Paul Cronin’s mesmerizing docu “In the Beginning Was the Image: Conversations With Peter Whitehead” is a long, continually surprising film about a remarkable Englishman who turned his back on film. A debonair, charismatic workaholic, Whitehead, now nearly 70, is a dream subject: As an independent-minded cameraman in 1960s London, he recorded key moments of cultural upheaval with an eye as keen as his intellect. With retrospectives slated for Anthology Film Archives and the Rotterdam Film Festival, a re-discovery of Whitehead’s underseen oeuvre is under way to which this ambitious docu, world-preemed in Vienna in October, is an invaluable companion piece.
Whitehead has lived so many lives, cats are jealous. No additional commentators weigh in for this docu. It’s just gifted raconteur Whitehead — whose adventures in publishing, music recording, high finance, lensing et al. fairly drip with historic serendipity — relating his life and his work. But in Cronin’s deft hands, that’s more than enough to profitably fill more than three hours of sometimes contradictory screentime.
Well-edited visuals — mostly drawn from Whitehead’s own drool-worthy archives –accompany the subject’s non-stop flow of anecdotes and pithy, tantalizing observations. Cronin, whose previous sprightly excavations of film lore include a doc on Amos Vogel and one about the making of “Medium Cool,” put this only slightly overlong portrait together for a mere $6,000.
Whitehead was working as a newsreel cameraman for Italian television when he shot “Wholly Communion,” a unique record of the night in 1965 that the leading American beat poets — Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, Corso — read to a capacity crowd of 7,000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Forty minutes worth of black-and-white film stock edited down to 33 minutes got a commercial release and put Whitehead on the map.
When, as a direct result, the Rolling Stones’ manager hired him to shoot the Stones on tour in Dublin and Belfast, Whitehead “had never heard a single Stones song.” Whitehead was apparently the first person ever to film Jimi Hendrix and became the first ever to record Pink Floyd. All the same, Whitehead insists ’60s London was not swinging except to the headline writers at Time magazine.
The leading foreign filmmakers of the day had a huge impact on Whitehead, who watched Godard’s “Alphaville” “in a trance” and was “demolished and psychologically ill for weeks.” Determined to publish the screenplay in English, Whitehead offers an account of meeting Godard to arrange a translation even though “there was no script” that’s a hoot.
Living in New York from October 1967 through May 1968, Whitehead caught footage of the student occupation of Columbia U. that shows, among other things, a young Paul Auster listening to a young Tom Hayden.
Andy Warhol approached the textbook handsome Whitehead about appearing in a film that would entail having sex with Viva. Whitehead declined, but was intimate with an exciting roster of artistic women from Nico to Nathalie Delon to Niki de Saint-Phalle.
Questioning film’s ability to depict reality and concluding that “the technology was standing between me and authentic experience,” Whitehead quit filmmaking after six years.
The two-part docu looks at the layers of Whitehead’s richly varied life including his adventures as a painter, mutual funds wiz, compulsive diarist and aspiring novelist. The first half lasts 100 minutes.
Second half, clocking in at 96 minutes, examines how Whitehead morphed from an urban media maven into a truth seeker at one with nature. Cronin orders the information so as to keep viewers guessing about his mercurial subject — just as we think we “know” who he is, we have the figurative rug pulled out from under us.
The polar opposite of an ivory tower academic or flippant playboy, Whitehead possesses a restless energy and obvious work ethic that save him from being a dilettante. Seeing Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” had a life-changing impact on the man; it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that seeing this doc and watching Whitehead’s small but seminal body of work might send some unsuspecting lad or lass careening off on hitherto unimagined adventures.