Academic journal article Framework

Burning Passions, Flammable Decade: Cinema, Avant-Garde, Self, and Society in Fire in the Water (1977)

Academic journal article Framework

Burning Passions, Flammable Decade: Cinema, Avant-Garde, Self, and Society in Fire in the Water (1977)

Article excerpt

Peter Whitehead's films create paradoxical and yet compelling interfaces between spheres that are typically seen as distinct and even incompatible. In trying to define the essence of his work, Nicole Berenz writes that

The brilliant work of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, full of an incomparable energy, pulverises the false barriers between formal research, documentary reportage, psychedelic cinema, cinema engage, pop cinema and auteur cinema. Whitehead's work accomplishes an exceptional synthesis, open to every different dimension of avant- garde cinema, tending towards perceptual explosion and euphoric fusion with phenomena.1

In this light, for instance, consider The Fall (1969), which is simultaneously a documentary on the United States in 1968, an (auto)fiction, a self- portrait, a critique of counterculture, a reflection on po liti cal activism, a document of various events and happenings, and, first and foremost, an avant- garde film. This crossover attitude is not confined to formal and generic experimentalism, but also interests other areas. Some of the intersecting spheres that I explore in this essay are the personal and public, documentary and avantgarde, and participation and critique. While these topics are relevant to most if not all of Whitehead's productions, Fire in the Water (1977) is an especially appealing case study, as it comments self- reflexively both on these areas in general and on Whitehead's own work specifically.

Fire in the Water is composed of two distinct souls that embody two different characters. The opening titles are superimposed on images of John Martin's The Great Day of His Wrath (1851- 1853), followed by shots of boiling lava and by a caption of the Bertolt Brecht quote (from his poem, "On Poor B. B."): "Nothing shall remain of the great cities except the wind that passes through them." A filmmaker (Edouard Niermans), an obvious alter ego of the director, and his girlfriend (Nathalie Delon, then Whitehead's partner) drive to an isolated cottage in the Scottish highlands where he views footage (all taken from Whitehead's previous works), ostensibly for the purpose of editing a film, while she explores a nearby wood and stream, and experiences progressively intense visions and states of spiritual and sensual communion with nature. The two narrative strands continue in parallel, until the filmmaker goes to look for his friend, who has not returned home, but does not find her. Neither is to be seen again; the film, which in its last section "progressively loses its centre, its form,"2 concludes with a series of shots of ice, water, and snow- covered earth, accompanied by Pink Floyd's The Great Gig in the Sky.

In Whitehead's own recollections,3 Fire in the Water was initially written for Bianca Jagger; the project then had a different title, The Vision of Tiresias, and a subtitle, The Hooded Falcon. However, due to Bianca Jagger's busy schedule and to a lack of funds, Whitehead set it aside until he was offered money by the stepson of Sadruddin Aga Khan, Marc Sursoch, whom he had met at Oxford University. Whitehead suggested they make a film with his friend, Nathalie Delon. Sursoch, who found the Tiresias project too esoteric and commercially unviable, suggested instead a film on the sixties. Although not entirely happy with the idea, Whitehead wrote an outline that merged his narrative with Sursoch's suggestion, and he set off for Scotland with Delon, a Steenbeck editing table, a camper van, and his pet raven (all were to feature in the film).

Whitehead's project implied no dialogues; Sursoch, however, who was hoping to become a professional producer, or ga nized a sound track mix in Shepperton and facilitated the use of a Pink Floyd score, on condition of the superimposition of a narration that would "make sense" of the film. Whitehead objected, but Sursoch had already arranged for the film to be blown up to 35 mm and screened at Cannes Film Festival. Whitehead wrote an explanatory narration, which he spoke over the first few sequences, and also used the Pink Floyd song over the concluding section of the film, though he originally intended it to be only accompanied by the sound of the wind. …

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