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Wholly Communion (1965)

Courtesy of Contemporary Films

Main image of Wholly Communion (1965)
16mm, black and white, 33 mins
DirectorPeter Whitehead
Production CompanyLorrimer Films
ProducerPeter Whitehead
PhotographyPeter Whitehead

Poets: Gregory Corso, Harry Fainlight, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Horovitz, Ernst Jandl, Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell, Alexander Trocchi, Andrei Voznesensky

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An evening at the Royal Albert Hall in June 1965 when modern poets such as Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Fainlight, Horovitz, Trocchi, Logue, Voznesensky, Mitchell and Jandl gave readings either live or on tape.

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Now celebrated as the quintessential document of the event that marked the arrival of the counterculture in England, Wholly Communion was actually captured under highly restricted conditions - and was almost never completed.

The First International Poetry Incarnation, an evening of American and British Beat poetry, took place on 11th June 1965; the film's birth was as spontaneous as the event itself. Peter Whitehead had attended an intimate reading by Allen Ginsberg, at which was suggested the apparently foolhardy idea of booking the Albert Hall for Ginsberg and his contemporaries to gather and perform their poems. Yet after a few days' organisation, 7,000 people of various hitherto unconnected subcultures arrived, with many turned away as tickets sold out.

Whitehead's boast that he had access to a then state-of-the-art lightweight Éclair camera (hand-held documentary camera-work was still rare), won him the job of making the film. He didn't reveal, however, that he had never before used the camera. Luckily, the supplier was at the event to assist Whitehead every time the camera jammed. The film was shot using the most light-sensitive 16mm film stock available at the time, which accounts for its grainy, diffusive look. Supplies of the stock, however, were very limited, forcing Whitehead to film conservatively. Despite such hurdles, and the failure of his Nagra tape recorder, he seemed to capture all the key moments, condensing the event into a final cut of 33 minutes from little more than 40 minutes of stock.

Wholly Communion is perhaps the most distinctive British example of a documentary movement that attempted to capture reality while interrogating it: 'direct cinema'. Whitehead's camera draws attention to itself and the filmmaker's presence by filming Gregory Corso's reading from between two other poets talking during the performance. This technique emphasises the filmmaker's subjectivity while also identifying the camera (and therefore the viewer) with the perspective of the audience present at the event.

Whitehead shows as much interest in the audience as he does in the poets. Exotic spectators such as the girl who dances with a flower to the cadence of Ginsberg's oratory appear just as significant as the central performances. The sense of disintegration between audience and performance is most palpable when Whitehead's camera searches the auditorium to train in on a poet in the audience who, in a state of intoxication, interrupts Harry Fainlight's reading by crying out the words "Love! Love!"

Stuart Heaney

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Video Clips
1. Harry Fainlight interrupted (2:54)
2. Ginsberg and the flower girl (2:53)
Benefit of the Doubt (1967)
Whitehead, Peter (1937- )