Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Jerry Aronson's The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg disc set is one organized documentary augmented by an extensive collection of film material, photos, interviews and other 'historical evidence' relating to the famed Beat Generation poet. The feature-length documentary bearing the disc's title was first released ten years ago and provides a fine introduction to the interior life of this entertaining and unique artist. Hailed as a poetic genius, Allen Ginsberg spent a productive life as both an inspiration and a guiding moral compass for the counterculture.
The documentary tells the story of Ginsberg's life through prime-source testimony from his associates and loved ones. Director Aronson had the cooperation of Ginsberg's brother Eugene and stepmother, both of whom are in awe of Allen's accomplishments. We see family photos and home movies from the poet's childhood in the 1930s. He looks like a happy kid, playing at the beach with his cousins.
In reality, Ginsberg's home life was a nightmare of emotional hardship and tragedy. Allen's schoolteacher father was supportive but his mother suffered from acute paranoia and spent serious time in mental institutions. By the 1940s she was institutionalized on a near-permanent basis. The experience forced Ginsberg to take life seriously at an early age; when his later associates in art suffered problems with alcohol and drugs, Allen would be a stabilizing factor.
In New York in the middle 1940s Allen linked up with poets and writers like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the vanguard of "The Beat Generation." He also met writers like William Burroughs and discovered his personal homosexuality. Aronson documents the artistic interactions and disagreements of this group. Then a famous 1955 poetry reading in San Francisco 'united' the West and East coast Beats, with Allen on top of the artistic heap with his groundbreaking poem Howl. Addressed to his friend Carl Solomon, the poem makes reference to many of Ginsberg's associates and their histories in the Beat movement.
Ginsberg returned to personal concerns with the poem Kaddish, a rumination about his late mother Naomi. Anything but a rebel, Allen is shown as close to his brother and father. He later encourages his father to publish his own poetry.
The docu doesn't say much about the Howl obscenity trial or any of Ginsberg's publicized problems. It instead shows his rise to the status of unofficial Beat poet laureate. We see excerpts of his guest spots on Dick Cavett and William F. Buckley's talk shows; even Buckley respects Ginsberg. A section of the film documents Ginsberg's activities as a fervent anti-war and anti-nuke protester, but one who openly discouraged angry demonstrations like the '68 Chicago debacle. When activists began preaching open defiance of the law and radicals pronounced declarations of revolution, Ginsberg spoke out against them. He'd later say that the polarizing effect of seeing longhairs battling the police only strengthened the Right, helping Nixon's election campaign, prolonging the war, and so forth.
The seventies show Ginsberg relating to transcendental religions, developing his personal philosophy and continuing to write. The later years see him dealing with family setbacks and publishing more works, including books of his photography. Always candid, genial and thoughtful, Ginsberg is seen in many interviews from the late 1950s onward. The revised docu ends with a simple shot of his gravesite in 1997.
New Yorker Video's 2-Disc DVD of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg should be considered an audio-visual accompaniment to serious study of the poet, as the biographical scope of the docu does not pretend to penetrate into all corners of the man's life. But what is here is personal and authoritative, and highly useful to anyone seeking a full understanding of the man. The many extras encompass more poetry readings, incidental film of Ginsberg with William Burroughs and Neal Cassady and Ginsberg at an exhibition of his photography. An excerpt is included from Jonas Mekas' film Scenes from Allen Ginsberg's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit, along with odd bits like Ginsberg and Bob Dylan reading poetry at the grave of Jack Kerouac.
The bulk of the extras are filmed interviews with notables talking about Ginsberg, mostly uncut and ranging between a couple of minutes and a quarter of an hour in length: Joan Baez, Beck, Bono, Stan Brakhage, William Burroughs, Johnny Depp, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Glass, Peter Hale, John Hammond, Jr., Abbie Hoffmann, Jack Johnson, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, "The Living Theater" (Julian Beck and Judith Melina), Paul McCartney, Jonas Mekas, Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono, Lee Ranaldo, Gehiek Rimpoche, Bob Rosenthal, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Steven Taylor, Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Thurman, Anne Waldman, and Andy Warhol.
Photo galleries, a memorial tribute and a music video called Ballad of the Skeletons complete New Yorker's package. The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is a major research item for any evaluation or study of the poet's life. The website for the disc is at www.ginsbergmovie.com
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg rates:
Movie and extras: Very Good
Video: Good to Excellent
Supplements: Exclusive interviews with dozens of luminaries; The Making of ... featurette, Ginsberg reading selected poems, Boy Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visit Jack Kerouac's gravesite, Film of Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, a making-of on the music video A Ballad of the Skeletons, Ginsberg at an exhibition of his photographs, excerpts from Jonas Mekas' Scenes from Allen Ginsberg's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit; photo galleries, trailer, memorial for Allen Ginsberg
Packaging: Two discs in double Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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