The opening credits of Peter Whitehead’s The Fall depict midtown Manhattan through a furiously descending elevator shaft, the title emblazoned over skyscrapers whizzing out of frame. Its implication is clear enough: in a swirly, capricious jumble of on-site documentary footage, re-recorded news from TV, and awkwardly staged bits to provide something of a framing device, Whitehead aims to portray the 1968 edition of America as undergoing nothing short of a miasmic psychological curdle. Starring throughout as some kind of moody hippie journalist, Whitehead organizes his material in three sections: “Image”, “The Word”, and finally “Word & Image”. The aggressive disparity between idyll and reality, or between design and spontaneity, dominates the film—and, presumably, the times.
Covering much of the same physical and political space as Chris Marker, Whitehead is simultaneously more playful and less patient; his interest is less in linkages between historical happenstances than in juxtaposing specific images to stimulate thought patterns. He flippantly turns ordinary shots into punchlines, like when a woman on the subway comments out loud about wanting a car she comes across in an issue of Life; sure enough, Whitehead smash-cuts to a totaled wreck being examined by cops, then doubles back. Maybe even more than his own face, the director loves precise examples of contradiction: Gloria Steinem denouncing the herd mentality of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a model posing salaciously in a dress covered in peace signs, a public debate that’s eroded by loonies and extremists before it even gets going.
Commentary on the death of Martin Luther King Jr. is matched to smoking post-riot rubble in the ghettos of Chicago and Memphis, both contextualizing its bomb-like impact and also setting the stage for the assassination of Bobby Kennedy—which Whitehead curiously loads into the film’s coda despite its having happened earlier. That’s probably because his third act, following the Columbia students’ strike, brings the film as close as it ever gets to a clear-headedness: in their rebellion Whitehead finds something approximating relief from the disjunctive hysteria of the first two sections. Whatever the politics, the director goes off the sidelines and into the field, switching from montages-within-montages to a downright verité shooting strategy. But Kennedy’s death—immeasurably damaging for progressive whites, just as King’s was for blacks—serves as yet another grim reminder that any progress mustered by a society will always be fragile, and easily reversible.