Academic journal article Framework

Sex Spy: Sexuality and the Revolution in Peter Whitehead's Post-Sixties Works

Academic journal article Framework

Sex Spy: Sexuality and the Revolution in Peter Whitehead's Post-Sixties Works

Article excerpt

Peter Whitehead's films of the 1960s can be understood as charting the evolution in the de cade's principal concerns, from pop to politics via psychedelia and style. Having first integrated the Beat generation's revolutionary impulses in Wholly Communion (UK, 1965)- the film of the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall- Whitehead's subsequent sixties work expounded on the significance for the late sixties of the various cultural imperatives of pop music, per for mance art, celebrity culture, swinging hedonism, and po litical protest. His "fly on the wall" documentary of The Rolling Stones' tour of Ireland in 1965, Charlie Is My Darling (UK, 1966), marked the increasing importance of the celebrity persona, and the film's immediate suppression similarly signified the commercial imperative to control the public image of the celebrity brand. Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (UK, 1967) explored the mélange of pop, pomp, stardom, clubbing, fashion, art, sex, and psychedelia that briefly made London one of the principal centers of Western culture. A year later, The Benefit of the Doubt (UK, 1968) addressed the war in Vietnam, editing together production and per for mance footage of Peter Brook's play US with expressions of opinion and scenes of street protest in London, but, like Brook's contemporaneous Tell Me Lies (UK, 1968), it seems curiously ineffectual; the historically significant action was clearly taking place elsewhere. For his next film, The Fall (UK, 1969), Whitehead followed the politics and decamped to New York, seeking a synthesis of action and observation in a revolutionary- charged environment where such a fusion might matter.1 The ultimate- perhaps inevitable- failure of the attempt to integrate the private, public, and mediated worlds is symbolized by the film's final shots of Whitehead as both editor and screen image, as he apparently disappears into his own artifact. The Fall would be Whitehead's last documentary film.

Whitehead's sixties films reflect his instincts as a documentary maker and cultural commentator in their remarkable inclusivity. Few other artists of the period could demonstrate in their work such a montage of key themes, images, events, and figures. Among British productions, perhaps only J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), similarly a collection of texts produced between 1966 and 1969, could lay claim to the range and recognizance of Whitehead's films. Like Whitehead's works, Ballard's short stories were produced and disseminated rapidly, reflecting the frenetic pace of cultural and po liti cal changes. And they are similarly and variously intense, affectless, affected, and eventually bleakly resigned. The last published of The Atrocity Exhibition pieces was "Tolerances of the Human Face," which features the first appearance of a sinister character called Vaughan, includes a documentary film crew, and ends with the main character watching their production: "At the conclusion of the film he would go out into the crowded streets. The noisy traffic mediated an exquisite and undying eroticism."2 Four years later, Vaughan was brought back by Ballard to orchestrate an exploration of the sexual potential of the automobile collision in his novel Crash (1973), signaling the distillation of perverse sexuality as perhaps the primary detrital outcome of the sociocultural revolution of the 1960s. Whitehead's works in the few years after The Fall would also be devoted to exploring the fallout of the sexual revolution.

After an intensely productive few years in the late sixties, Whitehead's next film would not appear until 1973. Daddy (FR/UK, 1973) is a collaboration with artist Niki de Saint Phalle, and is Whitehead's first overtly dramatized film. After the apparent objectivity of Tonite Let's All Make Love in London and the intense involvement of The Fall, in Daddy, Whitehead seems to have handed over the experiential and expressive center of the film to his collaborator, relating de Saint Phalle's sexual psychodrama. …

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