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The Art Of Violence: Peter Whitehead, New York, 1969
The Quietus , August 31st, 2019 08:19

In an exclusive extract from his book, The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties, out now from Icon Books, James Riley explores Peter Whitehead's film project The Fall plus what happened to this chicken in the Judson Memorial Church

The crypt of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, New York, was a blank box. It had bright white walls, precisely the type that attract splashes of paint. This was very much the intention of the progressive ministry that ran the church. In the 1950s, the crypt had been converted into an experimental exhibition space, a place where artists were encouraged to present their work without fear of censorship. In this spirit the white walls had seen early shows of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, but on the evening of 21 November 1967 they played host to the ‘Henny Penny Piano Destruction Concert’ by Rafael Montañez Ortiz, a performance that did rather more than merely challenge established traditions of painting. It began with Ortiz, dressed in white and looking like an emanation from the walls of the crypt itself, sitting still gently caressing a live chicken he held on his lap. He then stood and walked over to an upright piano in the corner of the room. Suddenly the chicken was thrust headfirst onto the keys. Holding it by the legs, Ortiz repeatedly smashed the bird onto the keyboard as if it was a bludgeon, before dragging it by the body across the piano top. Feathers filled the air and the chicken simply fell apart. In a matter of minutes Ortiz was left holding nothing but a shapeless stump of meat. Next, an axe was produced, and Ortiz went to work on the piano. To the discordant sound of splintering keys, he tore into the instrument until its own guts of strings, wood and mangled hammers spilled out on the floor. Not finished, Ortiz then picked up the remaining chicken bits and draped them over the exposed lattice of piano wire. The small audience were silent as Ortiz, sweating, breathing heavily but otherwise calm, slowly returned to his chair and set down the axe. Behind him splashes of blood, not paint, could be seen on the white walls.

Peter Whitehead was in the audience that night, filming. He had arrived in New York on 20 September to show Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and Benefit of the Doubt at the New York Film Festival under the billing, ‘The London Scene’. The films opened to good reviews and shortly after, at a party hosted by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, he was approached by two theatre producers, Iris Sawyer and Elinor Silverman, who made an intriguing proposal. They offered Whitehead a budget of $20,000 to make a documentary about ‘The New York Scene’. The pitch was that Whitehead would have full creative control, but there was an expectation that he would ultimately deliver a mondo-type film; an Englishman’s view, a hip, sexy portrait of the city that never sleeps: Tonite Let’s All Make Love in New York. Whitehead accepted the offer but immediately began to plan a different kind of film. Interviewed on American TV shortly after the festival screenings, he announced his intention to reveal a side of New York that New York was not even aware of.

Writing in his diary during the flight back to London on 10 October, Whitehead fleshed out his ideas in more detail. He confessed to a ‘Love / Hate for Americana’, before adding, with characteristic modesty:

This must indeed be a masterpiece and can be. It really has to be the definitive film at this historical moment in time in world History. Christ, there ought to be no other subject closer to me than where the power lies at the moment … “Successful Power Failure” might be the title.

Whitehead believed that a key part of New York’s ‘power’ (and, by extension, that of America) lay in the operation of its mass media. This is what he had been trying to say with Tonite, a film which, despite its exclusive focus on London, ‘was also about America’. It had tried to show how London was packaged by the American media and sold to its readers. As Whitehead would put it in a later essay, the contention of Tonite was that the ‘Swinging London myth became “fact” because TIME said so; if TIME said London was swinging, trivial, vacuous, then it was.’ This new project would confront the media machine head-on. It would be Time magazine in reverse, an analysis of the strange mechanisms that allow an image to be created which then takes root in the public consciousness as a kind of ‘truth’. Rather than looking in on the New York scene, Whitehead wanted to enter the frame as a test subject so that he could document his own absorption into a world driven by media, advertising, television and film. It would not be an Englishman’s view of the city, but ‘Peter Whitehead by New York’: a ‘self-portrait’, a ‘diary […] written by the mass media screens […] Through a glass darkly but then face to face’.

Whitehead returned to New York in late October and filming began in earnest. By the end of November, he had recorded the events at the Judson Memorial Church as well as a performance by the radical theatre group the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a reading by the poet Robert Lowell and a ‘happening’ on the New York subway by the dancer Julie Bavarso. On 1 November he filmed footage of a visit to the city by Senator Robert Kennedy. With Whitehead scheduled to film more events and interviews as 1967 ended, he developed the project still further. In a diary entry for the 27 November he announced that ‘The film must become a feature film’. It would no longer be a documentary but ‘a combination of La Dolce Vita, 8 ½, Blow-Up, Tonite and Benefit’. With this decision made Whitehead, mainly in the company of his driver Angelo Mansraven, continued to film all around the city, but he also started talking about getting actors to star in the film. He wanted someone to play ‘Peter Whitehead’, and he was also keen to have Jill O’ Hara on board, an actor he had seen playing ‘Sheila’ as part of the original New York run of Hair. The film was now going to be called The Fall and it would involve ‘Jill’ helping ‘Peter Whitehead’ commit an act of ‘pre-meditated murder’, the assassination of a ‘70-year-old dying man’. This idea came from ‘Protest’, an earlier film treatment Whitehead had written soon after completing Benefit of the Doubt. ‘Protest’ involved Stephen, a young man who commits murder after seeing shocking, traumatic images of the conflict in Vietnam. Regarding the murder as a ‘sacrifice’, Stephen uses the ensuing trial as a public platform to decry the ongoing violence of the war. What Whitehead was proposing with The Fall was this outline combined with his own current experiences as a filmmaker in New York: a combustible mix of underground art, radical politics and experimental cinema.

Producers Iris Sawyer and Elinor Silverman were not best pleased by this change of direction. They wanted an entertainment and they were somewhat unconvinced by Whitehead’s claim that The Fall would make for a better film than Tonite Let’s All Make Love in New York. Over the course of more than one awkward lunch Whitehead tried to make his case. The Fall, he told them, would be more than just a film, it would be a ‘Requiem Mass’. Upon hearing this Sawyer and Silverman glanced at each other, one thinking, the other asking: a requiem for what, exactly?

*

Whitehead’s arrival in New York on 21 October coincided with the National Mobilization Committee’s ‘March on the Pentagon’ in Washington D.C. This was the event during which the Pentagon was levitated and exorcised by a crowd chanting ‘Out demons, out!’ It was the largest anti-war demonstration to date and for Whitehead, who assiduously followed the proceedings from New York, it was confirmation that the sentiments he had explored in Benefit of the Doubt were part of a rising tide of international antipathy towards the war in Vietnam. Norman Mailer would confirm this sense of significance the following year with his account of the march, The Armies of the Night (1968), a book that Whitehead read carefully as The Fall came together. In the immediate aftermath though, Whitehead was dismayed at how quickly the protest, despite its scale and spectacle, was trivialised and its energies dissipated by the media. The event did not lack coverage and it generated now-iconic photographs like Bernie Boston’s ‘Flower Power’, but at the time Whitehead was more taken by a write-up in Women’s Wear Daily, a magazine that published ‘a full page of photographs […] devoted to the clothes worn by the protestors’. Soon after, he saw New York department stores like Macy’s selling ‘Peace Dresses’ for $25, ‘appropriately decorated with CND signs on different coloured backgrounds’. Protest becoming fashionable was not a good sign. For Whitehead it indicated that ‘the normal language of protest, as used by the press, the artists and the public, has become debased, even embarrassing; it is ridiculed, it has lost its meaning.’ As he put it in his ‘Treatment’ for The Fall, written in 1968, this state of affairs:

[…] also means that the artist has lost his power, as his usual forms and language for abusing injustice and hypocrisy have become so used and misused by the Mass Media that he is in danger of being accused of exploiting protest for his own ulterior purposes.

If The Fall was going to be a ‘Requiem’, then, it was to be a requiem for these twin impulses of activism and artistic radicalism. Coming so soon after the widespread coverage of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, The Fall was to be Whitehead’s statement that, certainly from the perspective of New York in late 1967, America’s nascent counterculture had quickly lost its potency. It had made a big leap forward in the summer, but by the time the chill of autumn came along, it had somehow stumbled, lost its footing and collapsed.

Another factor influencing the tone of the project was the atmosphere of New York itself. As soon as he arrived, Whitehead felt it was ‘a city saturated with pent up violence’, and a night spent on a police patrol cruising around Greenwich Village confirmed this. He got all the grisly details including first-hand accounts of the ‘Groovy murders’, a case that had recently made the headlines. On 8 October, a janitor had found the bodies of Linda Fitzpatrick and her boyfriend James ‘Groovy’ Hutchinson, two well-known members of New York’s hippie scene, in a boiler room at 169 Avenue B. They had been beaten to death. Fitzpatrick, eighteen, had come into the city’s drug culture from the comfortable heights of a middle-class background in Connecticut while ‘Groovy’, 21, was the ‘friendly neighbourhood dope-dealer’ with links to countercultural hot-spots like Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye Bookstore on the Lower East Side. Together they spent their time busking and panhandling on the streets between lengthy drug sessions in hotel rooms. Under Groovy’s tutelage, Fitzpatrick quickly graduated from marijuana to heavy doses of LSD. In the late summer of 1967 she had spent time in San Francisco but became dismayed upon seeing just how quickly amphetamines had taken root in the Haight. Back in the Village, however, the situation was much the same. By the autumn of 1967, the streets were awash with cheap speed and it wasn’t long before Groovy and Fitzpatrick were using it all the time. As in San Francisco, the local dealers knew they could target these placid hippies and make a killing, which is probably what led to the scene in the boiler room.

As Whitehead would have learnt from the police, there was nothing exceptional about murder in the city. New York would see 746 similar crimes by the end of 1967. What was considered noteworthy was the symbol of Linda Fitzpatrick, the ‘good girl’ from a ‘good family’ who went to the big city and got mixed up in drugs. Hers was the American Dream in reverse, a classic fall from grace which raised the inevitable and seemingly reasonable question: why would anyone want to leave the security of a middle-class home for a life on the fringes? After a summer that saw a stream of young people – hippies, truth-seekers, students, runaways – make a break for the Haight and other enclaves like the Village, the Groovy murders validated all the parental and establishmentarian anxieties this exodus caused. Filtered through J. Antony Lukas’ Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times story, ‘The Two Worlds of Linda Fitzpatrick’ (1967), the senseless crime quickly became a cautionary tale. It gave weight to a million dinner table speeches in which parents told rebellious teenagers that leaving the suburbs in search of ‘freedom’ and other such nonsense would get them one thing: their heads bashed in on a basement floor. Reporting on the murders for their October 1967 issue, Newsweek caught the mood perfectly. A cover image of a dirty, exhausted-looking young couple carried a banner that spoke of alarm, concern and more than a hint of ‘I told you so’ smugness: ‘Trouble in Hippieland’.

The basement of 169 Avenue B was a short walk from the crypt at Judson Street Memorial Church. Between October and November, they had both become blank boxes with blood on their walls. For Whitehead, it seemed as if New York’s underground art was just as violent as its streets and, as soon as he started work on The Fall, it was clear that the whole scene was a far cry from the Albert Hall and the Blakean poetry of Wholly Communion. In this hostile situation and faced with a pacifying media, Whitehead contended that the artists of the late 1960s had to revivify their methods to remain effective. They must ‘evolve new forms which will again have the power to surprise, shock, hurt people and provoke them to some collective action’. In making such a statement Whitehead was not only describing what he hoped to film but also the type of film he hoped to make. If America’s radical culture was indeed crumbling just as it had come into bloom, Whitehead wanted to document it, but he also wanted his film to do something. He had no desire to stand on the sidelines and simply observe. As he put it in his ‘Treatment’, ‘the time for Poetry Readings is over’.

As 1967 ended and he continued to develop the project into 1968, Whitehead intended for The Fall to be an example of this ‘new’ form. To do this, he knew that it would have to go much further than either Tonite or Benefit of the Doubt. Influential magazines like Variety had heaped praise on both during the New York Film Festival, but they had also raised points that chipped away at his own concerns about the films. Tonite, with its parade of the young and the beautiful having a jolly old time was maybe too ‘commercial’ and ephemeral for its media critique to really hit home, while Benefit, because it was a documentary about the production of an anti-war play, was perhaps a little too distant to work as a protest film. The Fall, by contrast, would be different: harder, more aggressive. The plot would use murder as a revolutionary tool, an act of violence that shocks dormant protest culture back into action.

With the project coming together as the end of the year approached, Whitehead’s commitment intensified. He was enthused, fired up and keen to invest The Fall with as much radical agency as possible. His ongoing diary was full of this passion, but to such an extent that it was often hard to see where his own life ended and the world of the film began. The two seemed increasingly to blur together as if Whitehead were not only moving into the frame but was also plotting some act of violence himself. At midnight on 27 November, he wrote of his intentions for the film and for ‘Peter Whitehead’. This character, his double, the man Whitehead was by then considering ‘playing’ in his film, was embarking on a dangerous trajectory; he would ‘really commit the act of assassination really really.’

The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties is out now from Icon Books

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