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Wholly Communion

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Wholly Communion is a quintessential illustration of the mid-1960s counter-culture, when hundreds of figures from the burgeoning avant-garde arts scene of the Beat movement came together at London's Royal Albert Hall. This iconic work is more than a film — it's a vivid snapshot of the underground, chronicling this landmark event that was at the epicenter of a cultural revolution.

Wholly Communion centers on what is widely heralded as England's first counter-cultural event, the International Poetry Incarnation, historically held on June 11, 1965. Thousands gathered to hear readings from a dynamic roster of contemporary poets, most notably the leading figures of the Beat Generation: the outspoken and fearless Gregory Corso, the wildly charismatic Harry Fainlight, and the pacifist, multi-hyphenate Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The film, shot by Peter Whitehead – an avant-garde director and pioneer of the English 'direct cinema' movement – revels in the raw energy and electic atmosphere, exploring the performers' vigor, and the audience's admiration and discord. Throughout its run time, it does not offer a neatly structured narrative, but a collection of moments, unsheathed articulations, captured live in their raw form, providing an unfettered view of this defining event that goes beyond any traditional documentary format.

Gregory Corso bursts onto the screen with an energy that would feel intimidating if not for the deep empathy embedded in his poetry with a non-hierarchical approach to language, breaking any echoes of elitism and celebrating diversity. On the other hand, Harry Fainlight's readings emerge as volatile, probing and even contentious — culminating in his recitation which prompts a disruptive response from the audience.

In contrast to Corso and Fainlight, Lawrence Ferlinghetti provides a calm, somewhat pacifying presence. His verses – deeply insightful, ideological, and aspirational – suggest a tranquillity that complements perfectly the otherwise passionate, fervid atmosphere that prevails in the hall.

Shot entirely in black and white, the aesthetics of Wholly Communion help underline the narrative's ambience. The raw, grainy texture of the film adds a layer of authenticity and lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings. The quick, live cuts between the stage and audience create a vivid and intriguing visual dynamic that reflects the spirit of the cultural uprising that the event epitomized.

In Wholly Communion, Whitehead manages to capture not just the event, but the mood and emotions associated with it. The film serves as a time capsule of sorts, documenting a vital societal shift, when literature and arts began embracing styles, themes, and ideologies that defied conventional norms. It affirms the role of the Beat poets in shaping popular culture and influencing future generations of poets, authors, musicians, and artists.

The film also critically highlights the collision of different sociopolitical worldviews, as illustrated by the interplay between the poets and the audience. It touches upon themes like the post-war disillusionment and disenfranchisement the 'Beatniks' grappled with, the fallout of the nuclear age, and the transformative zest for civil rights, peace, and love, compelling the viewer to reflect on how these issues mirror in the present times.

In more than just documentation, Wholly Communion validates and etches these poets' significant contributions to literature and a broader understanding of the countercultural pulpit. The film offers this through their outspoken challenges, their disregard of literary norms and formalities, their embodiment of free thought and their deeply entrenched commentary on social and political themes.

It is little wonder that, from the time Wholly Communion was released in 1966, it has since remained an important cultural relic for both established scholars and new aficionados of Beat literature and 1960s counterculture. This film provides an essential window into that transitional era, as a tangible, vibrant continuum of art, literature and societal change – withstanding the test of time as an artifact that continues to inspire, provoke and enlighten even to this day.

Wholly Communion is a Documentary, Art House & International, Special Interest movie released in 1965. It has a runtime of 33 minutes. Critics and viewers have rated it moderate reviews, with an IMDb score of 6.3..

Also directed by Peter Whitehead
Also starring Hector Elizondo
Wholly Communion is available on .