Academic journal article Framework

After the Fall: Politics, Representation, and the Permanence of Empire in the Cinema of Peter Whitehead

Academic journal article Framework

After the Fall: Politics, Representation, and the Permanence of Empire in the Cinema of Peter Whitehead

Article excerpt

Peter Whitehead's difficult and disturbing 1969 masterpiece The Fall is a fiercely po liti cal and, by now, a richly historical film. In it, the British Whitehead addresses the great conflicts and pressures of his day, which far transcend the film's American setting. Whitehead had come to New York City in September 1967 in conjunction with the screening of his two recent films, bundled as "The London Scene."1 Invited during his visit to make a film in the United States, Whitehead leaped at the chance. America, in his view, was at the time "the most important place in the world to be filming" by virtue of its unique capacity to project its power globally and the re sis tance its power met.2 New York City, where the great portion of The Fall takes place, contained "all the symptoms of the disease that . . . was carelessly destroying the world."3

Immersing himself in the American protest culture, Whitehead quickly abandoned his initial plan to produce a somewhat innocuous portrait of the "New York Scene," as the film's first backers had wished. After numerous revisions of its concept and moments of personal, po liti cal, and creative crisis, the project took on layers of depth, morphing into what would become The Fall.4 Described by Whitehead as the summation of all his films, The Fall was also the last he would make for nearly forty years.5

With a suffocating compression, The Fall traces the narrative arc from "protest to re sis tance to revolution" that came to define the New Leftin the United States and elsewhere. It stands among the most vivid testaments of the agony and ecstasy of radical movements that on a global scale sought, ultimately in vain, to take down an imperial system based in American might. But more than a chronicle of the Left, The Fall captures the diffuse chaos that made the era for so many the worst and best of times- terrifying, disorienting, and exhilarating all at once. Part documentary, the film is a quintessential document of the sixties.

But if the film's jarring power is obvious, any certainty about it ends there. The Fall lacks a conventional plot and employs both a surrealist aesthetic and the techniques of cinema verité. Anyone without a taste for the experimental is likely to be exhausted or even baffled by the nearly two- hour film. Wellversed in the "radical sixties" and the era's edgier arts, I nonetheless found that repeated viewings only enhanced my appreciation of the film's complexity and the challenge of making sense of it. Consulting Whitehead's extensive commentary on The Fall, as well his multiple written outlines for it, served both to clarify and unsettle its possible meanings. The film, in sum, seems a giant puzzle whose pieces multiply the harder one tries to discern its overarching pattern and whose pattern changes the more pieces one connects.

The root of the challenge is that The Fall is about so many things at once: power, protest, violence, art, film, agency, repre sen ta tion, the media, subjectivity, and reality. One suffers with Whitehead as he tries to determine their interrelation. The effort- driven by a mind that appears to know, contemplate, feel, see, and ask too much- pushes filmmaking to its boundary, where it questions its own legitimacy and risks incoherence. It also drove Whitehead, by his own admission, to the brink of insanity. He likewise confessed that assembling the film from his vast stores of footage entailed the reconstitution of his shattered subjectivity. Honest about what remains the film's fragmentary nature, Whitehead captions The Fall with the line, "A Film as a Series of Historical Moments Seeking a Synthesis."6 Analyzing the film may be approached as an effort to crafta synthesis, to make the movie whole by integrating its "moments."

I propose nothing so ambitious, and in fact question that such a synthesis is possible. Instead, I offer two plausible readings of The Fall based on my impression that it is a twice- told tale, a film doubled on itself through its overlapping treatment of two broad themes: politics and repre sen ta tion. …

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