Peter Wollen’s newly restored feature film reminds us of a time when theory and practice came together in the cinema, argues Martin Hall
Friendship’s Death, Peter Wollen’s 1987 feature about an alien landing in Amman, Jordan during the Black September conflict between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Jordan in 1970, is being re-released in 4K by the British Film Institute on 21 June as a dual format Blu-ray/DVD and via various streaming services. The narrative concerns Friendship (Tilda Swinton), an android diplomat and Sullivan (Bill Paterson), an archetypal whisky-drinking, dishevelled and world-weary war correspondent, who spend a number of days holed up in a hotel during the fighting discussing life, love, war, sex, sacrifice and death.
It’s an interesting piece for a number of reasons. Based on his own short story, it’s the only feature that Wollen, primarily known as a film theorist, directed. Prior to this, he had made half a dozen shorter films with his then wife and fellow film theorist, Laura Mulvey. Among other things, they had explored the language of film and its role in women’s oppression, to some degree in an attempt to make good on Mulvey’s aim of the ‘destruction of pleasure’ in her seminal 1975 paper, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, by creating a Godardian anti-cinema that broke down what Mulvey and Wollen saw as the patriarchal structure of classical narrative film.
Wollen had also written the script for Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger that same year. For any film student since 1969, Wollen’s Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, released that year by the BFI as part of its ‘Cinema One’ series, has been essential reading. We cannot exaggerate the importance of Wollen’s writing during this period.
Friendship’s Death is an attempt to represent some of the conceptual frameworks that Wollen describes in that book. Wollen was one of the very first theorists to bring a structuralist approach to the study of film and the desire to set up and interrogate binary oppositions can be seen in the 75-minute feature. Friendship is a peace envoy who was meant to have landed on the MIT campus in Massachusetts – centre of studies into AI – then gone on from there to the United Nations in New York. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of an actual war in Jordan by mistake, in which the PLO fights back against Jordan’s attempt to expel it. She is in many ways a representation of a certain type of pacifist idealism; opposing this position is the realpolitik of Sullivan.
However, it’s not just a structuralist opposition that cannot be resolved. Rather, as the two talk and try and find ways to understand each other, a dialectical process takes place, with a synthesis being presented towards the film’s close. Like many of the British scholars in the golden age of film theory in the 1970s, Wollen was something of a Marxist. As a writer at New Left Review (under the name Lee Russell[i]), Wollen had been influenced by the editorial team’s dissemination of Gramsci, Althusser and indeed the psychoanalyst, Lacan. Whatever the weaknesses of Althusser from an orthodox Marxist point of view, his work was the principal way in which Marxism found its way into discussion of film in the 1970s and was hugely influential. That (perhaps uneasy) marriage of structuralism and Marxism can be seen in the film.
To turn to the content of the political discussion in the film specifically, much of it does not concern the plight of the Palestinians; indeed, none of it really explains the 1970 conflict, though there are philosophical musings concerning the incomprehension between ‘sides’ in a conflict. What we do get is a level of nihilism from Sullivan regarding humanity’s tendency for violence, and determination to understand from Friendship. The ‘victims of a map’ come under consideration from Sullivan, who waxes lyrical about the ways in which the region has been subject to changes imposed from outside since the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 that set out what France and the UK would do with the Ottoman Empire after WW1.
The film is also funny at times, and wears its philosophising lightly. Furthermore, despite the title, the film is in many ways quite optimistic, not least in the coda with Sullivan talking to his daughter, Catherine (Ruby Baker), in which the understanding and positivity of youth is brought to bear on the perceived pessimism of middle age and in which echoes of the discussions between Friendship and Sullivan are present.
What is of principal interest are the discussions on being: what it is to be human and what it is to be a machine. Throughout the film, Friendship gets upset by Sullivan hammering away on his typewriter, which she sees as unnecessarily aggressive, believing that he is ‘hurting it’. She doesn’t particularly get as upset by the conflict going on around them, which she considers in a more removed manner. She also dislikes the vacuum cleaner, which she compares to a rat, perhaps suggesting that living in a world of machines does not prevent the setting up of hierarchies, in this instance via comparison to a much-maligned animal.
Moreover, she is not human; she is a computer program. As Swinton says in the interview mentioned below, she doesn’t develop as such; she just is. Her costumes also show this; we have to assume that she landed with nothing and went and bought a selection, like trying on identities: there are traditional middle eastern clothes, a sort of haute bourgeois woman-about-town look and a militant, paramilitary one, upon which she settles as the film progresses. This is also heard in her voice, which moves across countries, in an attempt to represent how a machine might construct a vocal identity. In 2021, the ability of an AI to produce a perfect simulation of a human has less of the science fiction about it than in 1987.
The film is visually arresting, not least because of the differences in film stock. It was shot in 16mm then blown up to 35mm, with 16mm archival found footage of the conflict interspersed throughout the narrative. The difference between the stocks is further highlighted by the 4K restoration, which gives the conversations between the two (all of which take place indoors) quite a televisual quality, with, somewhat ironically, the found footage that would have been shot for television appearing more cinematic, due to the discolouration, graininess and stock deterioration. As you would expect with a series of interior conversations between two characters, it is also rather theatrical and was rehearsed like a play, according to its actors; indeed, it was shot chronologically, which is very rare.
A word on the extras, of which there are a good few: Reflections on Friendship’s Death (2020), which is two conversations on Zoom, one between Tilda Swinton, Bill Paterson and Will Massa from the BFI and one between producer Rebecca O’Brien[ii] and cinematographer Witold Stok at the 2020 London Film Festival, a film on Wollen with Mulvey and Kodwo Eshun, plus a 1983 Mulvey/Wollen documentary on Frida Kahlo and Tina Modetti, as well as the usual audio commentaries.
To conclude, we must say something about the BFI and its role in funding cinema during this period. Almost an entire tradition of intellectual, philosophical cinema in Britain in the 1980s was maintained by its patronage: the films of Derek Jarman and Sally Potter (both of whom Swinton worked with, of course) are perhaps the most well-known examples. Along with this in the 1980s was an exhibition network that showed such films, allied to the BFI and co-funded by it. When we watch Friendship’s Death in 2021, we are reminded of a time of production and exhibition that is gone, while watching a film that concerns issues that are very much closer to us than they were when the film enjoyed its initial run 34 years ago.
[i] Readers may be amused to know that Russell once interviewed Wollen i.e. himself about the writing of Signs and Meanings in the Cinema and the period in which he wrote at the NLR, among other things. Just to add to the reflexivity, the interview can be found in the 1998 edition of that book.
[ii] O’Brien has produced quite a number of Ken Loach’s films since he returned to feature film making at the start of the 1990s.
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