Peter Whitehead Was There

From the beat poetry slam to Pink Floy'd coming-out party, filmmaker never missed a '60s happening

This unforgettably unpleasant movie—more cathartic for de Saint Phalle than the viewer—was Whitehead's last to receive any American notice. Richard Roud, his chief American promoter, managed to get it into the 1973 edition of "New Directors/New Films," where The New York Times termed it "a bitter blend of Freudianism and feminism . . . less a movie than a harangue." The 1977 feature Fire in the Water (February 18 and 19) brought Whitehead's film work full circle. A young couple flees the city to a remote highlands cottage where the man hopes to finish his film, a requiem for the '60s. Not surprisingly, the footage he's brought is culled from Whitehead's earlier films. As shards of Tonite and The Fall are shown on the Steenbeck, the woman goes mad. So does the man, at one point bludgeoning a bird to death. (A few years later, Whitehead would reinvent himself as a falconer, employed at one point by the House of Saud.)

A quiet moment for Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
A quiet moment for Peter Whitehead


The Word and the Image: The Films of Peter Whitehead
February 15 through 20, Anthology Film Archives

Anticipating by several seasons Francis Ford Coppola's more transfixing '60s requiem, Whitehead employs Jim Morrison's "The End" to underscore the destruction of the cottage. Fire in the Water could not be considered a success, but it has a disturbingly unmediated savagery. To watch it is to realize how deeply Whitehead needed an environment of social chaos in which to submerge his own.

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