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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

WHITELEY - Max Berghouse finds much to admire in James Bogle's new documentary

Whiteley (2017), Australia. James Bogle (Director), James Bogle and Victor Gentile (Writers). Northern Rivers production. With: Brett, Wendy and Arkie Whiteley (archival footage) and Andrew Blaikie (adult Brett Whiteley), Jessica White (Wendy Whiteley) and Olivija Strautins (Arkie Whiteley).

Let us make no mistake. Brett Whiteley was a most prodigious artistic talent. More prodigious perhaps in that he was self-taught. Moving triumphantly, if not serenely, from early adult success in Sydney, to instant recognition in London and thence to New York and the new ingredient of drugs, coupled with an already existing penchant for alcohol, he continued for the rest of his life producing, at least extremely professional work (when under the influence of drugs) and brilliant work when he was on the wagon. Ultimately however, no matter who the artist might be, it is the work that endures. Perhaps the more impressive the work, the less interest one has in the creator. This film was produced with the cooperation of Wendy Whiteley, Brett's former wife, who has made it her life's work to sustain the artistic recognition of Brett. If so, the film benefits from this in that there is an extremely wide display of the work Mr Whiteley produced. Where this work is part of a series, that series is displayed extremely well.

Moreover the film itself is extremely deftly produced. I was rather reminded with the similar, it seems to me, documentary about Florence Broadhurst, Unfolding Florence (Gillian Armstrong, Australia, 2006) with its use of archival stills reproduced in 3D, the photo shopping of characters like Mr Whiteley on the stock footage of places he visited and some colourful CGI. The production values of the film very much match the palette of the painter. Even for someone very familiar with the work, its display in a largely chronological way is interesting. There is a minor gripe with some of the colour stock footage of the European cities Mr Whiteley visited, and also of New York, asked some years outside the specific period of his visit. Some are earlier, some later and this can be shown in a variety of ways, like the vintages of cars on the road and the clothing worn by people, et cetera. But that is a very small glitch.

Inevitably with any focus by an artist on his work, a biography or biographical film is bound to be not linear or full but thematic and it is in the development of the biography of Mr Whiteley that I feel less comfortable. There is archival footage which I imagine very few people have seen and there is also recreated footage with Andrew Blaikie as Whiteley. This is extraordinarily professional as very frequently I could not tell genuine archival footage, from created footage. Mr Whiteley with his pale skin and tangled knot of red hair looking for all the world like an Antipodean Harpo Marx, cannot have been the easiest role to play. But Mr Whiteley seems almost an idiot savant because his intellect, as he expresses what he tries to do in his work, and indeed in explaining what art is about, is infantile and largely incomprehensible, compared to the art itself. I can't tell whether these views came at a time when he was generally affected by drugs, or specifically affected by them when conveying his views, but they are almost embarrassingly puerile. I certainly don't blame Mr Whiteley for this as such because most artists in any creative field find expressing how and why they get to a particular artistic point extremely difficult, if not impossible, and even if they know, they don't particularly wish to reveal their secrets. From the perspective of film however, keeping this footage in, rather than excising it, does leave considerable longueurs. At the screening I attended, some of these views elicited titters of laughter!

I mentioned above my inference of the cooperation of Wendy Whiteley and I merely suggest that perhaps there was some (implied) editorial control over the use of the material. If this be the case, then I'm pretty sure there no mention of the general critical view that Mr Whiteley's work suffered from especially when he was on drugs. It is rather as if the director was given access to a whole range of material and simply used it. He certainly laid this material out well. Whether he used it to the best critical advantage, I'm not sure.

There is consistent use of an interview with Mrs Whiteley. I believe it is a single interview because Mrs Whiteley has only a single position in the take and is dressed in the same clothing. This is interesting in that it seems to have been shot quite a long time ago. Mrs Whiteley looked substantially younger and with her youthful beauty very substantially intact. But whether her very blasé comments about drug ingestion add much to the biography I feel uncertain.

There is also archival footage of Arkie who died tragically young from cancer and was an outstandingly beautiful woman with very considerable talent as an actress.


Modern documentary "lore" is that if in a documentary, one finds material which is entertaining and interesting, rather than merely "critical", the director should go for the interesting and entertaining. This is certainly done in the film and I cannot criticise it as such. My own interest in documentary relate to trying to find something in the subject matter of the documentary which I didn't already know. On that basis, I did not find the film a success. But that is only my own standard. To others, particularly of a generation younger than myself who are less familiar with the works of Mr Whiteley and don't know or don't remember how he blazed across the artistic firmament like an exploding comet, this film is very worthwhile.

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