by Jack Sargeant
International Poetry Incarnation
England! awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy Sister calls!
And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult, & London’s towers
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green & pleasant bowers.
World declaration hot peace shower! Earth’s grass is
free! Cosmic poetry Visitation accidentally happening
carnally! Spontaneous planet-chant Carnival! Mental
Cosmonaut poet epiphany, immaculate supranational
Skullbody love-congress Annunciation,
duende concordium, effendi tovarisch Illumination,
Now! Sigmatic New Departures Residu of Better
Books & Moving Times in obscenely New Directions!
Soul revolution City Lights Olympian lamb-blast!
Castalia centrum new consciousness hungry
generation Movement roundhouse 42 beat
You are not alone!
Miraculous assumption! 0 Sacred Heart invisible
insurrection! Albion! awake! awake! awake! 0
shameless bandwagon! Self evident for real naked
come the Words! Global synthesis habitual for this
Eternity! Nobody’s Crazy lmmortals Forever!
- Spontaneous invocation which emerged from the collected poets at the Albert Memorial Press Conference one week before the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall, London
“I don’t want that sort of filth here. Would you send your teenage daughter to hear this sort of thing?”
- Comment reportedly made by the manager of the Royal Albert Hall.
On Friday, June 11th, 1965 the International Poetry Incarnation transpired at the Royal Albert Hall, in London. The event was organized by John Esam, Dan and Jill Richter, and the Poets’ Cooperative, inspired – in part – by Allen Ginsberg’s presence in London and his readings at the ICA. The event began with Ginsberg chanting and playing finger cymbals, performing a Hindu mantra which was described, in a review published the following day by The Times, as a “heavily amplified incomprehensible song to the accompaniment of a bell-like instrument.” Alexander Trocchi compered the evening, which consisted of four hours worth of readings and performances by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Harry Fainlight, Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz, Ernst Jaridl, Christopher Logue, John Esam, Pete Brown, Anselm Hollo, George Macbeth, Simon Vinkenoog, Paulo Leonni, Daniel Richter, Spike Hawkins, and Tom McGrath, as well as the playing of tapes of, and by, William Burroughs. Poets who, although radically different in style, “showed their hatred of the narrow mind and heart, and joined in celebration of God-as-total-consciousness.” Despite being organized in a matter of days, a press conference announcing the event the previous week guaranteed an estimated audience of 7,000 inside the venue, who had been invited to “Come in fancy dress,” “Come with flowers,” and “Come!” Many more were turned away at the door and, according to the press coverage the next day in The Guardian, those unable to enter were “clamouring to get in” with the event being described by many as the “biggest poetry-reading meeting in the English-speaking world.”
Further, the event was viewed as the inaugural moment of the mass counter culture of the Sixties. As Jeff Nuttall observed in Bomb Culture, the event was marked by a “frisson for us all to savour as there had been at the first Aldermaston, and the Underground was suddenly there on the surface, in open ground with a following of thousands… London is in flames. The spirit of William Blake walks on the water of Thames. Sigma has exploded into a giant rose. Come and drink the dew.” While – according to Barry Miles’ biography Ginsberg – both the underground newspaper the International Times and the Arts Lab “traced their origins to the Albert Hall event.”
Peter Whitehead filmed the events at the Albert Hall which would come to make up his film Wholly Communion on an NPR Eclair 16mm camera, borrowed from Louis Wolfers. One of the first ‘silent’ cameras available, the Eclair enabled Whitehead to shoot with the minimum amount of disturbance. However, while Whitehead was shooting the Eclair kept jamming, thus necessitating the hurried change of film, emptying and re-loading the magazine, all on a camera with which Whitehead was unfamiliar. Fortuitously Whitehead told Wolfers that the event would be of interest, and a curious Wolfers arrived mid-way through in order to watch the poets. When Wolfers saw the problems that Whitehead was having with the camera he helped in the ‘un-jamming’ and threading of the magazine, thus enabling the film to be changed more rapidly.
Wholly Communion opens with images of a statue, behind which fast-moving clouds part to reveal bright sunlight. On the soundtrack is an edit of words and phrases about the ‘sun’ taken from various poets’ performances. This cuts to a view of the outside of the Albert Hall, which is accompanied by Allen Ginsberg’s incantation. As the chant progresses the film cuts to the interior of the venue, with a brief edit of the assembled poets; finally the film cuts to Ginsberg, sitting on the low-level stage, singing and playing his miniature finger cymbals. The film then cuts to a series of brief extracts from performances by several of the poets: Ferlinghetti stands to read ‘To Fuck Is To Love Again.’ This is followed by Horovitz who reads ‘For Modern Man.’ Gregory Corso sits to read ‘Mutation Of The Spirit.’ Following Corso’s introverted performance, the film cuts to Fainlight, reading his poem written while on LSD, ‘The Spider.’ This is interrupted by shouting from the audience, and the camera spins around, zooming in to, and across, the collected rows of seats, trying to find the source of the disturbance. At the end of Fainlight’s reading Trocchi climbs on the stage, and the microphone worn around Harry’s neck picks up their brief altercation, as Trocchi tells Fainlight, “You are not reading any more.” To a combination of shouts and cheers Fainlight asks to read another piece, to which Trocchi replies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, hold on, hold on, this evening is an experiment and we’re finding out what happens when you put five thousand people in a hall with a few poets trying to act naturally.” Fainlight is allowed to read a second poem, ‘Larksong.’ Mitchell reads his Vietnam poem ‘To Whom It May Concern’ and his two line ‘Stunted Sonnet.’ Logue reads his ‘Chorus (After Sophocles)’ and Trocchi reads from his novel Cain’s Book. Following this Jandl performs his sound poem ‘Schmerz Durch Reibung’ and – aided by Horovitz and Pete Brown – ‘Ode Auf N.’ Finally Ginsberg – appearing to be drunk – takes the stage and reads a translation of Voznesensky’s poem ‘The Three Cornered Pear/America,’ ostensibly to Voznesensky who appears sitting in the audience. This is followed by a reading of his own poems ‘The Change’ and ‘Who Be Kind To.’ As the film ends and the titles roll, Ginsberg’s voice is heard requesting the time, and then declaring that he has “lost his poetry book.”
The film owes at least part of its existence and style to the methods of cinema vérité and its American counterpart, direct cinema Like these modes of film production Wholly Communion was made possible by technological advances which allowed for a single figure operating lightweight equipment, rather than demanding the complexities of an entire production crew. Wholly Communion also bears a superficial resemblance to the philosophy of the vérité tradition, which sought to “catch events while they are happening, rather than to question events that have happened in the past.” Wholly Communion, in part, attempts merely to present the events, and alongside its aesthetic hand-held camera style, which incorporates zooms and sudden pans across performers or audience, signifies the vérité tradition.
However, direct cinema, by definition, demands that the filmmaker assume a role of invisibility, the film must maintain a “stance of narrationless neutrality” for the filmmaker to ‘comment’ or ‘interpret’ means the film can no longer said to be conveying ‘truth.’ Furthermore, the belief that specific technologies allow the filmmaker to avoid intention implies that such cinema can produce works which are eternally self-present, films which are totally unmediated, which conspire to a “metaphysics of presence and logocentrism.” Jacques Derrida has variously used the terms of ‘differance’ and ‘dissemination’ to describe the endless deferral of self-presence manifested through all technologies of inscription (film, writing, etc.). Film can never create presence, the ontology of production technologies is such that they can only ever circumnavigate total immersion in an experience other than that of the film’s production and its position as a product, yet it attempts to recreate the experience of ‘being there’ via the processes of cinematic technique. Such a cinema constructs a verisimilitude which fails to recognize the contradictions behind trying to create a direct vision. This cinema also fails to recognize that there is no single, homogenous, ‘truth of experience,’ the text is not hermetically deciphered but rather each viewer will maintain a different interpretation.
While Whitehead was able to use the lightweight equipment necessary to produce a vérité film, Wholly Communion never actually emerges as a ‘pure’ vérité text, despite the director’s interest in the methods and technologies of vérité film production. Primarily this is because Whitehead – rather than attempting the impossible, the invisibility of the filmmaker – actively engages within his own interpretations of the poets and the relationship between performance, reading, writing, and film. Thus Gregory Corso’s introverted poem is shot from between two audience members who can be seen (although not heard) talking throughout the performance; furthermore, rather than maintain the shot which establishes Corso’s status/role as an introverted outsider, the camera closes in on Corso’s face, catching each twitch and nuance as he reads and thus making the poem even more personal. Jandl’s sound poems are shot with an almost careless abandon, as the camera swings around, zooming in and out, mirroring the apparent chaos of the poems. This is further emphasized by a shot of the glaring lights during Jandl’s piece, their burning intensity finding an aural parallel in the noises of the poems. Mitchell’s condemnation of Vietnam is shot almost entirely from the front, in a medium close-up, the camera hardly moving. The sharp white of his suit contrasting with the inky blackness of the background forms a harsh chiaroscuro, emphasizing the bitterness of his poem. Noticeably in the few, brief, shots of the audience during Mitchell’s reading they are seen as silent and still, transfixed by, and on, his performance. In contrast to Mitchell’s reading, Fainlight’s performance is filmed so as to emphasize his smallness, with the audience clearly visible before him, and – as soon as shouts emerge from the audience – Fainlight’s vulnerability is illustrated with a cut-away to a still photograph depicting the entire, crowded Albert Hall.
Wholly Communion must therefore be viewed as actively constructing images, and interpretations. Each poet is presented in a contrasting style, further emphasizing the constructed nature of the film. Such a construction implies an active filmmaker, who seeks to master representation rather than ‘merely catch the moment.’ The film thus engages with the discourses of cinema vérité, but actively manipulates what is apparently random into an interpreted whole. Peter Whitehead stated: “I’d like to think that with Wholly Communion, I tried to achieve a balance between the extent to which I disappear in the corner and just film what is going on and yet, nevertheless, you are aware of the creative eye of the director, and so on.”
Further, at 33 minutes, the length of the film precludes the presentation of entire poems for the most part, and rather, presents extracts. This act of ‘choice’ once again reveals the active manipulation of the director. Whitehead also published a book to accompany the film which contained not just an essay on the nature of the film’s production, but also the full transcripts of the poems which were performed at the event. Together, the book and film both act as texts produced from – and through – the evening’s events, and can function independently, or together. Thus Wholly Communion (the film, the book) cannot be contained within superficial borders as either a book, or a film, but rather exists within a complex series of interconnections which emerged from the larger metatexts which circulate around the evening’s events. Wholly Communion may be read as fulfilling the superficial function of the ‘documentation’ of an event of subcultural importance, but, it also serves as an attempt to explore the concept of documentary cinema as pertaining to an ontology of ‘truth’ or ‘realism.’ In place of this emphasis on the ‘truth’ Wholly Communion can be viewed as an attempt by Whitehead to add his signature to the event: “Any pretensions I had as cameraman about the objectivity of film, have, since making this movie, also been abandoned. Anyone seeing the film who thinks that at last they have seen the ‘truth’ about what did happen is deluded. They have seen the film that also ‘happened’ that night at the Albert Hall.”
An interview with Peter Whitehead
How did you become involved in the event, were you invited to come in and film the event, or was it more a case of ‘sneaking in’ with a camera?
What had happened was that I already knew the poetry of these guys because I started to get Evergreen Review in ’63, ’64 something like that, I started getting Evergreen Review from America, and that had Corso and Ferlinghetti and all these people in, and then I heard that Ginsberg was coming to London. So I got very excited about it and wanted to take some photographs, and went to see him in Better Books. He gave a poetry reading in Better Books which was – I think – about two weeks before the actual event. I went down there and at that point I was just part of the audience, but I mean there was only about twenty people there, you know, Ginsberg was there, Bob Cobbing. Bob Cobbing ran Better Books, he was the British answer to Ernst Jandl, he was the sound poet, and he was a pretty strong force in getting the thing going. He had the poetry reading in Better Books, I went along and said, “Can I take still photographs?” and he said “Fine, yeah, no problem,” and I stayed around talking afterwards. I met a guy called John Esam, and it was at this event that they started talking about renting the Albert Hall, which sounded – of course – totally crazy at that moment. And I just sort of got dragged along with it, I said, “Well listen, Christ Almighty! if you are going to rent the Albert Hall and they said “Yes, we’re going to get Voznesensky in from Russia,” and I said, “You know, I’d like to film it.” There was a girl called Barbara Rubin there, who also said she was going to film it. They said “Well, it looks as though Barbara’s going to film it.” So I said “Okay, well, you know, I’d like to film it if there is a possibility.” Barbara was one of these people who got a Bolex and stuck one film in it, then reversed it, then stuck the film back in, then reversed it, then stuck the film back in, and so finally it came out looking like minestrone soup. At some point they realised that it would be more fun to record it than allow Barbara to do her number. I was working as a newsreel cameraman then, and had made a couple of documentaries – science documentaries – but they didn’t really know me from Adam. And I said “Listen, I’d like to film it.” And they said, “Well, what does it amount to?” and I said “Nothing. I’ll just come, I’ve got an NPR silent camera, I’ll just come and sit in the corner with everybody, and film and see what happens.” They said “what about the sound?” I said “Not a problem, I’ll just put a Nagra there.” They said “Well okay, all right, it all sounds all right.” Then I got in touch with Shaffer and he gave me £90 to buy the film, forty-five minutes worth of film.
Who were the people who gave you the money?
Friends of mine from Cambridge, you know Peter Shaffer, the playwright? Peter’s brother: Brian Shaffer, and his wife Elinor, they gave me the money. I went and bought five rolls of film – or – four rolls of film, about eleven minutes each. Of course not knowing what was going to happen, I just went along with a Nagra on one shoulder and a camera over the other. I just went in the backstage door, and said “I’ll be filming,” and that was it. And I just recorded the event from crawling around – as you can see from the film – amongst the poets.
Did Barbara Rubin film it at all?
I don’t know. I don’t think she did. I haven’t spoken to her since. What happened was I stuck my Nagra out in the corner with the microphone out, on automatic record, and I didn’t even have it sync-ed because I had this silent camera. I was walking around filming it. Anyway I got all these great images, processed them all, then transferred the sound thinking, of course, that it would be perfectly decent – or decent enough – and there was almost no sound at all. I don’t know what it was on the automatic thing but it had only picked up the audience, or something or other. So I had no soundtrack. Nothing. I showed it to the guys at the Academy Cinema who wanted to see it, and I said “It would be wonderful.” There was a soundtrack but it was so badly recorded that by the time you cranked it up, it sounded awful. So I virtually had no film at all and I was really pissed off by the whole thing. And then John Esam said, “Well I just listened to the whole thing at the BBC yesterday.” I said, “what do you mean the BBC?” He said “Well, we sold the rights to the BBC for a programme. A radio programme.” I said, “Where were they recording?” He said, “They were up in the box, and they recorded everything through the neck mics. They’ve got an absolutely perfect recording.” Well anyway, we nicked a copy of the recordings, and I transferred them all over. I then had to sync it all up, I had the job of cutting the image and cutting the sound and sync-ing every single word, but I had a perfect soundtrack, so in the end I married the soundtrack to the image. Otherwise there would have been no Wholly Communion.
How long did that take?
It certainly took a week because on an old Acmade editing machine, backwards and forwards clipping bits out. You can see in a couple of bits where it is not completely in sync. None of it was shot in sync you see, so I had to sync it all up and add bits of background sound. But it is part of the feeling of the film. What you feel, I think, from the film is that you are there. It is part of the whole crazy event.
One thing that I found interesting is that you have each poet performing – ostensibly – one poem, but they performed for longer than that?
Yes, but I only had forty-five minutes of film. I knew it was going on for three hours.
So what made you choose to film each one for a minute, rather than film Corso and Ginsberg in total or something.
God knows. But if you actually hear anybody talking about the event they will say that the great moments were this, this, this, and this. And I got them all. Luck, or intuition? But, you see, when you film something and capture it you have to start filming beforehand. How on earth I did it I don’t know. But at some point I decided to do ‘so much of so and so.’ I think I waited each time to see if I liked the poem. I liked Ferlinghetti, he stood up and said, “To fuck is to love again” and everyone just howled, and all the guys in the aisles ran off to phone the police. So, of course I started to film, but then – I think – on Ferlinghetti, the magazine jammed. There were lots of considerations. But when you think I had only forty-five minutes and that was cut down finally to the finished film of thirty five minutes you’ll realize I used every single inch that was usable. Somewhere there is actually six or seven minutes more of the Ginsberg footage. I have got the whole of the Ginsberg. I was keeping most of the film for Ginsberg, to be honest. I kept on saying, “I must keep one roll for Ginsberg,” because my primary interest had been Ginsberg. I had to edit it while I was going along, it was not like I could go along and shoot six hours of film and edit it afterwards, I was actually editing intuitively as I went along. Harry Fainlight, I suppose, did pretty well, because it became obviously such a dramatic moment, and I then filmed a second poem which he read which was ‘Larksong,’ but of course Harry is now dead so it is total history, it really is very valuable, probably the only film of Harry ever made, I don’t know.
Why did the person from the audience just jump up and start shouting?
What happens is: Simon Vinkenoog is one of the poets who is meant to read, but didn’t from what I can remember, he was totally stoned on mescaline. Now in the middle of Harry Fainlight’s poem, which is called ‘The Spider,’ and is an account of an LSD trip, Harry was waxing lyrical in the middle of recreating his LSD trip, and suddenly this howl came from somewhere – we didn’t know where – someone was shouting. I didn’t even know what the sound was, finally I figured it out it was ‘love’ that he was shouting: “Looovvve! Looovvve!” you see. He’s shouting ‘love’ but, number one he is Dutch, number two, he’s on mescaline. And this interrupts Harry’s poem, and of course he finds it then very difficult to get started again. Harry turns around and accuses Simon, who was a friend, “You’re a lovable idiot,” you know, “Fucking hell! I want to carry on with the poem.” But then the audience start to barrack and everything. I don’t know why, quite. Half of them were saying, “Get on with it. Read the poem,” and others were shouting, “Enough! Enough!” Harry was reading the longest and most difficult poem, then insisted on finishing it – which was fair enough. But then, having had – I suppose – all this drama go on, he refused to sit down and wanted to read another poem, and that was when Alex Trocchi was trying pull him down, saying, “Come on Harry, you have read enough – there is a lot of other people.” But he was getting nasty about it, and everybody then said, “Let him read! Let him read!” So he was allowed to read another poem, but even after that one he wanted to read another one.
On the film it looks as if he wants to explain it.
Yes, he wanted to explain it. And you don’t explain poetry. You read poetry, you don’t have to explain it. But poor Harry, he was on a trip too. Imagine a young guy who has never read poetry to more than six people in his life suddenly – this English guy who has always been in love with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets – suddenly he is part of this scene and there are seven thousand people in the Albert Hall all jumping up and down screaming at you. You want to grab as much time as you can, you can’t blame the poor guy.
Ginsberg seems really wasted during that as well, rolling on the floor, and pulling Harry when he gets off of the stage.
By the time he got going he was completely drunk. I have it on tape somewhere – I have some other bits and pieces where you hear him. In fact when he first stands up he says [drunken voice], “Now I’ve got to circumnavigate all this lousy poetry.” Those are his first words. And by then he was pretty fed up, I think he was wrong because it was a great event, but then he got up and he livened up a bit. The first poem he read was the Voznesensky poem. I presume you know that Voznesensky wasn’t allowed to read.
Why wasn’t he allowed to read?
His embassy wouldn’t let him read. He had come along to read the poem, but the Russian embassy said, “No.” So what Ginsberg did then was read one of his poems for him/to him, which was very nice. And he read one of the poems that Voznesensky had written in New York at the press conference, about a press conference, so it was the American reaction to him, then him to America, I thought it was one of the best moments in the film. It was the very first thing he reads. Then he reads a poem of his own which is called ‘The Change’ – the long poem. But he was completely drunk at this stage, I think we were lucky to get him at all.
Why was he unhappy with the event?
Well, you know, when you look at my film which is thirty-five minutes it is out of three and a half hours, I think, there was a load of rubbish, which I didn’t film. I decided not to film it. And again, maybe I’m being a bit pretentious to say it’s a load of rubbish but there were a lot of English poets which I didn’t think much of. I filmed a weenie bit of Horovitz, a weenie bit of Christopher Logue, and there was several other people who read I don’t know anymore, I can’t remember. But – I think – by the time Ginsberg got up to read we had had two and a half hours. For the audience it was great but for Ginsberg who was waiting to read, who knew all the poets and had heard them read before, and the ones he hadn’t heard were English poets he did not care tuppence for, I suppose he was just sitting there drinking thinking, “When the hell am I going to get up and do it?” You were talking about Barbara Rubin, there is one shot in the film of Ginsberg lying down flat on his back, and being sort of cradled by some female, that is Barbara Rubin, so she obviously didn’t do any filming.
The vérité style of the film was that a conscious decision to film it like that, or was it just the frantic-ness of having one camera and running around and trying to do everything?
It is all those things. I had at that time seen a couple of films from America that were the original cinema vérité films. I had been fascinated by them. They were shot with a silent camera in a situation that was completely happening, okay? I was interested in that because I was working as an independent newsreel cameraman for Italian television in London. Now what happened was they never knew quite what they wanted, some guy would arrive and say, “The prime minister is doing this, can we film it?” I used to be working all the time with these independent producers who had no idea whatsoever of what they wanted, and I would end up, of course, practically making films almost every day of my life. I’d just suddenly go off, and I soon learned to make it in a certain style which is basically one camera and the zoom. You arrive in a situation and they’d say, “Well, listen, we want to establish London,” and I’d say, “Well, how about a Parliament Square?” And they’d say, “Oh, great.” You’d start on Big Ben, you’d pan down to the pigeons, whisk over to a Japanese tourist with a camera, you’d pan over to a London bus with the word London on it and bang! you’ve introduced the whole film. And I used to do this once or twice a week, this is how I would make money. And this is how I managed to get a camera and my own editing machine. And then, when I arrived at the Albert Hall, part of the deal, if you like, with the poets was that I said, “I’ll be invisible, I’ll just be there with the camera on my shoulder, which is silent, and I will not intrude,” and all my films since then I have tried to maintain that. At least, I like to be – in a way – in the corner and nobody knows I am there.
In Charlie is My Darling, which I made with the Rolling Stones, Joe de Moraes said it was the first road movie ever made. It certainly was in England. The first road movie made here. That is why Andrew Oldham said I could do it, because he knew I could film in that particular style: completely out of the way. I’d sit in the corner with the camera, no extra lights, just a guy with the sound, a little rifle microphone. It was so new then, it was so exciting. We are so used to it now, it was so incredible. People didn’t believe you could do it, they didn’t believe you could film without lights, they didn’t believe you could film without a tripod, they didn’t believe you could film with a silent camera. The silent camera had only just been invented, I was using the first NPR Eclair camera in England when I made Wholly Communion. So the answer is the style. I was conscious of what I was doing because I’d seen a couple of American films. The Maysles Brothers, I thought they were fantastic, they were so exciting, because you really were in with the action, and that is what I wanted to do, and that is what I did with Wholly Communion. Jack Hunter: And they went on to film the Rolling Stones at Altamont, of course. In the meantime I had done Charlie is My Darling, which was some time before the Bob Dylan one in England which is supposed to be the first one. Charlie is My Darling has not been recognized of course because it has never been released, it got stuck up with the Allen Klein, Andrew Oldham, Rolling Stones saga. And of course when I was in the Albert Hall I had no choice but to film in that kind of a way. But I think it was the perfect situation for it. Why I quite like the film is the style changes with each of the poets: Corso is in there and it goes right in close between the two heads, and it is so introverted. Then of course Ginsberg is mad and extroverted, and there is the girl dancing, then of course there is the Ernst Jandl sound poetry. All kinds of chaos. I think this is why the film was recognized. It did very well at the time because I think it was a film of an event that people wanted to see, but people did also think it was a new kind of film.
What about the question of your use of a vérité style, and vérité ideas, where you are just observing, at what point then when you are editing do you choose what to edit, because that obviously implies a conscious decision?
Have you got the book of the thing? I published a book, I wrote at the time a one-page introduction about my involvement with it, and I talk about that very thing as to what is objective and what is subjective, and so on. I published the book because I had cut the poems. I published the book because I thought it was fair to the poets to publish the whole poem at least. But then of course I did make the point that I was making the decision of intruding, although I was trying to be non-intrusive, I was intruding. But the only real reason for that is that I only had forty-five minutes of film. I only arrived with four rolls of film, so I had to edit. Most of the stuff I edited out of the forty-five minutes was out of focus, or falling over, or looking for something, or trying to find where the poet had gone to, because Allen Ginsberg pushed me over at one point for getting in his way. I suddenly thought, “What’s happening!” He was yanking me down saying, “Get out of the fucking way. Bloody photographers!” or something similar. So there was not much I didn’t use, I used everything that was remotely usable.
There are a couple of points also where you go to still photography.
Once again I had to. I had to bring in a few stills. And I froze an image of course, on the Voznesensky. That is very important. The point is Ginsberg said, “Voznesensky, I’m reading his poem,” and I thought, “Well shit! Yes,” and I had swung over, and by a miracle it landed on Voznesensky who was near me, but then I’d cut back to Ginsberg, and when I came to edit the film I thought, “Well, you know, I need more of Voznesensky.” So then I froze the image. So this is where all the devices in it are necessary to convey the meaning of what is going on.
What about the beginning of the film, because you mentioned a minute ago about the Italian television, and the film’s beginning is almost the same as that, when you open on the outside.
On all the poets, a dead ringer. I had to, I went up and thought, “The Albert Hall. I’ve got to do a shot of the outside of the Albert Hall.” One of the reasons is they had a press conference there. The press conference had triggered it all off, that’s why they had a big audience, the press conference was shown on the news, that’s why 7,000 people turned up. They announced the International Peace Incarnation Poetry Incarnation Peace William Blake the whole thing, and they had it on the steps of the Albert memorial. Now, I wasn’t invited to that, which shows that I really wasn’t considered to be part of it. From the moment that I left Better Books to the moment I arrived on the night to do it I had no other contact with anybody. In fact I think I only rang two days before and said, “Is Barbara Rubin doing it?” And they said, “No,” and I said, “Well listen I’d like to do it,” and they rang me back and said, “Yeah.” Anyway I heard the thing was on the Albert Hall memorial – I shot it afterwards of course – obviously. And also I wanted a little bit more to introduce it with the mantra, and when I went up to film the Albert Hall from the Albert memorial – of course there was all those figures of these poets, on the Albert Memorial, all the English poets: Donne, Shelley, all their little faces. So I just thought it was the obvious thing to do, just pan over from the Albert memorial with all the old poets, swinging over to the Albert Hall with all the new, modern Beat poets, whatever you want to call them.
And the lines about the sun?
And then – that was again – on the editing table, while doing it, I noticed that three different poets, the three: Ginsberg, Corso, and Ferlinghetti, all used the almost identical phrase. They each of them say: “sun, sun, sun” three times, and I thought, “Well perfect, start with the light which was outside, the white-stone faces of the poets, pan over then go into that darkness,” because the whole aspect and ambiance of the movie is the darkness isn’t it? This dome, this womb. I chose to call it Wholly Communion. That was my title, not the name of the event. It was inside the womb, the church, it was this sort of religious experience. Then there was this incredible white light in some of their poems and I shot that somewhere else, that wasn’t the Albert Memorial it was Hyde Park Corner, with this Greek charioteer, bringing the sun, whatever, the light fading in and out. And then of course right at the end of the film it fades into darkness and you hear Ginsberg saying on the soundtrack, “How am I going to finish this?” Then you hear him saying “I’ve lost my poetry book.” That is when the film has faded right down into darkness. So, start with the light, end with the dark. Outside, going inside, yeah, you know what I mean? These are just little devices that you do instinctively at the time, when you are putting it together.
I thought the end, ending on that line, “I’ve lost my poetry book” because it is like a move from poetry as literature, to poetry as performance and then, finally, poetry as film, you know?
Correct. And the fact that it was also in the book, because – in fact – the very last poem he read at the event was ‘Who Be Kind To,’ and that was a very nice poem, I don’t think there is any of that in the film because we only had parts of ‘The Change.’ That (‘Who Be Kind To’) was written in his notebook, one of his semi-diary notebook poems that I think he had written the night before. So when he said he lost his poetry book it really was his diary in which he had written the night before a poem for the event, and that ended the event. So that is why thought that was a lovely line to end on. I think also I was touched by that, because Ginsberg was trapped in this drunken mess, and then he went out (because he is very inward-looking a lot of the time), then suddenly he gets out and does this amazing extroverted thing, really projecting it out, and the girl dances. And I know that feeling, because I am a bit of an introvert, but given the chance I get very extroverted, but afterwards I feel, Bang! Like I have been sucked out. Like I have been raped, you actually feel as if you have been stolen. And I feel sure that, when he came down and couldn’t find his book and said, “I’ve lost my poetry book,” I’m sure – my feeling was – this public event, reading poetry to people rather than publishing a book, must be for the poet – and certainly for Fainlight – had been a rape. Definitely been sucked out of themselves, when the poets become objects rather than subjects, and I felt that Ginsberg’s plaintiff cry was not so much for the lost book but for the lost part of Ginsberg that had been sucked out in the previous hour. Which it is, he really gave a lot of himself, especially in a poem that was in a notebook.
There is another moment in the film, a really short flash, during Ginsberg’s piece with the woman dancing, where the film goes into negative, I just wondered why the film goes into negative?
There are two bits there, where – when I was editing it – I did decide to intrude, if you like. Did you notice there is one bit where it goes into darkness and out again? Well of course a lot of people think that is a mistake, you know. But it is very deliberate. I think – at the time – it was a bit out of focus, or I fell over or something again, or moved at some point. Then I noticed that what he was saying at that particular moment. He was talking about the spirit leaving the body, then he says “Come back sweet spirit” or something like “To your only place.” So I thought that was very nice, going to darkness, and then in fact – when he calls it back to the body – going to light again. There was an image of absence. That was all. Just this moment of absence, where the moment had entered into the spiritual plain. That moment I felt I could put in total darkness. And just after, I thought that was so brilliant and clever that I ought to do something else as well. No, what I think it was, I had – after all – shot a film about poets reading poetry, and I was aware afterwards looking at it that it was all in slightly different styles in relationship to the different poets, and it was my duty presumably in making the film to try to make the film, or the style of the film, meeting the subject half way – without being pretentious – how could I make the film slightly poetic? Which is probably why I did the bit in the beginning with the poets’ faces, and the dissolves, and the light shining on, you know. I just wanted to decorate it a bit. A bit of the roccoco [laughs]. So that’s why I found the darkness was a nice touch, because at that point you suddenly become aware of the film. I wanted to remind people just at that moment – near the end of the movie – that, nevertheless, it was a film. Because actually from the minute it starts you are sucked into it. You’re not thrown back into that Brechtian awareness of the film.
And that is reiterated by Ginsberg saying, “I’ve lost my poetry book.”
Yes. It’s tied up at the very end. I felt quite happy with it in the end, in the sense that although it had been largely entirely subjective – and I had just been sitting there with my camera – when I came to edit it, and put it together, I was able to put a little bit of my own stamp on it, and make something out of it. There is no such thing as an objective film of course. No way. At least I was admitting to a few little poetic pretentious, which I just popped in here and there.
Which is of course exactly what they were doing. Beat poems are, in part, about ‘real’ life, but it is a single, self-centered view of ‘real’ life that is possible because it is from your own perspective.
I went on to make a film called The Fall which is a two-hour film about the collapse of the protest movement in America, where I divided the film up into three parts. The first part of the film is the camera, and the second part is the editing machine. The first part is image, the second part is word, and the third part is where the soundtrack and the image and the word and the image come together. I was very conscious by that stage of where you intrude into the concept of ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ And you do so at every move, at every bloody move: from the camera, which way you point it, why you’re there, what you’re doing. The Fall is totally about that. Although it is about the collapse of the protest movement in America and the occupation of Columbia University, it is very much about the question of: am I telling the truth?
Film is a voyeuristic medium, especially if you are sitting at the back of hall or dressing room or whatever – just watching everybody else.
Yes. You are the voyeur. And The Fall is totally about this whole question of being a voyeur or not. In fact I put myself in it, and I have myself in it, and I film myself being in it. Obviously the other side of the coin from being the voyeur is to be Narcissus, and I even confront the question of my own narcissism. So I then put myself in the film, and I actually talk, finally, to the camera, but the only point at which I am prepared to talk directly to the camera is where I am in a situation which I consider to be where the inner and the outer is equal, which is when I’m inside Columbia.
One thing which is interesting is that watching Wholly Communion now – obviously it has become history – but was there a sense at the time of imminence, because if you research the period of the event, many people credit it as an influence – the Arts Lab, the International Times.
It did it encourage the birth of the counter-culture. It was the beginning of a little network that was growing – people here, people here – becoming conscious of themselves in a certain kind of way, copying American painting certainly, American poetry. Various different people were doing things, and suddenly overnight you were not just part of some lunatic fringe. Seven thousand people turned up, and supposedly 2,000 were turned away. Suddenly it wasn’t just that it was a public event and 7,000 people came, it made everybody realize that there was far more people out there interested in what was going on than one had thought. It gave impetus and confidence to people, you could be cynical about it and say you know, you publish your little book of poems and you expect to sell fifty copies and you are very happy, then the next minute you hear 7,000 people have turned up and I suppose they all started to think, “God! Wow! I’m going to sell 5,000 copies of my book of poems next week.” You know, suddenly it became commercial.
You actually felt that at that time, that evening?
No, not that evening, but in the course of time afterwards. Well, I don’t know. For me I was landed with a film. I didn’t have time to think about anything. I suddenly got this film and no soundtrack, and I had to raise money. For the next two months of my life it was just a question of, you know, one had given birth to this bloody thing, it was keeping it alive. Suddenly it was dying because I had no soundtrack, then I got a soundtrack, then I had to get the money, then George Hoellering at the Academy wanted to show it, it had to be blown up to 35mm, then I had to get the money, then the NFFC were prepared to put up the money, but they wanted signatures from all the poets. I had to get signatures from all the poets, and they didn’t believe it possible, they laughed themselves silly.
Hadn’t they all left the country by then?
Yeah! I had to go to Paris to get Corso, I had to write to Ginsberg somewhere else. I think I forged a few of them because it was the National Film Finance Corporation who agreed to put up £1,000 to blow it up to 35mm.
But it was originally shot in 16mm. Where did you first show it?
The first showing was at the Mannheim Film Festival and it won the Gold Medal. I went to Mannheim, basically, with Charlie is My Darling.
That was made at the same time?
In June, and then in August I made Charlie is My Darling, so I think the festival was in October or something. I arrived in Mannheim financed by the Rolling Stones, by Andrew Oldham, because I persuaded them that having made Charlie is My Darling that because it was an art movie, that it would be good to show it in a festival. Andrew was still sort of flexing his muscles a bit about the Stones. He wasn’t sure if they should be making movies at all, so I arrived in Mannheim fully paid for my fare and hotel and everything, ringing up Andrew Oldham everyday saying, “Yeah, I think it’s going to be all right, I think it’s going to be okay.” Then Wholly Communion won the Gold Medal [laughs] and Charlie is My Darling didn’t win anything. So I came creeping back and I had to ring up and say, “Well, I’m ever so sorry, but they liked Charlie a bit. Not too much.” People didn’t like Charlie is My Darling because they liked to think of the Rolling Stones as all dressed up in smart suits, earning a lot of money and driving around in Rolls Royces. I showed them to be very ordinary people who happened to be very good musicians, on the verge of something really interesting happening. But Wholly Communion was the film that won the prize. It’s ironic. I was actually disappointed that Wholly Communion won because I found myself in an awkward position with the Stones thing. But when I got back I realized it was good to have won the prize. Then it was shown at the Academy. I’ll tell you another story that’s amusing. Okay, it won the gold medal at Mannheim, which is the first prize, right, so they then ring me up and say can they show it on German television? And I said, “Yeah, but how, do you want to do a German soundtrack?” “No! No! It has won the gold medal we’ve rung up Channel One on German television, we’ve told them all about this film, and they are prepared to show it next Monday night. There’s a slot at eight o’clock on Channel One, and they’ll show it exactly as it is, the Gold Medal Winner at Mannheim.” I said, “Well, that sounds very good,” and they said, “£800,” which was almost paying the entire cost of a potential blow-up at this time. And they showed it on prime-time German TV, in English, with ‘To fuck is to love again’ and all this kind of stuff. So I sent it to the BBC. Or at least I got Contemporary Films, who were distributing it at this time – the NFFC were only prepared to give me money if I had a distributor – and George Hoellering set up Charlie Cooper at Contemporary. They were all a bit of a fucking cult. Actually not a cult. Worse than that: a cartel. Anyway, Charlie Cooper said, “Well okay, I’ll send it to the BBC.” And I said, “Well, if German TV is prepared to show it…” We got a curt little letter back from the BBC – some guy had looked at it – saying: “Dear Mr. Cooper, Thank you very much for showing me Wholly Communion, the film of the International Poetry Reading. In my opinion it is the worst film I have ever seen in my life. Thank you.” And it still has not been shown to this day on British television.
In England it was just shown at cinemas – independent cinemas.
I don’t think it was ever shown after the Academy actually. I think it was shown with Fists in the Pocket by Bellochio in a double bill. I think it was shown a couple of times later by Hoellering. I think it was shown in various universities and things like that. Charlie Cooper sent it around. But there wasn’t really any other kind of distribution, there weren’t any art cinemas, apart from London, in those days.
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