Peter Whitehead and the Sixties
(BFI DVD 2007, RRP £19.99)
“Peter Whitehead and The Sixties” is the first official DVD issue of “Wholly Communion” (1965) and “Benefit of the Doubt” (1967), two documentaries ‘directed’ by an obscure and yet notorious figure. Peter Whitehead was, and is, a chameleon who excels at endlessly reinventing himself. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University he studied natural sciences but soon abandoned these to pursue fine art at The Slade in London. If one believes other versions of Whitehead’s life, then at Cambridge he may have been recruited by British Intelligence who propelled him into the bohemian art world. Regardless, in the mid-sixties Whitehead briefly but successfully refashioned himself as a film-maker (albeit not a particularly competent one). For many years Whitehead was close to Howard Marks, and veterans of the sixties counterculture tend to view his role as an important prosecution witness against this pot celebrity in a major drug smuggling trial as somewhat shameful. With the release of this BFI retrospective DVD, it would seem Whitehead is once more a film-maker….
The first time I met Whitehead was at a mid-nineties literary reading and a lot was going on. Whitehead took photographer Marc Atkins aside and talked to him about being gay. Marc isn’t gay but since his head was shaved, Whitehead had wrongly jumped to this conclusion. Drawing me into conversation, Whitehead stressed his working class background and how he’d been screwed up by winning a scholarship to a public school. Whitehead regaled novelist Iain Sinclair with stories about his work for British intelligence. Everyone got their own personally tailored version of the Whitehead myth. He was a writer, an artist, a magus, close to the dope smuggler and secret agent Howard Marks. It seemed Whitehead was all things to all men and he told each of us exactly what it was he thought we wanted to hear from him. Therefore it should go without saying that when movie buffs go knocking on Whitehead’s door, he tells them he is first and foremost a film-maker.
On a couple of occasions in the sixties Peter Whitehead was most definitely at the right place at the right time and I’m glad he was there to record what was happening. He lensed beat poet Allen Ginsberg and others at the Albert Hall in 1965 and went on to document the early psychedelic Pink Floyd making groovy sounds at the UFO Club. One might wish for more proficient camerawork but regardless of what one thinks of Whitehead as an ‘auteur’, at least he was present and succeeded in documenting these freak-outs. The fact that the Albert Hall poetry reading is now generally referred to as Wholly Communion, the title of Whitehead’s film rather than the original billing of the event as The International Poetry Incarnation, indicates the ongoing impact of his documentary about it. That said, it is worth stating once again that it was Alexis Lykiard who suggested to Whitehead that the movie be titled Wholly Communion; film is a collaborative medium and Whitehead greatly benefited from input from Lykiard.
Like the man who made the film about it, Wholly Communion was Janus-faced. To some Wholly Communion was the last and greatest hurrah of the London beatnik scene, to others it marked the birth of hippie culture. Whatever, for the several thousand punters who turned up at the Albert Hall to witness the event on 11 June 1965, Wholly Communion was a spectacular success. The individual poetry readings were less inspiring than the sum total of their overall effect, since even the appearance by beat stalwart Allen Ginsberg was viewed by many as disappointing. Likewise, depending on which historical commentator is taken at their word, Alex Trocchi either succeeded admirably or failed miserably in his role as MC. Nonetheless, Wholly Communion is now a legendary event in the annals of the British counterculture and no history of London in the swinging sixties is complete without its reverential invocation. Incidentally, the first great gathering of beatniks in Britain had also taken place at the Albert Hall, when the old-school American folk singer Pete Seeger performed to a packed and ecstatic audience on 16 November 1961. Earlier in 1965 Bob Dylan had also appeared at the Albert Hall as he metamorphosed from a folk singer into a rock star. The hip scene was really taking off at that time.
Much ink has been spilt about The International Poetry Incarnation, and there is even a Jonathan Greene “Days In The Life” TV documentary dedicated to the event. Less has been written about Whitehead, although a decade ago he was the subject of an Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit Channel 4 mockumentary The Falconer (in which I also appeared). Whitehead has been treated as fairly incidental to the proceedings in most assessments of The International Poetry Incarnation, and Alexis Lykiard’s essay Catching The Spirit is a refreshing exception to this. As far as I know this text has only been circulated as a manuscript (this is the form in which I’ve seen it), it appears to have been composed around 2002.
In Catching The Spirit, Lykiard relates how impressed he was when he saw Allen Ginsberg reading at Better Books in May 1965. He then moves on to a subsequent Ginsberg reading at the ICA which he persuaded Peter Whitehead to attend. We are told that Whitehead: “…was instantly sold on Ginsberg. It was the first time Whitehead had either heard of, or heard, the American poet and he was clearly fascinated by both persona and performance. When I mentioned that a huge London reading would be taking place soon, featuring Ginsberg plus starry international cast-list, Whitehead… eagerly agreed that here was the opportunity he’d been looking for. Such an unusual verbal occasion could prove, if Ginsberg was anything to go by, a visually extraordinary evening too. And as a short film project – a documentary relatively straightforward to shoot with limited means and equipment – this forthcoming event sounded ideal.”
Whitehead in his director’s interview on this BFI reissue of Wholly Communion doesn’t mention Lykiard but then he rarely retells any story the same way twice, preferring instead to constantly change the details of his own personal history. Lykiard had a major hand in the production of both the Wholly Communion film and book; and he is a more reliable narrator than Whitehead. In Catching The Spirit, Lykiard recalls: “Finally, on 12th May (1966), almost a year after the event we’d recorded, I went to see Peter’s film at last at the Academy, with Bellocchio’s extraordinary/tragic Fists in the Pocket.” Lykiard observes: “it was remarkable enough – after borrowing cash, getting hold of less than an hour of monochrome stock, and having to use a single hired camera with only a zoom facility – that Whitehead ended up with a final cut of just over half an hour… When the National Film Finance Corporation and Contemporary Films saw the 16mm print they were duly impressed and put up £1000 to have it blown up to 35mm. The original soundtrack had to be abandoned, but there existed a BBC sound recording which was then successfully re-edited to fit the film.”
Lykiard cites Christopher Logue as saying of Wholly Communion: “Time makes short work of bad verse. Literary standards were not high that day. It did not matter. It was the moment that spoke.” Lykiard himself generously concludes: “However much or little one enjoyed the actual night, Wholly Communion both as book and award-winning film, could be deemed a critical and commercial success. The essence of the evening had been preserved and some terrific images and words transferred to celluloid. But as far as I know, none of those who appeared in or worked on Wholly Communion received any payment for their contributions to either book or film. Be that as it may, soon afterwards Peter Whitehead – via his new company, Lorrimer – launched a dual book-and-film career, lucratively publishing other people’s classic filmscripts and directing his own less classic ones. The latter were increasingly ambitious, larger-scale features that, despite full colour and increased running time and budgets, adhered to documentary-style dogma and cinéma vérité indulgence. None was ever as concise, witty or enjoyable as Wholly Communion… Wholly Communion remains Peter Lorrimer Whitehead’s finest half-hour.”
Despite the headache inducing shaky handheld camerawork – and on the BFI’s clean transfer it is much more migraine making than the dodgy and somewhat blurred bootlegs of Wholly Communion I’d been reduced to watching since last seeing it screened in public – Whitehead’s film is a fascinating document of an extraordinary event. The same cannot be said for the other film presented in its entirety here. Benefit of the Doubt is a recording of Peter Brook’s dull anti-Vietnam war play US, and it nearly sent me to sleep. The booklet accompanying this release invokes the anti-Vietnam sentiments of Adrian Mitchell’s reading at the Albert Hall to link the two films it double bills, but Mitchell’s is the least interesting poem and performance recorded on Wholly Communion, Although I agree with Mitchell’s sentiments, I am appalled by his smug and bombastic approach to the Vietnam war. And so having noted the presence of both US and Mitchell on this DVD, we can happily dismiss them.
William Fowler who provides the notes accompanying this BFI release takes Peter Whitehead rather more seriously as a film-maker than I do, and he is not completely alone in this, as is evident when he writes: “The underground film historian Jack Sargeant has illustrated how Whitehead’s changes in shooting style intuitively reflect the different styles of each poet’s reading. And here we come to the crux of Whitehead’s films…”
What Sargeant writes is: “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 poem. This is further emphasized by a shot of the glaring lights during Jandl’s piece, their burning intensity finding an aural parallel in the noise 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, emphasising 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.” Cited from The Naked Lens: An Illustrated History of Beat Cinema by Jack Sargeant (Creation Books, London 2001, page 131).
But if this is the crux of Whitehead’s films, as Fowler drawing heavily on Sargeant argues, then what we are dealing with here is a matter of projection on the part of these two film critics rather than an artistic vision on Whitehead’s part. Even if the descriptions Sargeant applies to the filming of the various poets are switched around they would still stand as examples of Whitehead actively creating ‘his own interpretations of the poets and the relationship between performance, reading, writing, and film.’ Sargeant’s interpretations are so catch all they would work even if Fainlight had been shot like Corso, and vice versa; indeed Fainlight could have been shot like Jandl to emphasis the wildness of the acid trip he was relating, or he might have been shot like Mitchell to emphasis his alienation from the crowd and strange isolation in the ‘weird world of LSD’. Sargeant and Fowler very charitably conclude there is a sophisticated subjective connection between the individual performances at The International Poetry Incarnation and the way Peter Whitehead captured them on film, but I find their argument unconvincing. I view the changing camera styles on Wholly Communion as randomly generated by the short attention span of the film-maker on the night in question (and his limited ability to focus on what was before his eyes is something he shares with much of the Albert Hall audience). Caught up in the atmosphere of the International Poetry Incarnation, Whitehead successfully captured it because he lacked both intellectual sophistication in his response to what was going on around him, and even the most basic of film-making skills. While these lacunae proved an asset in the creation of Wholly Communion, they were a liability when Whitehead extended his ambitions in the construction of films like Tonite Let’s Make Love In London.
Curiously, it is Simon Vinkenoog who is featured on the cover of this BFI DVD, despite the fact that Vinkenoog’s onstage performance at the Albert Hall was not recorded by Whitehead. What is captured by Whitehead is this Dutch poet and pot activist interrupting Harry Fainlight’s performance by shouting ‘love love love love’. The incident had a huge impact (mainly due to Whitehead capturing it on film), and it seems to have had a particularly jolting effect on Jan Cremer, one of Vinkenoog’s Dutch beatnik rivals. Indeed, Cremer devotes almost as much space in the second volume of his autobiography, completed in November 1966, to poison pen portraits of Vinkenoog, as he does to boasting of his own sexual exploits (the latter being the theme which propelled his first book into the international bestseller lists).
Vinkenoog is called Simon The Soggy Noodle throughout the second volume of Cremer’s autobiography and although he isn’t identified by his legal name until page 353, anyone who knows anything about the Dutch counterculture will have identified The Soggy Noodle as Vinkenoog long before that: In the section of the book that takes place on the Spanish island of Ibiza circa 1961, Cremer writes that: “The Soogy Noodle had appointed himself the Cub Scout leader of a pack of pimple-faced punks who met secretly at night to smoke pot. They thought they were the cat’s ass – the real elite… somehow Simon heard I knew where to get the forbidden grass. I was glad to be of service. Provided he could pay of course…. ‘First smoke these sticks here,’ I said. ‘Always be sure there are lots of people around. Shut your eyes tight, squeeze hard, that makes them red. That’s part of the whole scene. And there are a couple of things you might try saying to the people, like “love love love love”. That way they’ll know you’re turned on…‘ (Jan Cremer 2 by Jan Cremer, Granada Publishing, London 1970, pages 253-4).
Wholly Communion, then, is a film from which we might jump off into a more thorough examination of the counterculture. It is pleasing to see an official DVD release of this influential documentary, and the BFI disk is worth acquiring for Wholly Communion alone. Hopefully this reissue will lead to the figures it captures in snapshot becoming the subject of more complex historical re-evaluations.
Peter Whitehead and the Sixties: Wholly Communion & Benefit of the Doubt
Extras • Exclusive specially commissioned interview with Peter Whitehead – for which he returns to the Soho flat he once lived in (44 mins) • Jeanetta Cochrane (1967), Whitehead’s rarely seen experimental short, featuring music from Pink Floyd • Footage from the George Devine Memorial Plays Performances at The Old Vic featuring Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Albert Finney • Footage of Vanessa Redgrave at the Royal Albert Hall (1966). The DVD also contains an 18-page illustrated booklet with an essay by William Fowler, Curator of Artists’ Moving Image, BFI National Archive, biography of Peter Whitehead, notes on the extras and credits Release date: 29 October 2007 RRP £19.99 / cat. no. BFIVD750 / cert 12 UK / 1965-67 / colour / 98 mins + 91 mins extra material / ratio 1.33:1 This disc contains optional subtitles for the hearing-impaired on all items.
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