Academic journal article Framework

The Technology of Myth: Peter Whitehead as Novelist

Academic journal article Framework

The Technology of Myth: Peter Whitehead as Novelist

Article excerpt

The Falconer

In 1997 Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit made The Falconer, an experimental film that purported to be a "documentary investigation into the lives and careers of Peter Whitehead." Quoting the Burroughsian maxim, Sinclair and Petit presented their work as a "fictional biography" in which "nothing is true and everything is permitted." The project began as The Perimeter Fence, a semisequel to their earlier exploration of esoteric book dealing, The Cardinal and the Corpse (1992). This second film was to have been an examination of the post- sixties trajectories of a number of "countercultural" figures.1 However, upon encountering the details of Whitehead's own career- documentaries, the sixties, and falconry- what Mark Goodall has called a life of "extraordinary, almost hallucinatory intensity," they shifted the focus of the film to Whitehead alone.2

Although Whitehead appears as a figure of fascination, the film functions less as a panegyric than as a demonstration of how Sinclair and Petit instrumentalize their subject. As Keith Griffiths, the film's producer, explains, The Falconer was not intended as a biopic per se but aimed to use the details of Whitehead's life, certain themes linked to his work, and the circumstances of the filming as a launchpad to "synergize Sinclair and Petit's concerns: secret history, recording, psychogeography, surveillance and the countercultural afterlife."3 In practice, the construction of this sophisticated frame involved the critical interrogation of the idea of a "Whitehead biography." Juxtaposing vox populi with real and presumed associates, alongside decontextualized archive footage and fragmentary interviews with Whitehead himself, the film interrogates the historicist ideal active in the attempt to reconstruct the details of a single life. The suggestion is that within the context of the film, no Whitehead biography will "hold together" due to a combination of archival excess, the limitations of the investigative methodologies applied, and the material capabilities of the audiovisual technology that underpins the project.4

From this perspective, The Falconer can specifically be seen as a productive development of ideas previously explored in Sinclair's White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Petit's Robinson (1993). However, at a local level, the execution of this project does not so much explore or elaborate upon Whitehead's own work but instead reveals an unstable portrait in a series of frequently contradictory glimpses. Basic facts are presented- writer, filmmaker, and an interest in the esoteric- but within the waves of connections, links, and red herrings that the film develops, Whitehead emerges as a spectral, flickering figure who exists in the absence of any stable reference point.

To some degree, this repre sen ta tion was symptomatic of Whitehead's reception at the time of the film's release. Although best known as a filmmaker, he had by 1997 established himself as a cult novelist. His first novel Nora and ... appeared in 1990 and was followed by The Risen (1994) and Pulp Election (1996). In de pen dently produced and concerned with themes including psychoanalysis, Egyptology, and covert publishing, these texts found a receptive audience among the writers, editors, and readers associated with the premillennial cultural underground. Interviews appeared in magazines such as Entropy and Fringecore, while his writing was extracted and enthusiastically reviewed in The Edge, Estoterra, and Blood from Stones. Jonathan Davis distributed Whitehead's novels via his Midian mail order ser vice, which placed Whitehead's work alongside that of Alan Moore and Stuart Home, as well as the output of such "apocalyptic" publishers as Headpress, Savoy, and Creation. In 1996 the latter consolidated this link through the publication of Whitehead's transgressive photography collection Baby Doll. Writing in parallel to this exposure, Sinclair became one of Whitehead's most consistent interlocutors. …

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