February 1, 2008

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***

The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) lived on the fringes, unwilling and unable to accept the humdrum. Jerry Aronson's documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg marches steadfastly down the middle, following all the accepted rules of documentary filmmaking. Sure, it's a very good journalistic presentation of facts, and things that happened to Ginsberg during his life, but it doesn't do much in letting us know just who he was. It's a shame because Aronson actually had access to Ginsberg in person over many years, and the best he manages to get is a few poetry readings. The litmus test for this kind of film is Crumb (1995), in which the subject became so comfortable in front of the camera and his director, Terry Zwigoff, that he laid bare his soul.

Here, we learn about Ginsberg's early years and his evolution into a poet, activist and Buddhist. Ginsberg talks a little about his friendship with Jack Kerouac and the other Beats, his lifelong commitment to poet Peter Orlovsky, and the deaths of his mother and father. (He reads poems for both of them.) We get snippets from television interviews (including a classic with William F. Buckley). And of course he reads sections from his groundbreaking poem "Howl" (1956). The writer has an endearing onscreen personality, when we get to see it. Footage of Ginsberg chanting for peace at the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention shows nothing new, but Ginsberg's narration, admitting that he really didn't know what he was doing, adds fresh new layers.

For this double-disc DVD release (from New Yorker Video), director Aronson has assembled a wealth of extra footage, much of it more interesting and revealing than the movie itself. We see Ginsberg and Bob Dylan talking at Kerouac's graveside, footage of Ginsberg reading at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, a whole database of interviews (Johnny Depp, Bono, Andy Warhol, etc.) and tons of other stuff. The extras also highlight Ginsberg's skill as a photographer and his attempts at performing music. There's also an excerpt from Jonas Mekas' experimental film Scenes from Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit. Like digging up little treasures from different, bygone eras, these extras and their randomness are far more aligned with Ginsberg's methodology than the film itself.

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Posted by cphillips at February 1, 2008 12:32 PM

Jeffrey's remarks about the extras included with this film are on the mark. They're as good as the film itself--which is, I think, a bit better than Mr. Anderson's lets on. Ginsberg was a wonder--as a poet and as a man, and this movie offers a lot of evidence why. I wish I'd appreciated him more when I was younger!

Posted by: James van Maanen at February 2, 2008 3:59 PM