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Venice Biennale

It would be nice to do something political (AIS 22)

Peter Whitehead and the Sixties
The films on Peter Whitehead and the Sixties demonstrate Whitehead’s realisation
not just of the importance of Sixties counter-culture, as a hotbed of
political and aesthetic ideas, but – crucially – his acute sense of its most
important voices.
Wholly Communion (1965) presents edited highlights from the seismic
International Poetry Incarnation, featuring (amongst others) Gregory Corso,
Alexander Trocchi and Adrian Mitchell, including Harry Fainlight’s exasperation with
an intrusive viewer, Ernst Jandl’s rendition of Kurt Schwitters’ Dadaist poems, and
Ginsberg’s Howl.
Whitehead’s cinematography is unfussy, refusing to raise the camera’s voice
above the poets’. Whitehead explains the event’s magnitude with a simple pan
around the packed Royal Albert Hall, then his handheld camera discerns between
reader and audience, without his voice interfering – unimaginable in a contemporary
documentary.

Adrian Mitchell links the two main films: he performs (with a newsreader’s cold
dispassionateness) at the Incarnation, and provides texts for songs that feature in
Peter Brook’s Brechtian performance piece US – one of the first signs of British
awareness of the domestic relevance of the Vietnam War.
Benefit of the Doubt (1967) follows Brook as he and his Royal Shakespeare
Company cast develop their work, cutting between interviews with its protagonists
and footage from rehearsals, capturing an avant-garde response to the political
catalyst for Sixties counter-culture at its inception.
Brook’s assertion of the need for British people to understand the magnitude of
the conflict, and consider the implications of Britain’s continued closeness to the
US (hence ‘US’) feels particularly resonant – it reminds us that although the aesthetics
of US may not always transcend their Sixties origins, its underlying impetus –
neo-imperialism and the implicit consent of an apathetic citizenry – remain hugely
important.
Also included is Whitehead’s short Jeanetta Cochrane (1967) – scripted by Angry
Brigade writer Alan Burns, branching into experimental film-making like associate BS
Johnson – and the George Devine Memorial Play Performances.
GJ Buckell