Decline and falconry

Film-maker Peter Whitehead was the coolest dude in Sixties London. Then he dropped out and went strange. Now, Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit have made a film about him - and Whitehead hates it.
Click to follow
There's a scene in The Falconer in which Peter Whitehead, the man described as the film's "fictive core", is being interviewed on Swedish TV. "I copulated with falcons," he declares. The female interviewer tries to keep a straight face while looking like someone who's just had her chat-show stolen from under her nose. "I did it physically. I built a special hat ..." That's how Whitehead describes his method for inseminating the gyrs; "I was in love with those falcons," he sighs. Behind him, the digitally animated figure of a young woman strolls into the scene and bends to kiss him. Black leathery wings unfurl from her back.

During the 1960s, Peter Whitehead made a series of films which have since become documents of the decade. "I had one foot in the counterculture and one in Swinging London," he says of the period in which he filmed Wholly Communion, a cinema verite account of the legendary 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall. Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, a glossy trawl through the faces and places of the "swinging" metropolis, followed in 1967. Over this period, Whitehead was also making promos for groups as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the Dubliners. The Fall (1969), an attempt to marry Godard with footage of the American police crushing the counterculture, was Whitehead's last serious piece of film-making. He now writes self-published novels, and makes his living from selling off bits of his archive to television.

After he dropped out of film-making, Whitehead made falconry his life. He trapped the birds and bred them. By 1982 he was building a falconry centre for a Saudi prince. The Gulf War put an end to this operation but, by then, Whitehead was convinced that he was living out the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. "Isis copulates with the live body of her dismembered husband Osiris and gives birth to Horus the falcon," Whitehead explains to the unitiated. "I am Horus. I have lived out becoming Horus. It is my myth." Whitehead seems happily to adopt any number of myths - Horus, Oedipus, Salome - as his own.

"I kept thinking - there are gaps," runs a commentary in the Falconer film. "How do you get from film-making to falconry? How do you get from falconry to writing novels?" And it's in these gaps that The Falconer, made by writer Iain Sinclair and writer-director Chris Petit, forges its fictions. The film works on layers of unreliable memory, flashback-blizzards, origami structures of doubles and doubling, hotel rooms that metamorphose into a whalebone box which supposedly possesses occult powers.

Chris Petit, the director, is something of an underground polymath. He was film editor at the London events magazine Time Out in the mid-1970s, when it still had some countercultural cred. He then moved directly into film-making with Radio On (1979), a beautiful and austere British road movie, an impressive take on PD James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1981), and two thrillers, Flight to Berlin (1983) and Chinese Boxes (1984). He then dropped out of features to make television films and write two novels, Robinson (1993) and The Psalm Killer (1997). The Falconer has allowed Petit to explore the form of the essay-film, using video technology. Since finishing it, he has gone on to produce another video essay, Dead TV.

And his working partner, Iain Sinclair - as readers of Lights Out for the Territory will know - is a curio-sifter at the cultural margins. So, if you watch The Falconer as you'd read one of Sinclair's essays, you'll understand how it works. It's a sort of caricature, produced by a couple of avant-garde satirists. Hogarth worked with pen and ink; his inheritors take the language of Sixties experimental film, and throw it in with digital editing and multimedia design. And Whitehead fed himself to the film-makers. As Sinclair has said in an interview, "He's someone who always has one more story to tell ... He's got a kind of mesmerising, Ancient Mariner quality. The stories initially were fascinating, you wanted to know the rest. But when he told you them they were never as interesting as they seemed ..."

Whitehead now lives in a run-together assembly of cottages in a Northamptonshire village, which he shares with his wife Dido, the daughter of Teddy Goldsmith and niece of the late James. When I visited, Whitehead's two daughters were sitting around the kitchen table singing "Brown-Eyed Girl" to a guitar accompaniment. The scene was exactly as I'd hoped, a high-class Bohemian enclave in the Shires.

We spent the afternoon in Whitehead's den. He talked about the 1960s, and told me about a group of academics at Leicester De Montford University who had invited him to a conference on 1968 and radical film. "I'm an objet retrouve," he declared. He then asked Robin, his 14-year-old daughter, to show me around the garden. "But Dad," she protested. "I don't know anything about your stuff."

Whitehead's "stuff" consists of a temple that he built himself in his yard, and where he intends to be buried. The temple was constructed from columns salvaged from a demolished bank, adhering to numerological principles derived from Egyptian myth. I wondered whether this structure might partly explain why Sinclair is fascinated with Whitehead. Each in his way is a builder of follies dedicated to his own self-elected mythology.

The Whitehead story, as Petit narrates it, is one of "drug culture, high society, weird showbiz liaisons, dealings with the black economy". But it was the women in Whitehead's life that, further down the line, would become the sore point in the story of the film. Whitehead has been linked to a number of famous beauties, among them Nico, Bianca Jagger and Nathalie Delon. Liaisons and working partnerships with sculptors Penny Slinger and Nikki de St Phalle (he made the film Daddy, an excruciating sexual psychodrama, with the latter in 1974) and the actress Mia Martin. Sinclair speaks of Whitehead "vampirising" his female collaborators and Whitehead himself plays with the idea of incest as a mystical metaphor, as his being haunted by the daughter as the image of his "soul". He tells of how, when he photographs women, he does so "as a woman". Incest as a metaphor was to prove a source of controversy, to put it mildly. In one scene in The Falconer, Whitehead relates how he took "a honeymoon" with his daughter, then eight years old. The father-daughter relationship was a trope that was worked into the film.

In April this year, Whitehead finally watched the finished film, having previously resisted Sinclair's offers of a screening. "It really is a masterpiece," he wrote. "I think it will go down in the history of movies (as did Eliot's The Waste Land for poetry) - establishing a new way of seeing, within film, which really is visionary. It is a film about me - a very generous one - and I am humbled by it ... I was expecting more gore, blood and Hammer horror stuff. I also think that I come off quite lightly, considering the truth (But remind me to say less, next time!)".

Then, two months later, Whitehead took umbrage. Over the latter part of June, threats of legal action were arriving daily on the producer's desk. Whitehead claimed that he was the victim of "a deliberate calculated betrayal, foisted on me by a close friend for whom I had the greatest respect as an artist and a person". It got worse. Petit was now "a c***", Sinclair "emotionally retarded". More disturbing still, Whitehead claimed to "have all Sinclair's telephone calls recorded from Christmas. "I have the whole proof of the deliberate deception." He went on to admit that he was "doing [his] best to screw the thing up".

In January, Whitehead had produced a signed statemement that read "I have willingly contributed to a work that I understand is not a documentary but a fabulous version of my life and my varied careers ... a fiction disguised as a documentary, a life explained through its underlying mythology and not through a mere recitation of chronological facts." So why the savage volte-face?

One reason may have been the response The Falconer received when it was shown at De Montford University. Among the panellists was Caroline Coon, radical feminist, former Sixties activist and founder of Release, the drugs advice organisation. Coon was so incensed by the film that she wrote a vitriolic open memo to the organisers. "How could you collude with this film?" she demanded. "What is your position on bestiality and the abuse of children?" Coon went on to describe Whitehead as a "self- confessed pseudo-mythologising narcissist" and the film as "a snuff movie ... that is obdurately reactionary, White Power and orthodox, a film only masquerading as radical and avant-garde." There were rumours that Whitehead enthusiasts from the US had been bending their erstwhile hero's ear. It seemed that they'd found the film, well, a little too extreme.

A friend rings. "I have a definition that might interest you," he tells me. "It's from James Morton's book Lowspeak: A Dictionary of Criminal and Sexual Slang. Check this out. Under 'falconer' it reads, 'A conman posing as an aristocrat'."

But Sinclair knew this all along. Didn't he?

'The Falconer': Renegade TV, Channel 4, 24 September.