A magnificent documentary portrait of an era of angst
This highly creative and individualistic documentary epic is one of the crowning achievements of its time. It was directed, photographed, edited, and in story segments staged and written, by the amazing Peter Whitehead. How he does it I do not know. In these documentaries of his, he gains the confidence of just about anybody and everybody, and they open up to him and let him film things no one else ever managed to film. The underlying theme of this film is the discontent in the late sixties in America. Although primarily it was the Vietnam War which was the object of protest, that was not the only issue, and there is much prominence given to Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations, with highly revealing footage, especially of Kennedy (who recurs throughout the film as a continuous strand upon which Whitehead broods) and those assassinations and their aftermaths were certainly not about Viet Nam. The film was mostly made in New York City, but Whitehead shot also in Washington, DC, and at Newark, New Jersey. His footage of the destruction of much of Newark by fire as a result of the riots after King's assassination are astounding, and I do not believe any comparable film record of it exists. In the film it looks much like Aleppo does today. It is doubtful that the American public ever got to see the true extent of the Newark disaster. But the most fantastic part of this film, certainly ranking as one of the finest documentary portraits of its kind in cinema history, is the coverage from the inside of the besieged students at Columbia University. The sit-ins and protests there went on for a long time, initially led by a far-left group called Students for a Democratic Society (known by initials as SDS), led by Mark Rudd, who is seen in the film of course. While the standard coverage of these events was all done from the outside, Whitehead's revealing film is the only record of what took place from the inside. Never has a revolutionary movement been so intimately portrayed, with all its main personalities vividly shown as people. Whitehead is never judgemental, and he is just 'a seeing eye' impartially recording everything. It is incredible to think that he was allowed to do this by a group of frightened revolutionary students under siege, and who were eventually overrun and savagely beaten by the police. They then regrouped and started yet again, and Whitehead records that too. When Whitehead went to New York with the intention of making a documentary about the city, he naturally had no idea that these things were going to happen in the months ahead, and that he would unexpectedly become one of the greatest flies on the wall of documentary history. The film is quirky and highly personal in other linking portions, where Whitehead and his girl friend of the time, Alberta Tiburzi, feature prominently, including in bed kissing and necking. To say that the girl friend is a cheerful exhibitionist is an understatement. She does some of the wildest and most revealing dancing imaginable around their bedroom while Whitehead is trying to listen to broadcasts of dramatic public events on the radio or watch them on the grainy black and white televisions of those days. Intercut in a kind of surrealist manner with many of the documentary segments are also breath-taking shots of going up and down a service elevator on the side of a skyscraper under construction, and one expects to see Gary Cooper at the top, but he is not there. Whitehead staged a truly remarkable surrealistic scene on a New York subway train featuring the top model of the time, Penelope Tree, standing enigmatically and impassively in the train while an infatuated man literally dances around her in mad and fantastic undulations of homage. Whitehead was certainly influenced by the early surrealist films of Man Ray and his friends. He appears to have wanted to show us that the events outside in the real world (assuming the 'real' world is really real, that is) and the bizarre staged events in various inner spaces used by him share in a commensurate level of phantasmagoria. He evidently wishes us to question just how real 'real' things really are. The film is made at a high intellectual plane and much of its apparent incoherence at times is intentional. Of the many famous persons appearing in the film, I have met five: Penelope Tree (who is not credited on IMDb), Arthur Miller, Robert Lowell, Gloria Steinem, and Sammy Davis, Jr., though my conversations with Miller and Davis were cursory and insignificant. It was glorious to see the alluring Gloria Steinem again as she was then, about the time I met her. She was certainly the most glamorous of the feminist activists of those days, and I remember that all the men were chasing her. The film footage of the poet Robert Lowell is deeply touching and apparently unique. There is also revealing footage of Allen Ginsberg, whom Whitehead already knew, as he had filmed him in his earlier documentary, WHOLLY COMMUNION (1965). By no means all of Peter Whitehead's films are listed on IMDb, and of those which are, some have not been reviewed. All of his films are privately preserved, all or most on 35 mm, and let us hope that after half a century of not being seen, this great treasure trove will be released so that the public can marvel at it. His major works have not been publicly available since they were made, although this film THE FALL was prominently shown, though privately, by the 'Occupy' movement on Wall Street in our time, presumably because of the intimate portrait of the Columbia University sit-ins and protests which gave them heart in their own struggle in the same city. The film includes culture, such as conversation with pop artist Robert Rauschenburg.
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