CULTURE- ART FEATURE- </span>Retro-spective: Whitehead's groovy reels

Peter Whitehead shooting The Fall

My father once confessed he worried that I was leading a "zig-zag" life. My career meanderings, however, look like a straight line compared to Liverpool-born Peter Whitehead, who in his 70-year lifespan has studied physics, pursued painting, worked as a newsreel cameraman, bred falcons, and penned novels.

And for one glorious period in the late 1960s, Whitehead shot avant-garde films delving into the counter-culture movements in London and New York. Beyond capturing the ethos of the moment, Whitehead's intimate approach to documentary, extracting meaning from the most ordinary moments, established a precedent followed by future nonfiction filmmakers, in particular rock-u-mentarians.

Since late July, the University of Virginia Art Museum's video gallery has rotated four of Whitehead's films— Wholly Communion (1965, 33 minutes), Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967, 70 minutes), Benefit of the Doubt (1967, 65 minutes), and underground cult fave, Charlie is My Darling (1967, 60 minutes). Currently, the Beat poet-centered Wholly Communion is on show. 

But when I dropped by the gallery, the week's fare was the remarkable Charlie is My Darling (next screening: September 18). Filmed over the course of three days, the black-and-white documentary follows the Rolling Stones on tour through Belfast and Dublin, just after "Satisfaction" became their first trans-Atlantic hit. 

This is the time of Bill Wyman and Brian Jones, when Keith Richards, far from looking like death on a good day, sports acne on his chin. No one involved has a clue the Rolling Stones will still be rolling 40 years later; fame is novel and most likely fleeting, which leads to unselfconscious on-camera confessions. Drummer Charlie Watts thinks he'll be a graphic designer when he's not a musician, and the late Jones poignantly and prophetically says, "My ultimate aim is never to be a pop star."

What's compelling about Whitehead's raw camerawork is its "you are there" quality. The camera often zooms in for an extreme close-up, only to pull back quickly and pan to another face or focus out a window, mimicking how our own erratic eyes might experience the situation. His awareness of composition comes through in his use of shadowy foreground elements to frame highlighted action in the distance. The mid-film street scenes are particularly brilliant for their contrast of the humdrum everyday with the Stones' flavor-of-the-week celebrity.

Whitehead's celluloid trips into these trippy days will culminate with the screening of The Fall on October 17 at Vinegar Hill Theater as part of the Virginia Film Festival.

"The Films of Peter Whitehead" continue at the University of Virginia's New Media Gallery through September 30. Wholly Communion shows through September 2 and again the week of September 25. Tonite Let's All Make Love in London screens the week of September 4. Benefit of the Doubt screens the week of September 11. And Charlie is My Darling shows the week of September 18. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.