Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Retro-future cinema: The Falconer, Chris Petit/Iain Sinclair film on BBC 4, c. 1997

Posted on | November 24, 2009 | No Comments

The Falconer
Chris Petit/Iain Sinclair, UK, 1997, 56 mins
Review by Andrew Hedgecock

‘A documentary investigation into the lives and careers of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead’. A potpourri of savage images, arcane knowledge, secret stories, half-forgotten history and myth, The Falconer is the filmic equivalent of a Tarot pack. And it offers the same multiplicity of readings.

Originally entitled The Perimeter Fence, the film was intended to be a follow-up to The Cardinal and the Corpse, Sinclair and Petit’s 1992 celebration of literary outlaws, obsessive bookdealers and the strange history of east London. This time the theme was to be the counterculture outside the metropolis. But it gradually began to focus on one of its subjects, Peter Whitehead, maker of films like Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), novelist, breeder of falcons and shaman.

On one level this is a detective story; an attempt to fill in the gaps in Whitehead’s CV and to trace the development of his obsessions. It’s structured around the activities of a trio of detectives. Petit outlines his ‘entrapment’ in Whitehead’s story, and failure to make sense of the outline, before passing the investigative baton to Francoise Lacroix (photographer, researcher and dead ringer for Whitehead’s daughter). Lacroix, fearful of losing her sense of self in Whitehead’s labyrinth of tales, flees the film and the case is closed (but not wrapped up) by The Falconer’s editor, Emma Matthews.

But this is a metamovie too: a film about filmmaking, competing narratives and the tension between dialogue and image. And there’s a fourth detective: the viewer. Where is the boundary between the facts of Whitehead’s life and his own interpretation of it through myth? How much (if any) of this is really documentary, and to what extent is it contrived by Sinclair and Petit? There’s a key moment late in the film when Whitehead warns Sinclair that Petit’s directorial ‘fascism’ and liking for ‘pure abstract image’ will lead him to ditch synchronised sound and destroy the film as a biographical documentary. The irony is that, by this stage, we’ve watched 40 minutes of a film with asynchronous sound, strong music and a haunting silent movie performance by Lacroix (an impression of damaged passivity and inner strength, voiced over by another actor). The documentary format is further underlined by allusions to the work of other filmmakers: the likes of early Godard, Chris Marker, Performance, Petit’s own Radio On and Chinese Boxes.

The Whitehead theme is haunted by the ghost of the Perimeter Fence project: there are appearances by the late Kathy Acker, Francis Stuart (author of Blacklist Section H) and motormouth conspiracy theorist Stewart Home, who delivers a terrifying warning of the quest of the ruling class for a state of ‘alchemical absolutism’.

A Hi-8 video camera is used to create a range of visual styles: supergrass/confessional silhouette, fuzzy surveillance clips, concealed camera and grainy 6th generation porn video. An additional layer is introduced by Dave McKean’s text, graphic and animation overlays. Complex and original.

The Falconer may one day appear on video; in the meantime, look out for a TV repeat.


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