Academic journal article Framework

Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading

Academic journal article Framework

Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading

Article excerpt

We're present at an important historical crossroads. We must pay attention to such a sign. 7,000 people turn up to listen to Allen Ginsberg, famous for one poem- HOWL-a diatribe against the very soul of American culture. I'm getting more worried with every poem, not because of the words- but because 7,000 people are trying to listen, or just watching and are enjoying it. And they aren't all so- called Beats. Just look! These are normal decent God- fearing people. Most of 'em!

Peter Whitehead, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1999)

Any pretensions I had as a cameraman about the objectivity of fi lm have, since making this movie, also been abandoned. Anyone seeing the fi lm who thinks that at last he has seen the "truth" about what DID happen, is deluded. He has seen the fi lm that also "happened" that night at the Albert Hall.

Peter Whitehead, Wholly Communion ("Notes on the Filming," 1965)

Wholly Communion is Peter Whitehead's thirty- three- minute documentary of a four- hour poetry reading that took place at London's Royal Albert Hall on Friday, June 11, 1965. The fi lm won a gold medal at the Mannheim Festival and premiered at London's Academy Cinema in April 1966. The event it portrayed saw poets from North America and Eu rope reading their work to a full auditorium of some seven thousand people, with hundreds more turned away at the door. It was an unpre ce dented audience for a poetry reading, an occasion that has come to be regarded as a "historic" moment in sixties British culture. Whitehead at this time had no par tic u lar ambition to make conventional documentaries. He was never interested in John Grierson's fi lms, "Free Cinema" or any part of the British documentary- making tradition. In 1965, Whitehead was working as a London- based newsreel cameraman for Italian tele vi sion, trying to fi nd a way of making auteur fi lms like Godard or Bergman. But when he found himself in a position to make what became Wholly Communion, this in turn led to a series of opportunities to make further documentaries through the sixties, beginning with Andrew Oldham's offer to fi lm The Rolling Stones' brief tour of Ireland in September 1965, Charlie Is My Darling (1966).

In the course of these documentaries Whitehead emerges as an individual and self- refl ective fi lmmaker who provides a personal reading of his subjects and questions the relationship between the documentary form and the "truths" that it purports to represent. Wholly Communion is important here because it was Whitehead's breakthrough fi lm, in which he shows parts of the readings of ten poets (out of eigh teen) who performed at the Albert Hall poetry reading. All eigh teen poets were male; the ten featured in the fi lm are (in the order they appear) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Horovitz, Gregory Corso, Harry Fainlight, Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue, Alexander Trocchi, Ernst Jandl, Pete Brown, and Allen Ginsberg.1 The other poets, whose readings from that night were not included in the fi lm, were John Esam, Spike Hawkins, Anselm Hollo, Paulo Leonni, George Macbeth, Tom McGrath, Daniel Richter, and Simon Vinkenoog.2 A taped recording of William Burroughs reading his work was also played in the hall. The renowned American "Beat Poets"- Ferlinghetti, Corso, and Ginsberg- were the main stars that attracted the crowds that night, particularly Ginsberg after the success of his poem "Howl."3 In fact, Ginsberg's appearance at the poetry reading dominates Wholly Communion, taking up about one- third of the fi lm's length.

The poetry reading and making of Wholly Communion were also the setting for Peter Whitehead's novel Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1999). The novel's conceit is that the American secret ser vices fi nanced both the reading and the fi lm as part of their campaign to neutralize the counterculture by exposing it to self- induced ridicule. But as the novel unfolds, we see that the "DIA" (Dis- Information Agency) is appalled when the reading becomes such a success, so they resort to attempts to sabotage the fi lm. …

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