Academic journal article Framework

Peter Whitehead: The Slade Years

Academic journal article Framework

Peter Whitehead: The Slade Years

Article excerpt

Eternal Return

There's a story Peter Whitehead likes to tell about his masterpiece, The Fall. He had decided to abandon fi lmmaking for good while attending its premiere at the 1969 Edinburgh Film Festival, and later that year, after its brief run at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), he took the fi lm for a screening- its last for all he knew, since it had not been picked up by a distributor- at the place where he had become a fi lmmaker seven years earlier, bringing his career full circle. This was the Slade School of Fine Art, more precisely the Physics Theatre of University College London (UCL), which Thorold Dickinson, who had run the Slade's Film Department since its inception in 1960, had colonized as a repertory venue, open to students across the city, to rival the National Film Theatre.

All of Whitehead's fi lms had come into being through a confrontation of serendipity and-behind- the- scenes, after- hours-deepwater study, philosophical and scientifi c as much as cinematic, and The Fall was no exception, a spontaneous response to an apparently decisive moment in American history as it unfolded over the course of 1967 and 1968, reconstructed if not in tranquility then at least away from the violence. It was also a record of this reconstruction, a dramatization of the director's attempt to understand what he had seen. So he was taken aback when Dickinson told him, recalling a student short of Whitehead's, shown in the same theater half a de cade earlier, that "it's exactly the same fi lm. The subject, structure- I thought I was watching Parallels again."1

The fi lm, twelve minutes long, hasn't been seen in public since that fi rst screening in 1964, and Whitehead himself has dismissed it as apprentice work. But was Dickinson right? Does this strange unconscious continuity provide the ultimate key to the Whitehead mystery? All will be revealed.

First Shorts

Whitehead had arrived at the Slade in the autumn of 1962, just as Dickinson's department was fi nding its feet. The course, as Whitehead described it a year later, comprised three weekly screenings in the Physics Theatre, and a seminar in Dickinson's windowless basement room. " 'It's not a fi lm school,' " Whitehead quoted Dickinson as saying. " 'We are not teaching practical techniques. We are pioneering. Jacques Ledoux [director of the Belgian Cinémathèque] shook me at the IFFS [International Federation of Film Societies] recently when he pointed out that this is unique. Nowhere else in this hemisphere has a University taken the fi lm under its wing and placed it right in the middle of a School of Fine Arts.' "2 Its novelty is still underestimated. The main programs in 1962- 1963-painstakingly put together by Dickinson, who called in favors from friends like Ledoux and Henri Langlois- were "A Survey of Italian Film," which included a number of titles never seen before in Britain, such as Rossellini's La Nave Bianca (IT, 1941), and, during the fi rst term, "A Film Record of the 1930s," a mixture of nonfi ction and feature fi lms which climaxed with Renoir's La Règle du Jeu (FR, 1939).

Whitehead, however, had not gone there to study fi lm. During his second year at Cambridge, he had taken up painting, fi rst exhibiting at the town's Arts Council gallery in June 1960, and in his fi nal year, by which time he had begun to frequent the local art school, he won both a paint er's place at the Slade and a London County Council scholarship to pay for it. Whitehead initially identifi ed himself as a fi gurative paint er, his primary infl uences Francis Bacon and Keith Vaughan. Typically, however, his varied interests interbred and- this in the era of the legendary "Two Cultures" debate, a Cambridge row that went global- his academic work fed into his art, for he had gone to Cambridge not to paint but to study natural sciences. As Whitehead developed, his paintings remained repre sen ta tional, but they represented things that were hidden to the naked eye, things he had seen through an electron microscope in the course of his studies in crystallography. …

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