2020/05/31

Peter Whitehead’s The Fall (1969): 50th Anniversary Restoration Screening

Poster at the ICA screening. 


07/11/2019. Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. I was asked to introduce a newly restored version of Peter Whitehead’s film The Fall (1969). I’ve added below a slightly revised, tightened version of the speech. My sincere thanks to Steve Chibnall and Alissa Clarke at De Montfort University and The Peter Whitehead Archive for the invitation to participate.

The screening marked fifty years since The Fall had first appeared at the ICA. The event also included a post-screening panel discussion moderated by Alissa Clarke and featuring Alberta Tiburzi and Sebastian Keep, two figures of great importance to the film’s final shape and form. I was delighted to share a stage with them. Our conversation ranged from the circumstances surrounding the making of the film to its enduring legacy. There was much time for reflection also, given Whitehead’s recent passing. Tiburzi remarked that this was the first time she had seen the film on the big screen since she originally collaborated with Whitehead during the period 1967-68.

My own link to The Fall was different but, in some ways, no less intense. As I briefly outline below, I worked with Whitehead on the large collection of notes he had amassed pertaining to the film. Between 2009 and 2014 we worked together, amongst many other projects, on the text he eventually published as The Fall Dossier. This gave me a detailed insight into Whitehead’s working methods: his approach to film-making circa 1969, his writing style and his archival practice. As the text below implies, The Fall Dossier was not just a ‘making of’ document. Whitehead saw it as a body of written work that stood in parallel to the completed film. The material also influenced much of his work that followed, particularly the novels he published during the 1990s. Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1999), Whitehead’s fictionalised account of the circumstances surrounding Wholly Communion directly cited the Dossier. In essence, the novel grew out of the diaristic techniques Whitehead refined during his time making The Fall in New York.

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Between 2009 and 2014 I worked very closely with the film-maker and novelist Peter Whitehead. I acted as Curator and Director of what he termed The Nohzone Archive, a voluminous collection of his papers, artefacts and film materials. This collection dated from his early teenage years and documented his creative activities up to and including his last feature film, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts (2009). This material now constitutes The Peter Whitehead Archive held as part of the Cinema and TV Research Institute at De Montfort University.

The Nohzone Archive was very much an organic entity: Whitehead saw it as an active resource that he would add to and take from depending on the direction of a given project. It was nothing like the type of closed casket that Jacques Derrida describes in Archive Fever (1995). That said, just before I took on the role Whitehead asked me to read Janet Malcom’s In the Freud Archives (1984). I was not surprised to find that it was a fortuitous suggestion. In the years that followed, the day-to-day operation of running and organising the archive occasionally strayed into the type of territory – both physical and psychic – that Malcolm described.

One tranche of material that Whitehead and I continually returned to during this period was the collection of texts, diaries, production notes, photographs and other ephemera connected to his film The Fall (1969). Although Whitehead kept diaries and notebooks throughout his life and also retained extensive production materials regarding each of his films, he placed special emphasis on the texts relating to The Fall. He came to call it The Fall Dossier. As we worked through the material – editing, transcribing, annotating, cataloguing, sequencing, speculating, sifting, processing – he would often speak of it as a kind of magickal corpus or grimoire. The Dossier was a text that seemed to hold the key to much of his work: a summation of that which preceded it, the origin point for much of what followed.

The diaristic content of the Dossier traces the period September 1967 to August 1968. It thus covers the period in which he was first invited to make a film about the ‘New York Scene’ to the point at which he finds himself deeply embedded in the editing process that eventually gave rise to The Fall. One entry from November 1967, made when filming had begun in earnest, reveals Whitehead attending a New York appearance by Presidential hopeful, Robert Kennedy. He writes:

It was a very moving experience, simply because Bobbie Kennedy was so obviously unbelievably sad and pathetic and tired and lost. He obviously has the cares of the world on his shoulders […] He looks as if he has started something he dare not and cannot escape […] I expect a lot of what he has to do is concerned with survival.[i]

It is an ominous start to what became a long, complex project, but it nonetheless set the tone very well. For much of the year that followed, Whitehead found himself wrapped-up in New York’s protest, underground and avant-garde cultures. He witnessed the repercussions of Martin Luther King’s assassination, he joined the occupation of Columbia University in 1968, he was beaten by police, placed under CIA surveillance, had film material stolen and in June 1968 found himself trying to buy a gun from his driver Angelo Mansraven. It was then that he felt things had gone too far, and he decided to return to London. Touching down at Heathrow he was immediately greeted with the news: Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed on the campaign trial. Whitehead found his earlier words echoing back to him: Kennedy hadn’t survived. ‘I collapsed’, he later wrote when reflecting on the experience, ‘I fell to pieces’.

It certainly was the case that Whitehead was wired and exhausted towards the end of 1968 and early 1969. That said, the reason these coincidences were so shattering for him lies in the intended subject matter of The Fall. Whitehead had originally planned it as a feature film about political assassination. He wanted an actor to play ‘Peter Whitehead’, a young film-maker in New York who commits an assassination as an act of political protest. In the extreme state he occupied in June 1968, Whitehead came to feel that he had not just predicted but had in some way conjured the death of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Editing the film in late 1968, then, became (by Whitehead’s own admission), a way of putting himself back together, of pulling away from this paranoid intensity.There is a healthy drop of self-mythologization here – something that very much goes with the territory when one deals with Whitehead’s work – but such elaboration does not detract from the power of the film that emerged from this period of personal and political crisis.

The Fall, as it stands, is not the thriller film that Whitehead initially envisaged. It is much more than that. It is an intense engagement with New York’s spectacular culture; a sharp-eyed analysis of the link between publicity and protest; a demonstration of the violence involved in image production and a thesis on how the gaze is power-laden when it comes to matters of reality, representation, gender and race. It is a massive cliché to say that a film was ahead of its time, but in the case of The Fall, I think the phrase is warranted. In 1969 Whitehead was living through strange and interesting times. Making The Fall became a way of finding a pathway through it all.

Now that we are struggling with the same curse and living through equally strange days, The Fall remains a useful, if not vital roadmap. It is a film about celebrity, images, simulation and what happens when the camera replaces the ‘I’. It is the perfect film for an era of fake news, focus group authenticity and politicians who are not promoting ideologies but are trying to control reality. I’m delighted that its back at the ICA because I see the film as contemporary art in every sense of the word. I hope you enjoy it and I hope, as Whitehead would have said, that you find a way to use it.
  





Note

[i] For details of Whitehead’s time in New York and the making of The Fall see Whitehead, ‘The Fall Dossier: Extracts’, Framework 52.1 ed. Paul Cronin, James Riley and Drake Stutesman (Spring 2011), pp. 484-98. See also James Riley, The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties (Icon, 2019), pp. 103-39.


2020/04/25

Girl on the Train







In 2013, while acting as Director and Curator of Peter Whitehead’s Nohzone Archive I worked on the publication of his novel, Girl on the Train. We were pleased to be working on this project with the great Jan B. Gordon, Professor Emeritus at Tokyo University, author of, among others, Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction: Echo’s Economies (1996). Gordon had previously written an afterword – or more specifically, a ‘Delayed Preface’, an active and intentional paratext – for Whitehead’s postmodern take on nineteenth-century British fiction, BrontëGate (1999). With a shared enthusiasm not just for the Brontës but also the likes of Thomas DeQuincey and Japanese modernism more generally, Whitehead and Gordon kept in touch following this first collaboration. When the time came to prepare Girl on the Train, a novel heavily indebted to writers like Yasunari Kawabata Whitehead was once again keen to have Gordon’s input.

We originally intended to bookend the novel with a foreword and an afterword, two texts that would frame and unpack the novel for those new to Whitehead’s Nohzone material. I was to write the foreword as an introductory and explicatory text while Gordon agreed to provide a responsive, impressionistic afterword. In the event, the text that Gordon produced – a long, magisterial ‘Shidai’ – carried out both tasks with aplomb. With the manuscript already text heavy and with the ‘Shidai’ more readily capturing the spirit of the project (as well as echoing BrontëGate's ‘Delayed Preface’) Whitehead and I decided to omit the foreword.

I’m now offering it here for the first time. It did the job, I think, of contextualizing and opening-up Whitehead’s rich but sometimes dizzyingly complex Nohzone project. Using Gordon’s ‘Shidai’ was the better editorial move, though. It suited the novel, while the foreword below is much more of an essay, better placed in the present context or similar. It was written from the same perspective as the introduction for the Terrorism screenplay and thus should be seen as part of the critical engagement with Whitehead’s work, rather than a literary supplement.

Whitehead sadly passed away last year. While his archive and his novels are well served, Nohzone.com is, at the time of writing, offline. I hope that this short text, along with the Terrorism introduction can work as an initial means of documenting that project and some of its intentions.

*

Girl on the Train is the third volume of Peter Whitehead’s Nohzone Trilogy. Along with the first and second volumes, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts and Nature’s ChildGirl was originally published online as part of Whitehead’s hypertext project Nohzone.com. This rhizomic constellation of interconnected (and interactive) fictions invites the reader to plot a non-linear movement through, across and between its posted materials. The three novels could be read in sequence, as with a ‘conventional’ trilogy, or alternatively navigated via a more intuitive movement facilitated by the digital context. By moving from novel to novel across a range of hyperlinks, links also connect the trilogy to a series of factual and fictional ‘satellite’ texts, the intention was for the reader to generate a ‘new’ text through each act of reading. One of the main ‘branches’ of Nohzone’s online ‘tree’ was the portmanteau text And Death Shall Have No Domain Name. This was offered as the ‘fourth’ novel of the trilogy and took the form of a re-organized sequence of extracts from the first three novels. In this respect, it was intended to add to, and demonstrate the operation of the site. It added to the overall narrative of the three novels, extending what was available to be read, whilst also instantiating one possible result of one possible movement through the material. And Death highlighted what could be produced in the user’s mind as a result of reading the texts. Overall, the Nohzone project was an exercise in textual verticality, a space in which, to quote one of the site’s primary maxims, “fiction becomes infinity”.

The overt experimentation of Nohzone.com was not merely stylistic. It was integral to the plot and thematic significance of the posted novels. It also amplified the concerns and formal devices present in much of Whitehead’s previous writing, particularly The Risen. Specifically, the Nohzone trilogy takes hypertextual productivity as its primary thematic focus. The basic plotline, established in Terrorism, is centered on the retrieval of a sequence of memoirs written by novelist and ex-MI5 agent, Michael Schlieman. Schlieman is one of Whitehead’s most important literary personae having previously appeared in Pulp Election and BrontëGate. He works as a signifier of the ambivalent overlap between fact and fiction, secrecy and disclosure; the compromised zones of novel and memoir.   

In Terrorism we are told that Schlieman has disappeared following his retirement and expressed intention to expose government secrets in his writing. The novel’s unnamed narrator, an ‘investigative journalist’ traces Schlieman’s steps to the rural nest of Cumbria, his childhood home and last known location. Here he begins to collate the numerous texts that Schlieman has distributed across a series of tumbleweed websites. This is of course exactly what the ‘external’ reader of Nohzone.com is also doing: accessing, exploring and connecting a series of ambiguous online ‘fictions’.

As the Nohzone trilogy develops what is revealed is not so much a set of ‘secrets’ as a narrative that shows Schlieman’s mind at work. The texts proceed via processes of overdetermination, condensation and associative non-linearity. The narrator gains access to an entire unconscious, as does the reader: both that of Schlieman and their own. Because the interactivity of the Nohzone site permits and encourages a pro-active model of reading, the permutation of the combined novels produced at any one sitting essentially works a map of that reader’s own associative mechanism. We read Schlieman reading us: everyone is involved, everyone is complicit.

As the third volume in the main Nohzone trilogy, Girl on the Train embarks on something of a detour from the setting and stylistics of the previous two novels. It outlines a further series of Schlieman texts but rather than continuing to detail the events of his Cumbrian sojourn, it ostensibly describes the character’s trip to an academic conference in Japan. ‘Trip’ is the operative word here. Terrorism, contains references to conferences and invited lectures as an allusion to the public machinery of academia. The device also facilitates the rhetorical dimension of Schlieman’s character as it allows the novel, particularly in its early sections, to be punctuated by a series of extended monologues. In Girl, the motif of the international conference works in a slightly different way. It provides a pretext for Schlieman to move into a hallucinogenic zone of cultural, textual and linguistic reference points vastly different to the Gothic and Romantic discourses informing Terrorism and Nature’s Child.

The subject of the novel’s conference is the Shishosetsu, “the so-called I novel”. This genre of Japanese literary realism operates as an autobiographical discourse in which the author assumes the role of the central protagonist. Such fidelity often gives rise to confessional material as in the case of Shimazaki Toson’s Haki (1906). In this respect the ‘I-Novel’ can be seen as an extension of the ambiguous intimacy of the pillow book. As Jun’ ichiro Tanizaki highlighted in his 1956 novel Kagi (The Key) the personal notebook or diary frequently occupies a liminal space between the private and the public. It ostensibly provides a forum for the composition of ‘self-writing’ but this idealized closed circuit is problematised as the material production of the private text either hypothesizes or becomes available to an additional addressee.

In Girl, Whitehead works within this literary mode whilst also thematizing its methodological implications. That is to say, the interior texts that constitute the Nohzone trilogy could be categorized as Schlieman’s own Shishosetu, a formal analogy that the explicitly Japanese literary and geographical context is used to cement. In addition, an important image used at the novel’s opening is that of Schlieman travelling by train and seeing his reflection in the compartment window. Developed further in Whitehead’s Terrorism film, this uncanny apprehension works as a depiction of the self-projection operative in the I-Novel. Within the context of the novel, it indicates how with Girl, moreso than in the previous Nohzone texts, Schlieman observes the conjured ‘I’ that his writings make manifest.

Within this specific literary framework, Whitehead’s primary point of reference is Yasunari Kawabata’s Yukiguni or Snow Country (1947), a sparse novel that narrates the brief liaison between Shimamura, a man from Tokyo, and Komako, a geisha from the rural and snowbound hot-spring town of Yuzawa. Girl repeats Kawabata’s setting, plot outline and basic character dynamics to the extent that, by Whitehead’s own admission, the novel becomes a creative plagiarism of the earlier text. As Pulp Election and BrontëGate have both highlighted, plagiarism exists as a point of fascination for Whitehead. Although it maintains the resonance of the ultimate artist’s taboo, his interest lies in the idea of appropriating and absorbing a pre-existing work. For Whitehead, the plagiarised novel exists as an intertwined caduceus in which two texts are entangled: the ‘original’ and its recreated ‘version’. The work of one author is articulated through the writing of another. When seen from this perspective, Whitehead’s extensive ‘borrowing’ of Kawabata works as an attempt to textually construct the type of intersecting ‘holographic’ structure described in The RisenGirl on the Train does not just make reference to Snow Country but it repeats it in the telling of its own story to the extent that the reader is presented with the interference of both Kawabata and Whitehead.     

It is on this basis of this distinct intertextuality that Girl on the Train can be seen, and is here presented, as a stand-alone text. Within the Nohzone trilogy it is something of a singular performance. While it is texturally connected to the other novels it simultaneously presents a specific dialogue with Kawabata and Japanese fiction that is exclusive to this volume. In saying this, the present form of the novel should be taken as a circumvention of the conceptual structure that underpins the Nohzone project. Terrorism was published in print form in 2007 and can thus be read alongside this edition of Girl on the Train. However, neither one negates the online presence or functionality of Nature’s Child. In fact, this form of dissemination should serve to intensify the interconnectivity of the Nohzone texts. Read and enjoy Girl on the Train as a novel in and of itself. Then read it with Terrorism and then read it with Terrorism and Nature’s Child. Each time you will be reading a different novel because while Girl has been carefully constructed in line with the architecture of its ur-text, its barriers are productively porus, open to penetration when brought into proximity with its parallel texts. Each part is reflective of the whole and yet each part carries a distinct, crystalline structure. With Girl on the Train you are permitted to explore a remarkable landscape, so enjoy it. But should you wish to explore further, there are other stations down the line.