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.

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 Malcolm’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 organizing 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.


[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.

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