a woman respectively. It is not by chance that both authors have been attacked by feminists, especially in Kern's work, who is the king of the 1980s (meta-punk) cinema. The sex acquires a negative and prerogative interpretation - as in all the musical and social movements of the same name - with Kern sex is represented as a socially oppressive instrument, as well as submission of the individual. The sexist aspect of his films aims to reveal the disgusting side of forced sex in the bosom of contemporary male chauvinistic society. Sometimes these images become very violent and sexist and this is done to inform us of the true sadistic character that human relations have obtained. The scene of his film
The Evil Cameraman (1990 - 10 min) where we can see at the end a woman tied up and tortured by a man who slips and falls onto the ground, are very similar to those scenes of
Daddy beating up his wife and also seen sticking a sword in her arse in front of the eyes of their stupefied daughter.
This attitude of provocation which permeates sex, in common in both of the two authors, can also have a feminine interpretation. Niki de St. Phalle speaks of this: "The agent had lots of personal problems in connection with this film, being rather misogynous, he wanted to say 'see how women really are - they are sick'; 'this is what they want to do to us: paralyse us'; 'we must fight back, they are all crazy and psychopaths'. In fact to do this was an act of vengeance. I was not at all in agreement." (In Ecran Magazine No.28 Aug/Sep 1974 p 32)
In the manner of a fanatical anarchist Peter Whitehead draws his set of themes through the brutality of power which permeates many different examples: the police for
The Fall (1969 - 110 n), the father-master for Daddy (1973 - 90 min), the media for
Tonite Let's All Make Love In London (1967 - 70 min). His constant
reference on this topic is more evident in The Fall, which is a
militant documentary of a great poetic value, a film which maintains its
Having participated in the student revolution at Columbia University in New York in April of 1968 and having filmed their collective manifestation as well as their brutal interruption because of the transgression of the university campus by the New York police, Peter Whitehead offers us a testament which was going to influence several militant anarchist documentarists in Europe.
The Englishman Isaac Julian (born in 1960) made his debut in 1983 with the medium length documentary
Who Has Killed Colin Roach? (35 min) which has as its theme the assassination of a black militant by the Ku Klux Klan and the suspect role of the police.
Also, his following documentary
Looking for Langston Hughes (1984 - 46 min) has a similar theme. His work as a
reporter reminds us of a Peter Whitehead film by the fact of the active participation in the protestors events.
It is this anarchist ideology which pushes Peter Whitehead to denounce the atrocities committed by a 'Marxiste' generation of the '60s and during the '70s, '80s and '90s. But he does it in an allegorical and shocking way - his last film
Fire On The Water (1978 - 90 min) is based on the same motive. The final scene summarizes everything : a chicken is tortured by a pianist who tries to accompany the song from The Doors
The End - symbol of this generation of ex-anti authority who have now become oppressors, with the help of the chicken's body - the chicken parts are slowly tearing apart.
The pornography together with hints of sadomasochism in the film
Daddy has not only influenced Richard Kern but even more so the Dutchman Ian Kerkhof (born in 1964). In relation to this subject Peter Whitehead is advanced: 'sexuality is for me like a theatre. Pornography is like a sacred dance, the latest ulterior image of beauty' (In Entropy No.1 p14). This way, the images of
Daddy tied up on a chair, having to eat his own excrements whilst his vengeful daughter practices in front of him a lesbian sketch - the images are replaced in Kerkhof's work by those of a killer who, in the film
Ten Monologues of the Lives of the Serial Killers (1994 - 54 min) masturbates himself in front of the camera whilst telling us of his disgusting acts. This film has obtained the first prize in the 5th week of the experimental cinema of Madrid in April '95.
The conglomeration of the symbols is obvious in each of Whitehead's films, especially in
Daddy. The film sets have Freudian connotations which are created by Niki de St. Phalle in an intentionally excessive manner. For example, all the stuffed animals (even the rats) which are parts of the father's collection are destined to underline a special feeling for each scene.
In my film
The Lamp (1994 - 13 min) it is exactly this rich atmosphere with Freudian connotations directly inspired by Peter Whitehead which I wanted to recreate. The icon of Christ filled with traces of lipstick, the ugly faces of the Christians believing in different ideas, aim only to reveal the misery of a sexually oppressed universe, which is in contrast to the one in which a young couple frolic behind a bush in the same area.
These examples proving the influence exercised by Peter Whitehead on the new generation of experimental film makers do not stop here. The TV documentary
The Falconer, produced by Channel 4 of BBC confirm this and can give also new reference points.