Return of the Reforgotten

By Vertigo

The Falconer by Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair

Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair are making a film for Channel 4, The Falconer, about and starring Peter Whitehead. In a special two-part interview, they talk about working with Whitehead – novelist, underground filmmaker (Wholly Communion (1965), Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)), falconer, Egyptologist, ‘60s counter-cultural shaman and 'the spook's spook'.

Vertigo: At one point in The Falconer you sum up the Peter Whitehead story as being a combination of 'weird showbiz liaisons, connections to the Secret State, drug culture, high society'. Were you aware of those dimensions when you started on the film?

Petit: Yeah, but we weren’t making a film about that to begin with.

Sinclair: We didn’t intend when we set out to make a film about Peter Whitehead. It was called The Perimeter Fence and it was a film about marginal figures who drifted out of the culture and it was going to be largely set in America. Only one thin strand of this was catching up with Peter but when we went up to see him for one day he turned on this sort of hook-you-in, spider-like charismatic force. He dropped all sort of hints and left it saying that he'd tell the fuller story next time. He came down to London before his heart attack and launched into a much more detailed picture of what had been going on in Saudi Arabia, the background to the Gulf War, the Falklands, enough to really pull us. After that he staged his heart attack. Well, he didn’t stage it, he had a heart attack. But I think he did stage it, even though it was a real heart attack. He worked himself up to it because otherwise he might have drifted out of the picture. By that time we were completely hooked. He called us in to the hospital...

Petit: ... the day after the heart attack. He was on the phone to Iain saying 'You must come down'. We got down there and he was he was looking pretty grisly. By then it was too late to abandon him, so we were in rather deep.

Sinclair: This film is a fictional biography, a degraded, gutter version of Citizen Kane. But it's based on a real character and it's two separate essays that go in different directions. In one a man’s dead and is trying to invent his own past, he’s trying to retell his story to show himself up as the hero of his own story. The other bit is this woman he nominates as his daughter (played by Françoise Lacroix) who is given a walk-through the waxworks of Whitehead’s history. At the same time, I’m writing an essay about him in which I’m making him do things he never did. But sometimes it turns out that, even while I invented them, he did do them. I invented him meeting with Orson Welles and he said, 'I did meet Orson. We had lunch together and we’re still arguing over the bill.'

Vertigo: Had Whitehead been so long fictionalising himself that he was quite happy to be fictionalised in turn?

Sinclair: He mythologises himself completely and absolutely. But in terms of facts, very often these stories turn out to be true, or at least he can give you piles of documentary evidence, cuttings and photographs. He says that Robert Kennedy spoke to him just before the assassination, he got a camera down there at the very moment that he told him the truth about the Kennedys. You’re in a kind of metafictional world which pitches backwards and forwards all the time between narcissism and melancholy.

Vertigo: You talk about Whitehead as being vampiric in the way that he’s related to previous colleagues or associates. Did you find yourself getting sucked into that?

Sinclair: I said to Chris early on, look, I’ve worked out what’s going to happen to us. He's manipulated us to the point of making this Citizen Kane film about him and when it's done we’re redundant. For a start, he did it by writing Chris out of the picture. In a lot of the interviews now, it's like a story that he’s telling to me and it's as if somehow he’s managing to film it for himself. But he took one look at an image on the monitor and was shocked, he kind of reeled back in horror because he'd pictured himself as being sort of Laurence of Arabia in cinemascope and he sees ...

Petit: ... this little geezer whirling a skipping rope!

Sinclair: So he’s actually refused to see the film, because I offered to show him one night. You know if he’s worked up with Howard Marks, he’s in it up to his neck. When the crunch comes Howard Marks goes to jail, Whitehead walks out. He was involved in a major egg-smuggling CIA sting in North America where there were seven people. Six went to trial and he walked, without even going to trial. And this is the story right through his entire career. He was always at the edge of the frame, he always steps aside. It's a kind of wonderful notion of being a vampire. I take Whitehead as a fictional character and as writing his own fiction. He’s very conscious of this, that he’s a performer and actor. The supporting characters we've hardly seen because he’s kept them well out of the way, he doesn’t want to let anybody else in on the act. When we’ve had Howard Marks, he’s tended to be brutally dismissive. Whitehead's said 'don’t believe what Howard tells you, it's all crap. Don't trust that man further than you throw him.'

Petit: In Whitehead’s mind, Iain is his Boswell.

Sinclair: In fact he summoned us. We didn’t know him that well and weren’t working very closely with him when we got the call from the hospital. They said, 'get down here today, quick. He may not hang on long enough.' When we got there it was like a performance; here’s the wife, here’s the mistress and the mistress had been ordered to come along with two black rubbish bags filled with changes of clothes, for God's sake. She said she’d got to be Anna Karina in Alphaville. He thinks he’s Eddie Constantine. The human considerations of all this just don’t come into it because he doesn't operate on that level. I never felt any remorse at all. We turned up in the other hospital after he’s had the operation and his wife's ready to take him home and he hangs on till the crew arrives because we were delayed that day. No sooner had we come in than he tore off all his clothes, everything, and it's 'Here's the scar. Film me.'

Vertigo: The sequence in the film called 'Petit's Entrapment' is intriguing and very effective - it tells of the meeting with Whitehead in an exclusive restaurant in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, suddenly there's a huge explosion outside.

Sinclair: It was an episode I’d been trying to work in for a long time. What happened was I went to this hotel and we were sitting in the restaurant and there was this amazing crash and a fireball. They stopped us going outside and it was this private helicopter that was coming in with some vaguely secret state, industrialist people and nobody was allowed near it. As it was coming in to land its blade had hit a tree and the thing just smashed to smithereens. Apparently nobody was actually killed but there were some private ambulances there and everybody vanished. I thought this was a perfect sort of Whiteheadian cameo because anytime anything like that had happened to us near the film, he would always sort of smile quietly and say 'I’ll tell you the real story of that next time' as if he'd set it up.

Vertigo: As you were making the film and these promises of future revelations came about, did you think after a while, well, screw the stories, they're never going to come about and what’s interesting is the travelling rather than the arriving?

Sinclair: Absolutely

Petit: He is threatening the final confession, from which I’ve been excluded. Iain said that he wouldn’t do it with me, so I said that’s fine, we’ll just bang him in a room with surveillance.

Sinclair: There is something. There have been hints dropped somewhere along the line about a murder, a child that he's killed. There is something truly grisly that, even despite all this other stuff he’s coughed up, can’t be said, certainly not to Chris. But he wants to get it out before he dies. He wants to do it to the camera, for God's sake! It's more important to him to make the story be filmed than it is to live. I mean his life is completely secondary, which is interesting. I’ve never met anybody quite like it.

Petit: Your kids said it the other day, 'One of your dead men called up’!

Petit and Sinclair consider 'chamber cinema', film essays and the pleasures and pitfalls of going 'back-to-zero'.

A Dead Man's Dream

: Although we were allowed to make that one film for Channel 4 for Without Walls, The Cardinal and the Corpse, we basically weren’t let back in after that. We couldn’t get a commission out of anyone to do another film.

Sinclair: The Cardinal was always conceived of as being Part One of a trilogy, a very urban, labyrinthine thing and then you pull back from this and show the people who are centrifugally spun out into Kettering, Northampton, and show how the contour lines have changed and all the old 60s figures were now scattered. And we wanted to do Part Two which would take in English landscape and demented exiles, who were either utopian or dystopian, all over the countryside. Nobody would give us the time of day on that

Petit: I also rather naively thought, after The Cardinal, that it was interesting kind of work-in-progress; a new form, new characters and that doors would be opened. Forget it.

I suppose what interested me about the project, apart from the subject, was the method of working, of actually getting outside of a production schedule. Because I associate those kind of production schedules with that feeling of filmmaking being all about what you can’t have.

Vertigo: Given that we live in a culture of million and one images, where does cinema exist for you now?

Sinclair: I think in places like the Slaughterhouse Gallery, disused power stations, empty industrial buildings, projected on trees. It doesn’t belong in the box nor does it belong in the cinema anymore. So it's gone guerrilla again, but slightly different to the 60s version which I knew. Once I got shot of all that I was just working with 8mm Bolexes. It was absolutely fine because we were just doing like we're doing now. I'd make portraits of friends, Brakhage kind of stuff, and show it to that group of people or a general loose circle in houses or pubs. Each viewing would be different. But that kind of 'chamber cinema' was as friendly and human as possible. And it cost nothing.

Vertigo: You go to the cinema, I take it?

Sinclair: I used to, fanatically. But I hardly ever do now.

Vertigo: Why? What's the difference?

Sinclair: There’s an entire culture shift. Once upon a time in the 60s it cost next to nothing to go and it was a period when cinema was pretty lively. There was still good European cinema and you could look back to that heyday of Hollywood as well, so building up your cinema bibliography because without that you don't have any starting point. I used to see about three, four films a day for years. Then you kind of grow up to the next stage, chasing the films all around town was also a way of exploring London or wherever you were, which Chris has written about in his Newman Passage essay[1]. One way you map the city is actually to find new cinemas, or to find the locations where films were done and with the multiplexes that really doesn’t exist anymore. Of my elder children, one works as a production assistant and one has been doing a lot of running and he’s in Film School. But neither of them have anything like that kind of fanaticism about going to the cinema as I had. They go to a cinema once a fortnight or once a week, they don’t live in the National Film Theatre.

Vertigo: Chris, you’re talking about this film as kind of going back-to-zero in terms of your relationship to cinema. You wrote a review of the 1995 ICA Biennial for Vertigo 5 in which you expressed an interesting antipathy towards the idea of the cinema itself as a kind of sacred site.

Petit: I feel that increasingly strongly and it struck me seeing the last Chris Marker film, Level Five at the London Film Festival. I felt completely out of sync with that whole way of viewing a film, that you go to a place and you sit there for a period of time in the dark and you watch. That's one reason why I go to the cinema less and less because I actually find the format of 90 minutes slightly uncomfortable. I’d rather have a six hour film. It's because of the commercial dictation of how long a film should be. It's also to do with the way one's learnt to watch television, you learn to do two things at once. You can do the ironing while you’re watching television and you can take it in perfectly well. I’ve actually stopped watching films. It's interesting watching what Robert [Petit's 12 year-old son] is doing, which is basically taking a film like JFK, which he’s interested in, and he’s filming it off the screen and inserting his own material. You had an epitaph of sorts with the closure of the Lumière and the death of Tony Kirkhope. Basically that’s the end of an era and the cinema that Andi Engel and others stood for has gone as a form of exhibition. You need to look elsewhere. I don’t know who’s going to do it but we’re not actually that far away from it reinventing itself in the way that it did with the nouvelle vague. Most changes are something to do with technology and once somebody puts together the Hi 8 process and works out that you can go and shoot something for nothing - it's starting already in television. But I don’t know what form this work will take.

Vertigo: You’ve become stateless, in other words. You’re inventing your own geography in which you’re going to do things but do you give up totally on the idea of cinema and television?

Sinclair: On the back of Lights Out I’ve had – no exaggeration – 30 to 50 proposals. People sample bits that they want to take to Channel 4 and I know this is a total and absolute waste of time. More or less by definition anything that gets commissioned is not worth making - that is my definition of a commission. I don’t want to make the film if we’ve gone through the meetings, the endless bullshit and justifications. I know that's enough to finish it for me, because all the research and excitement of shaping the ideas and the form has to come in the making - which is what we’ve done with The Falconer. What we’ve discovered is something completely different. Even now we’re revising the form that it will take and I now see how it will work, or at least I have a notion. But there is no reason why Chris couldn’t come up with a completely different version from the same material.

Petit: What was interesting about the whole editing period was that we weren't sure what it was supposed to be. We had to show something to Channel 4 which would encourage them to stump up the rest of the money and we realised, because the material was so loose, that we were free to do quite a lot with it in terms of actually refilming as we were going along. So there was sequences of stuff that sort of looked alright, but simply by refilming as it went through the Avid it achieved another kind of dimension. Peter, in a sense, is an actor as a kind of conman and therefore can do retakes. But none of the others were actually capable of doing anything like retakes, so it meant that you couldn’t shoot the thing in any kind of conventional way. I started messing around quite seriously with the image and the exposure, forcing it to the point where it would bleach, trying to get to the image to look like where film, photography and dream intersected. There was a cue from Whitehead really, and Iain – the decision to say that, in a way, it's a dying man's dream. So I thought you’d better fuck about with the image in that case.

Sinclair: Peter Whitehead's film Daddy, this grotesque psycho-drama, we couldn’t bear to see in its naked form. But by the time Chris had refilmed it off the Avid it went into sort of multiple-panelled screens, with owls and falcons and women stripping and bits from our film, into this sort of swept-across poster-like form with music. It became something that was extremely interesting and degraded and it was also a kind of comment on his film.

Vertigo: I remember distinctly when Whitehead came on screen I was embarrassed. But then, as the film progressed, I was amazed by how suddenly Whitehead became livable-with and indeed it had become a film.

Sinclair: I wouldn’t mind it being a real film. I saw Andrew Kötting's Gallivant and that seems to derive from the same kind of 8mm, fairly roughly shot footage. The fact that it'd been put together into feature film form is quite interesting. I'd have no objection to that process occurring with this if that means it gets shown around ICAs and colleges and places, because there are now various splinter groups like the Entropy crowd (Bristol-based magazine of esoterica) who would obviously like to see a film.

Petit: The Falconer has had more interest shown in it than anything I’ve ever worked on and it's actually getting to the stage now where you think maybe we shouldn’t finish it.

Sinclair: It isn’t finished. It's something called 'The Project’. For me, it fits into the whole mythical structure of all the writing and the filming. Everything is just part of one project.

Vertigo: Your partnership is quite unusual, you're both writers as well as filmmakers. Does that incline you to seeing the essay film as a desirable form? There are useful precedents in Kötting's film and in Patrick Keiller's films London and Robinson In Space.

Sinclair: I think that form is one that’s open to the individual. You don’t need teams of people with you. The guys from Entropy, funnily enough, said it was like seeing Chris Marker's Sans Soleil which in fact we'd both looked at immediately before beginning on this film. Even though it doesn’t look anything like Chris Marker, it was at the back of our mind to embrace that written history kind of filmmaking. This is the first time that I've felt that you could just write with film in the same way that I’d write Lights Out or whatever. It was because I knew the freedom with which Chris could operate in film. I know that the image can be pushed in the same way that I'd push a sentence.

Petit: It's like this question: am I supposed to be a film maker? Am I supposed to be a writer? I thought, you'd better make your mind up one day. Then I got to a point where I thought, why can’t I do both? With the Sharp Hi-8 the eyepiece became like a kind of note pad and you could just sort of move around with it and allow the image to settle, you didn’t have to decide on your frame. It was like a kind of writing.

Sinclair: At the end of the day you come down to who is going to be prepared to sit and watch this stuff? I can’t actually visualise this stuff going into a cinema with 100, 200 people turning up to look at it and I can’t see it appearing on TV. I see it as being more like the kind of audience for poetry readings or performance art, a small, interested group of people might, if it was pitched properly, come along and take it on.

Vertigo: There’s the sense that the two of you are identified as, it's embarrassing to say, English renegades.

Sinclair: I’m not English. I'm Welsh/Scottish. I don’t have a drop of English. I’m in permanent exile. I’m a spy, a kind of virus that’s been working away quietly for years.


[1] See Christopher Petit: 'Newman Passage or J. Maclaren-Ross and the Case of the Vanishing Writers' The Time Out Book of Short Stories. London 1993. Also, Iain Sinclair: 'Cinema Purgatorio' Lights Out for the Territory. London 1997