April 1968. New York. The barricade was in place. Metal filing cabinets piled on top of the university president’s mahogany desk, to which heavy chairs were tied with rope, locking the barricade against the ornate oak doors. The first blow of the axe split the centre door panel, the second gouged a hole big enough for a cop’s hand to appear, wearing a white protective glove. It turned in the air the way Fonteyn’s hand turned in the air when she was Ondine, emerging for the first time from the water, the way our hands turn when we dip them into a bath to test its temperature. The hand withdrew (during the Civil War it would have been hacked off) and further savage blows of the axe completed its work. Of liberation. The seven day student rebellion and occupation of Columbia university was about to be ‘bust’.
I ran upstairs to the top floor and took the film out of my cine-camera, put it into a tin and sealed it with tape before dropping it from a window into the bushes below, unseen by the ranks of armed police waiting to free the university from the pagan forces of anarchy. Soon I was walking through the splintered wooden doors with the other students, to be arrested. Eagerly the cops opened my camera (I had been a warned) to expose the incriminating film to the light. No film. I collected it the following day. A week later I was flying back to England with twenty hours of film which would later become “The Fall”, and be shown for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival, the last film I would make about the so-called Swinging Sixties; TIME magazine having given the era its belittling name.
Everyone knows the joke (is it a joke?) – that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there. So where does that place me? I can’t remember really being there – true enough – but I can assure myself, remind myself I was there simply by looking at my films. My camera was certainly there! So are my ‘the truth’? More and more, inadvertently, they have inevitably become some kind of ‘undeniable truth’. But I was never fooled by the French for lens: objectif. I know my films were made by someone hovering outside of events, not yet painfully aware that the camera was not attaching him/me to the outside world, but preventing it. The plight of the man with the camera making so-called documentary films, is always to be the voyeur.
Sixties devotees who watch my films – the real thing man! – are mostly too young to have been there, they are a new type of audience for whom film has become the ‘only truth’, a new g-g-g-g-generation at college imbibing Media studies, convinced they can ‘know’, souls saturated with the seminal music of the times: pop music, the era’s true soul, digitally enhanced but ‘true to the spirit of those epic times’, they will say – who am I disagree with such a verdict on the satanic mini-symphonies of the Stones (still my favourites) born in the heat of the night of those stuttering, timeless times?
So the author of this clutch of documentary films is now an authority, as if at the time I was heading out to capture history, my place in history (to make it sound worse) not just filming what seemed to be going on – seemed to concern me. You don’t just go out and make the films you want; they happen to you, fomented by a communal opportunism, people on the make, careless offers of money, equally careless girls you can only ‘pull’ by filming them. I fear my ‘take’ on the Sixties is hidden beneath the only too visible surface ecstasy; the thrill of stealing ‘reality’ by means of the newly invented silent Eclair camera, fast colour films that did away with the tyranny of lights, the world on film appearing more as we see it, ‘as it is’, (the camera designed on the principle of the human eye), not as in good old the black-and-white days, of dreams etched on bread.
But things aren’t always what they appear to be, at the first (mis-taken) glance. My ‘take’ on the brave new world I found myself in, and lost myself in, was one of occult dread, suspicion, foreboding, bewitched by the premonition of personal and collective consciousness falling apart; falcons no longer able to hear the falconer.
Why did I bother to film at all? A kind of protection racket, to repay a debt, to attempt some kind of psychic defence against pain. I had been ripped apart by Godard and Bergman, mutilated by the authenticity of their pessimism, needing to imagine myself like them, in love, in bed, with their beautiful women, unavoidable empathy with their desolate visions as I was emerging ill-prepared for so much chaos in the first-ever world I had needed to grasp (haunted by dreams, unrealised fiction movies clouded with intimations of a former life in Ancient Egypt). I dream therefore I am. I doubt therefore I film. At the end of the abandon of the Sixties, feeling myself to be as ripped apart as the door was splintered by the New York cops, I gave up films, happy to be free of them, of needing to film, film, film, not able to walk along the street without choosing the camera angle, how much to zoom, what detail to focus on, to prove I was alive and part of it all. I sold my camera and escaped into the dubious solace of the desert, to trap and breed falcons (envious of their all-seeing eyes!) for twenty years. Until late in the 1980s, more disillusioned than ever with the so-called ‘real world’, I found another, infinitely more treacherous open space; the desert within; the empty white page. I gave up images again, choosing words. I started to write fiction, creating incorporeal images on a holographic screen ‘inside’ the mind. Fictions that were always screenplays.
So what truth do my films add up to, now, thirty two years later? Sixties London was a daunting place, as its soul was raped by an Imperialist culture hell-bent on dumbing it down to a spiritless faith in a world of objects – we becoming objects ourselves, coerced by the Media to desire to consume more, more, more. Desire Junkies. Thing Junkies. I must hope my films are more than a mere interrogation with the frivolous fable of The Swinging Sixties, the protest, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll antics of a pop-music-loving generation letting their hair down and having fun as it was never had before?
My films are not about me, or London. They are about America!
There was an apocalyptic optimism in the International Poetry Incarnation at London’s Royal Albert Hall, 11th June 1965 … electricity in the air and ecstasy in the hearts. As Allen Ginsberg read, one young girl rose to her feet and began moving slowly in a weird twisting dance, a marvellous moment. This vignette and others that characterized the whole, crazy joyous atmosphere was caught on film in Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion, a film that in intention and feeling prefigure’s Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Precisely! Monterey, Woodstock! America.
I’d gone to a poetry reading at BetterBooks to listen to Allen Ginsberg, having read Howl at Cambridge as a stelae of revealing, exposing the manifest sickness of the American soul in a sacred text, incandescent words of pain. Thirty people turned up to that solemn yet inspiring poetry reading, including myself. However, by midnight, stoned out of mind, the poets and various camp followers had decided to rent the Royal Albert Hall, invite Corso, Ferlinghetti, Vosnesensky, Yevtushenko, William Burroughs. Philp Larkin not on the list. Nor Stevie Smith. Only Americans could be so brash to imagine they could fill the Albert Hall with worshippers come to devour heroic sacramental texts, the dubious virtues of hitherto unheard Beat Poetry! Fearing (and yet wanting?) a total fiasco, I was eager to attend the event, soon dubbed The International Poetry Incarnation, �England! awake! awake! awake! Jerusalem thy Sister calls!�. Yup! I’d be there, camera in hand. 7000 people came, 2000 were rejected, the first great ‘Hippie Happening’ in London, the first indisputable manifestation of the so-far unacknowledged counter-culture. Who were all these people emerging from their Bronté-lined closets to listen to a bunch of stoned Americans? I shot 40 minutes of film, edited them to 33. The film won the Gold Medal at Mannheim Film Festival and was shown prime time on German TV; in English. A BBC hack declared it the worst film the institution had ever been offered.
A guy called Andrew Oldham phoned me, somewhat piqued I didn’t know him. I’m the manager of The Rolling Stones! At the time (working class boy sent to a public school by the Atlee government to become ‘posh’) I was listening to Janacek’s House of the Dead. Oldham sent a limousine. Was it true I could film without lights or tripod, I could be invisible, not interfere with events as they happened, not intrude and falsify reality? Yup! That’s me! Direct cinema, cinema Verité. Three days later I was filming the unlikely lads on tour in Ireland; envious of the erotic, pagan power over their nubile audience. At the Mannheim Film Festival, its specially-invited chairman Josef von Sternberg (defending me against a hostile audience claiming I’d made the Stones look drab and inarticulate) asserted that in thirty years time Charlie is my Darling would be the only film to survive; a faithful record of the times. Quelle clairvoyance! Unreliable portrait of a gaggle of scruffy English guys from the LSE who pissed in garages, played a pub in Richmond, lead singer with bruised swollen lips from too much fighting or sex, girls in mini-skirts (a new fetish) fainting in pools of urine? Songs by Chuck Berry, �It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music, If you wanna dance with me.� Buddy Guy. Little Richard. The rent soul of America, finding its voice, refusing to be unheard, the anarchic foetal beat of the unborn; disenfranchised Chicago Blacks. As Stokely Carmichael fumed: people so poor that half the pet food sold in the city was the only meat they ate.
Later our lads would record plaintive, biting masterpieces of their own; Lady Jane, Ninth Nervous Breakdown. But without their financial success in America with Satisfaction, the Stones would now be merely the demented subject of a bunch of music promos (why dressed in drag, why in slow motion?) made by a cynical film-maker (turned falconer) who got the job because he claimed he could be invisible. Charlie is My Darling is about American music and the same fractured soul the Beat poets had bewailed. Now it was English music, too, conceived by a junta of English teenagers who didn’t know why they’d been so seduced; somewhere in their bodies an eerie strain of recognition, abused by the same cultural viruses. Doubt. Ennui. The excluded. Powerless. White Negroes.
Peter Brook asked me to film a ‘Living Theatre’ play he was improvising with his actors and some poets, called US. A double meaning; Us here, but US as in USA. A ‘documentary’ play aimed at revealing our tacit involvement with the Americans in the Vietnam war. The counter-culture in Britain did not start with mini-skirts and pop music but the Aldermarston March, Vanessa Redgrave and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation; for whom I was covertly editing films smuggled out of North Vietnam. A play about American political and cultural imperialism. The resulting film, Benefit of the Doubt, and Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (note spelling of Tonite) were shown at the New York Film festival in a double bill: The London Scene. Tonite was the social hit of the Festival. Kerpow! Andy Warhol. Rossellini. Henry Fonda. (But alas, where was Jane? In St. Tropez!). Two thirds of the audience walked out of Benefit, disgusted at seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company challenging the myths behind the waging by their ‘Military Industrial Complex’ of an ideological war in rural Buddhist Vietnam; unconvinced the war was about money, the true purpose being possession of the Michelin rubber plantations; as Bertrand Russell so eloquently insisted.
Tonite was also about America. The Swinging London myth became ‘fact’ because TIME said so: if TIME said London was swinging, trivial, vacuous, then it was. But as I show in my novel Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London – a ‘novel’ about the making of Wholly Communion – this TIME ‘take’ on London was a CIA/DIA (Disinformation Agency) manoeuvre to make British counter-culture appear inconsequential, impotent. The CIA had bought out Encounter Magazine and were as hell-bent on buying out The Left in Britain as they were in bombing it out of Vietnam. Bomb Culture, as Jeff Nuttall wrote. TIME sloughed off Britain as decadent, suffused with the toxic drug of teenage sex, vulgar fashion, primitive mindless pop music – nothing whatsoever to do with the political tropisms under the surface – deep, heart-felt protest against the abuse being inflicted on British culture by America. My novel pursues two DIA agents sent to infiltrate the independent film movement, who inadvertently finance the Albert Hall poetry reading, hoping it will be an embarrassing disaster! The rest is history …
Finally it was inevitable; I had to film in America, go to the source. Tonite had opened in Washington to rave reviews, but the same night Martin Luther King was shot dead, Washington was aflame. No-one could reach the cinema and the film was taken off after two days. I was asked to make a film in Hollywood, but was also offered money by an independent producer to make ‘Tonite Let’s All Make Love in New York’. Yup! Why not! But my ‘take’ was not what they wanted; a portrait of a city saturated with pent-up ‘violence’. So to get more money to complete the film I ‘fictionalised’ the narrative, added a theme about an assassination at a protest rally, the film-maker killing an innocent member of the audience; the ultimate act of protest; murder on film. I put myself in the film to challenge my own role, my voyeurism. (The first ‘video’ diary?) I was asking myself – was I finally participating in the revolution on the streets, part of the gang, or still safe behind my camera? I was accused of narcissism, of making a film to celebrate myself! But I was filming the occupation of Columbia University, April 1968, sleeping rough with the students! Benefit of the Doubt opened in Paris, 5 May 1968. Peter Brook and his actors attended the first night but the film was abandoned two days later. So much for bloody revolutions! The cinema was behind the Sorbonne barricades, the woman in the box office tear gassed.
In Columbia (while Godard’s La Chinoise was showing in Paris) I had filmed with the students, dreaming of a better world, being together in a way that seemed daring and right, singing pop songs: �Strange young girls, colored with sadness, eyes of innocence, hiding their madness�. Chanting: �We want the world and we want it now!� The police obeying orders, beating them to pulp. I was warned to leave America, they were after my film, which I’d prudently hidden in a fridge in a friend’s flat. Suddenly … film and reality were becoming indistinguishable. Arriving back in London, my semi-documentary script for my assassination film in my camera bag, the headlines greeted me: Bobby Kennedy shot dead. I had filmed a whole day with him, three weeks before. Had I killed him? Had I made it necessary with my films, celebrating him, exposing him, making him pure image, that he be shot? Shot on film, by film … Suddenly. This time the film was ‘staring’ me – not Frank Sinatra! Or Woody Allen!
I had a nervous breakdown. Didn’t speak for 3 months. The Fall opened at the Edinburgh Festival … the device of cutting all but a few frames from a sequence, printing them as ‘stills’ to give a ‘stop-go’ effect is no mere gimmick, but absolutely right for suggesting the alienation, the unreality, the edgy beauty, the instability of our bright, ephemeral, syncopated world. The cutting between the sound and some bright hot colour patterns becomes abstract cinema in its own right – one might talk of a ‘Wagnerian’ type of visual music … Raymond Durgnat generously describing my new technique. But I had been trying to change the world not the language of cinema, confront the fascist tyranny of objectification of everything and everyone. I felt defeated, betrayed by film, my own film most of all. Vicarious avoidance of participation; a preoccupation which was its own predicament.
So I went off alone to the desert, Arabia, Pakistan, the Arctic tundra, pursuing the myth of the wanderer, ‘becoming’ the falcon I was hunting, the peregrine, Horus, the pilgrim hawk … Later writing novels like The Risen, the ‘inner story of the falcon’, another ‘take’ on myself and my past, trying to recapture and celebrate some of the wonder of first discovery, amazed to have survived ‘for real’ in such an impalpable, spectral world which others had seemed to experience as solid and tangible, trapped though they were in the prison house of reason; which we anarchists in the Sixties had tried so hard (yet failed) to bring to ruin.
Conspiracy theories? Moi?
this article first appeared here