Poetry in Motion: Ah! Sunflower

By Gareth Evans

ah-sunflower-robert-klinkert-iain-sinclair.jpgAh! Sunflower, 1967

The Beat writers influenced cinema in significant ways as well as prompting innovative documentary work, Gareth Evans discovers

British culture is rarely good at movements, especially avant-garde movements, outriders of the aesthetic future who might find warmth in the close-knit grouping that offers shelter and security to the institutionally homeless visionary, the formal path breaker. Maybe it’s the island spirit that breeds the maverick individualism of any genuinely innovative British enterprise, or maybe it’s been, historically at least, the lack of cafes; Paris has seen rather more -isms than London (now that every other shopfront is trying to offload a Latte, can we expect a foam-flecked tide of new expression? Prêt à dangerous subversions of the creative consensus…?).

This lack remains even when considering the Beat generation, despite the fact that it was an Anglophone initiative with a significant trans-Atlantic traffic. Yet, if William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are seen now (often by their own efforts) as the brand-savvy holy trinity of Beat writing, it’s clear from even the most cursory examination that their influence has extended way beyond the page. Initially offering a bohemian foundation to the cross-media explosions of the sixties and seventies, the attraction of their personal-polemical call to unfettered expression resonates still, whether in the ceaseless blogging of the internet or myriad indie shorts and features, rites of passage road pics of the heart.

Despite the curtailed topographic horizons of the UK, the appeal is perhaps no less active here than under the wider homeland skies of the US, whether in writing or filmmaking. But how much Beat cinema can one actually identify here as such; that is, work which is formally innovative in ways that are part of the project, coupled with themes and personalities able to ride the rails of the movement with any degree of legitimacy.

ah-sunflower-robert-klinkert-iain-sinclair-2.jpgAh! Sunflower, 1967

It would seem reasonable to suggest that the Free Cinema filmmakers, Lindsay Anderson et al, were operating in the spirit, if not to the letter, of the Beat vision in their attempts to deliver a charged realism of everyday struggles and epiphanies. Similarly, much of the nascent work of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, establishing artists’ film here as a distinctive celluloid practice, was both made in Beat conditions and with a Beat sense of experimentation. US moving image magus Stan Brakhage was the presiding deity in this territory, a Blakean colossus of freeform creativity. The pre-eminent British emulation of such epic endeavor is perhaps David Larcher’s 150-minute Mare’s Tail (1969), ‘primitive, picaresque cinema’ in Larcher’s own words, where film sought to act as a holding vessel for all expression (he would follow this with a six hour Asian travelogue, Monkey’s Birthday).

But Britain’s, or more accurately, London’s, particular contribution to Beat mythology has been in the documentation of several very significant moments of Beat activity. Newsreel blips of coffee-bar turtlenecks apart, few flicks acted faster to lay out the landscape than 1959’s Beat Girl (aka Wild for Kicks), which grooves with prurient adolescent attitude. Five years later, the big guns started to appear in person. Burroughs bedded down in St James’ and collaborated with maverick cinema owner-distributor Anthony Balch in a quartet of shorts, most notably Towers Open Fire and The Cut Ups, seeking to translate the writer’s provocative literary techniques onto film.

Such works posited a landscape, but Wholly Communion, Peter Whitehead’s capturing of the legendary 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading, delivered a vision of a world emerging into fledged being (a complete Whitehead retrospective unfolded at the National Film Theatre in March after an international tour). At that event’s heart was Allen Ginsberg, who would reappear in London two years later, for the swinging city’s Summer of Love, at what was one of the most important gatherings of the entire period. The Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation in Camden’s Roundhouse saw Ginsberg, RD Laing, Stokely Carmichael and other pivotal figures of the alt.society heatedly engaged with the core issues of the day. The poet then spoke out at a Hyde Park cannabis legalization rally, establishing himself as the roving ambassador of the global counter culture.


All of this and more was filmed by a then aspirant writer and film-maker, Iain Sinclair, with Robert Klinkert, in Ah! Sunflower, a specially commissioned documentary for German TV. Almost completely unseen for forty years, it is a unique document of Beat poetics, a singular chronicle of underground witness and the first statement of a British artist profoundly influenced by the Beat example yet able to translate its lessons into a remarkably resonant and distinctively London idiom. The Beat goes on.

Ah! Sunflower is released on dvd by The Picture Press. The Kodak Mantra Diaries (Sinclair’s diary of the filming) is republished by The Beat Scene Press. It is available in the UK at £6.95 (including post; cheques to be made payable to M.Ring and sent to 27 Court Leet, Binley Woods, Coventry, England CV3 2JQ.

Gareth Evans edits Vertigo.