2015/07/04

Terrorism

As part of the Peter Whitehead Archive project (2010-2013) I edited an edition of the screenplay for the 2009 film Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts. The book included the full screenplay text, a series of additional essays and previously unpublished archival material.

See below for my introductory essay written for the volume. 

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Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is a film by Peter Whitehead that had its premiere at the 2009 Viennale. Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is a novel by Peter Whitehead that was published in 2007. Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is also a novel by Peter Whitehead that was published online in 2000. To this set of we now add the present volume, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts: A Screenplay.



The idea of a single work existing in multiple editions is not new nor is it uncommon to see a work move across multiple platforms via film adaptations and online versions. However, in the case of Whitehead’s oeuvre the four works that carry the title Terrorism represent something akin to a quartet rather than a single work and several supplements.  They share themes but remain formally distinct. They are connected but – certainly in the case of the novel and film – can also be seen as stand-alone texts. 

The matter is further complicated by the fact that Terrorism, the novel, was written as the first volume of Whitehead’s Nohzone trilogy, a set of novels that includes Nature’s Child (2001) Girl on the Train (2003) and the ‘fourth’ novel of the three And Death Shall Have no Domain Name (2007). Girl, the third novel has just followed Terrorism, the first, into print. Terrorism, the film, began as an adaptation of the second novel Nature’s Child before incorporating into its final form aspects of each of the Nohzone texts. As such, whilst the film uses the title of the novel, the novel is not the ‘source’ of the film.

Confused? You should be because that’s sort of the point, not least because a major theme of Whitehead’s Nohzone project is informatic and bibliographic proliferation. Between 1990 and 1999 Whitehead published five novels that dealt in various ways with notions of autobiography and textual reconstruction. From the attempt to complete an unfinished psychoanalytic case-study in Nora and … (1990) to the interception of ghostly conversation in Bront√ęGate (1999), Whitehead’s fictions are archives of memoir, dream records, letters, diary entries and transcripts. With the completion of Terrorism, Whitehead took this concept one step further and used the memoirs of ex-MI6 agent Michael Schlieman as a main structural motif.

Schlieman previously appeared as the investigate protagonist of Bront√ęGate but in Terrorism he is said to have vanished whilst on assignment in Cumbria. The novel charts the attempt of an equally ambiguous narrator to retrieve and analyse the memoirs Schlieman has posted online. This fluid and ambiguous text includes letters, journal entries, fictional scenarios, and (un) reliable passages of autobiography. What emerges is a mise en abyme of texts within texts and an impression of Schlieman as a constantly deferred, fractal identity, a presence that is active within the writing but which never makes the full leap from spectrality to embodiment. Nature’s Child continues the investigation of the memoirs and uncovers Schlieman’s destructive love affair with Maria Lenoir (a key aspect of the Terrorism film), whilst Girl on the Train couples the oneiric interiority of the material with an extended plagiarism of the Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (1947).  And Death compounds the vertigo of this whole editorial enterprise as it purports to be another possible sequencing of Schlieman’s memoirs. A portmanteau text that uses sections from the three previous novels it works as a ‘new’ novel which has possibly been imagined in the mind of a reader adept in the art of hypertext linking.

Although there is more narrative connection between the first three texts, And Death works as a signal of the potentiality that underpins the rest of the trilogy. As each of the novels unfold, the retrieved texts constantly accumulate to the extent that Schlieman’s memoirs seem like a vast digital abyss. For both the narrator and the reader who navigate this information there is little feeling of completion but rather an impression of radical contingency; the sense that the texts which constitute the novels could combine and recombine into further versions ad infinitum.



Whitehead’s Terrorism film maintains this fluidity. Watch it and you’ll initially think you’re seeing a detective movie or espionage thriller. Whitehead appears as Schlieman on assignment in Vienna and he circles through the city’s tram lines in search of Maria Lenoir and her ecoterrorist cell. However, as Schlieman’s drifting generates a complex web of entanglements, all such generic expectations go out of the window. This is no urban quest or sewer-chase but a descent into an informatic rabbit hole. Dense with meaning, the film uses an associative cutting style in combination with an allusive voice-over and an often obscure set of on-screen texts to create an intricate and dissonant web of reference. Just as the Nohzone novels exist as strange textual archives, so too does the structure of Whitehead’s Terrorism film emphasise its own status as a videographic archive. As a non-linear narrative, the jarring energy of its montage suggests that we are seeing only one of many possible records of Schlieman’s movement through the city.

The point here is that Whitehead’s Nohzone work is significantly performative. Whether working in print, with video or online, Whitehead foregrounds the formal specificity of his chosen media and closes the gap between representation and representational frame. That’s to say, in the novel Terrorism, Schlieman’s memoirs refer to Girl on the Train which is of course the novel we read when we come to the third volume of the trilogy. Similarly, when watching the film Terrorism, we may indeed be watching the film Schlieman purports to be making as a cover for his operations in Vienna. In a curious act of manifestation it is suggested that the Whitehead texts that we hold, watch or surf are not about Schlieman’s memoirs but actually are Schlieman’s memoirs. 

All of which is a preamble to the questions posed by the present Screenplay volume. What exactly are you reading here? Is this a dossier of material explaining the film and documenting its production or is it a further iteration of the Nohzone project? Are you about to read Whitehead’s screenplay or Schlieman’s? It would be tempting to go for the latter or just to say “both” and leave it at that. However, this would obscure the book's role of exposition. It is offered as a supplement, but one that aims to illuminate Whitehead’s work, particularly the Terrorism film, rather than extend the fictional Nohzone world.

As a point of comparison one should look to the screenplay editions that Whitehead published under his Lorrimer imprint between 1966 and 1969 as opposed to para-texts such as And Death. In particular his edition of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville published in 1966 places the screenplay alongside Godard’s original treatment. Whitehead is credited with the translation and also the “description of the action”, because although he paid Godard for the rights to produce a book, Godard had no actual screenplay to offer him. After making the deal Whitehead had to sit with a print of the film and produce his own version. The situation was much the same for the Terrorism screenplay. Although (as the dossier included in this volume indicates) Whitehead produced a wide range of drafts and outlines, the film was not made in accordance with a pre-written text. Much of the dialogue was improvised between the various participants and Whitehead developed scenes in situ. Terrorism is also a film that found its form in the editing room. Working with a considerable amount of footage shot between 2007 and 2008, Whitehead spent time experimenting with different combinations of voice, image and text until he achieved the consistency he was looking for.  As a result, the screenplay included in this volume has been compiled in retrospect. Working closely with the completed version of the film, the dialogue and on-screen texts have been transcribed and a Whitehead-approved description of the action has been added.

The decision to publish the text in this form alongside a range of other material was made as part of the Nohzone Archive publishing and editorial project. This programme is linked to Whitehead’s extensive private archive of films, texts and production materials. The project came into operation shortly after Whitehead completed the Terrorism film and has to date produced two texts: Things Fall Apart (2012), a two-volume edition of the journal Framework dedicated to Whitehead’s life and work and ‘Selections from the Nohzone Archive, 1965-1969’, an extensive section of the Adam Matthew Digital anthology Rock n Roll, Counterculture Peace and Protest (2013).  Specifically, the current volume should be seen as the natural extension of the Terrorism dossier included in Framework 52.2 (see the list of suggested further reading elsewhere in this volume for more details).


The Framework section contained a number of essays on the film and an extract of the screenplay. What is presented in this volume is the whole text which has been edited to a much more comprehensive level of detail. All three chapters are here complete with extensive annotations, full cast and crew information and two additional documents by Peter Whitehead: ‘Synopsis’ and ‘Dramatis Personae’. Following this, the book presents a dossier of previously unpublished material detailing the gestation and composition of the Terrorism film project. This includes Whitehead’s original outlines for the Nature’s Child film; his correspondence with key participants such as Sophie Strohmeier, Samantha Berger and Manuel Knapp; two texts by Strohmeier detailing (amongst other things) her working partnership with Whitehead and a series of additional Whitehead documents taken from the Nohzone Archive. An extract from the Terrorism novel has also been included in this section and the volume concludes with two specially commissioned essays on the film by leading Whitehead scholars, Stephan Kurz and John Berra. As with the screenplay chapters all the texts have, where relevant, been annotated and introduced. Particular care has been taken to highlight points of overlap between the dossier texts and the screenplay chapters. It is hoped that this cross-referencing will provide some insight into Whitehead’s creative process by alluding to the movement of an idea from a notebook extract or early outline into the completed film.

As the content of the screenplay chapters evidence (and the notion of a film having a ‘chapter’ implies) Terrorism is a multi-layered, self-consciously ‘literary’ film. In fact ‘film’ is probably the wrong term to use. Whitehead shot Terrorism on digital video and this medium has informed its style, ambience and aesthetic. Certainly the numerous ‘holographic’ scenes of Schlieman on the Vienna tram, his face reflected in the window like a ghost, would appear significantly less ethereal if Whitehead had used film-stock. The obvious portability of video also allowed Whitehead to shoot on the move and experiment with improvisation. Beyond this formal specificity, Whitehead has also referred to Terrorism as a graphic novel rather than a ‘film’, precisely because he intends it to be an artwork that one ‘reads’ rather than ‘watches’. See for yourself: the full film can be viewed on the You Tube channel Plagiarisme.Inc. The three chapters are text heavy and much of the significance generated on-screen comes from the interplay between the word and the image. As such, watching Terrorism in three parts online is preferable to seeing it in a single festival screening. One can move chronologically through chapters 1 to 3 but there’s also the possibility of a more associative movement across the film by viewing, pausing, revisiting and moving between each of the posted videos.

This is the type of rhizomic navigation Whitehead intended to encourage when he posted his novels online within a dense network of hyperlinks. It’s also the movement that his protagonists embark upon when attempting to retrieve, explore and reconstruct the texts at the heart of each novel. Schlieman is engaged in a similar pursuit through the streets and scenes of Vienna in Terrorism, and the Screenplay has been designed to help the reader/viewer of the ‘film’ participate in a similar sense of speculation. Read this book in conjunction with the film. Read this book in dissonance with the film. It provides the most detailed and comprehensive account of the film’s gestation and includes supplementary material available nowhere else. There is no better map of the various pathways and dead-ends that populate the Terrorism film. Conversely, there is enough material in this book to allude to other possible versions of the completed film. Keep in mind that reading is an act of interpretation and interpretation invariably involves the creation of new narratives. This book will help you understand Terrorism and it will also help you to create your own speculative version. There is no completion. It never ends.