Ah, Sunflower Review
Ah, Sunflower - the title is derived from William Blake – records Allen Ginsberg’s trip to London in the summer of 1967. Twelve years after the debut of Howl at the Six Gallery, he was arguably enjoying the peak of celebrity during this period: aligned with the hippy and flower power movements (the latter phrase, it has been said, he was the first to vocalise) and friend to many of the key figures of the day. Indeed, during the snippets of interview found here he is prone to the occasional name-drop, at one point mentioning “Paul”, meaning McCartney of course. His reason for being the city at the time was the exhaustively titled Congress for the Dialectics of Liberation (for the Demystification of Violence) where he was joined onstage by other such notables as R.D. Laing, Emmet Grogan and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael.
The Roundhouse debate forms only a portion of Robert Klinkert and Iain M. Sinclair’s documentary. At a brief 29-minutes it is best seen as an accompaniment to Sinclair’s book The Kodak Mantra Diaries, which recorded the period in a far more exhaustive – and experimental – fashion. In fact, Ah, Sunflower, in strictly filmic terms, may best be seen as a sidebar in the sub-genre, if you will, known as ‘Beat Cinema’. It jostles for prominence amongst the early works of Shirley Clarke and Robert Frank (most notable, of course, being Pull My Daisy), not to mention documentary pieces such as Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion (released onto DVD last year as part of the BFI’s sixties’ Whitehead compilation) or Jerry Aronson’s 1986 feature The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. That said, this shouldn’t be considered an insignificant or inferior work – in many ways it proves to be quite remarkable.
As Sinclair notes in the accompanying Debriefing featurette, he was quite astounded that Ah, Sunflower even came to be. Finance was arranged, by Klinkert, with a European television station, the format was simple 16mm colour film, and the participation of Ginsberg, Laing and others was more the result of sheer cheek than anything else. Furthermore, the first couple of days filming was ruined owing to a fairly rudimentary camera operating error, yet the general good nature of those involved allowed interviews to be re-conducted and for the resulting film to exist. Equally fascinating is the ability to see Ginsberg, figurehead of the US counter-culture scene, outside of his home environment; here he’s not at Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village, but on Primrose Hill and in Hyde Park.
In simple documentary terms Ah, Sunflower isn’t especially remarkable, though the age and inexperience of its filmmakers (both in their early twenties) no doubt played a part. Compare it to Sinclair’s later collaborations with Chris Petit – particularly the trilogy for Channel Four which is positively screaming for out for a distinguished DVD release – and it seems borderline amateurish. Not that this is meant as a dig; the vérité style and the sympathetic ear of those behind the camera allows for great ease from Ginsberg and the rest. As Laing sits in his bare flat (save for a fridge and record player, we are told) or Ginsberg chats with a youth atop Primrose Hill it feels as though we’re viewing their natural characters without supposition. And so whilst concrete facts may be few and far between – Ginsberg offers the briefest of autobiographies, elsewhere theorising is the calling of the day - Ah, Sunflower certainly provides a valuable document.
With Sinclair’s participation in this release, it’s safe to say he had approval of its presentation. Given its age and the 16mm format Ah, Sunflower is by no means perfect on this front, though it’s hard to fault the disc itself. The sound likewise fluctuates, but I’m comfortable in saying the film looks as good as we are ever likely to see. The colours are strong, the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio is correctly adhered to and we never once struggle in following proceedings. Optional English subtitles would have been a welcome addition, yet it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s a small-scale label, namely The Picture Press, which is allowing Ah, Sunflower an outlet on shiny disc. As such the presence of the accompanying featurette, a 35-minute piece entitled Debriefing, is all the more welcome. Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1, it talks to Sinclair, Chris Oakley and Gareth Evans in the present-day surroundings of the Roundhouse. Each offers a slightly different insight: Sinclair provides the personal context as well as a London one (hardly surprising given the nature of his writings over the years); Oakley provides the cultural context with especial interest given to Laing; and Evans goes for a more cinema-inspired angle. Together, the three cover all bases – a worthy companion to the main event. (As with Ah, Sunflower itself, optional subtitles are not present.)