LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG, THENR
There can be no doubt that Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) was one of the important American cultural figures of the last century, and Jerry Aronson's documentary is an exhaustive tribute to him. Filmed over several years, and previously released, this is but the latest edition of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.
The film details his early upbringing in New Jersey, with a poet father and mentally ill mother, with whom young Allen was often left. "He saw things he never should have at an early age," observes an aunt, but this tough early experience gave him a sense of survival which Ginsberg himself says kept him in good stead throughout his life, when so many of his weaker confreres stumbled. The '50s were his formative years, when he encountered seminal influences like William Burroughs (who helped him accept his homosexuality) and Jack Kerouac, in this "Beat" era he helped invent. Ginsberg wrote his enduring masterpiece, Howl, in 1955, which helped usher in the protest-filled '60s. The film's most exciting moments come during the violent 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Ginsberg's true spirit comes through strongly here, as he tries to induce calm by leading the crowd in a Buddhist chant. Norman Mailer comments on the poet's unshakable courage, and this is indeed proof of it.
Two TV appearances, with Dick Cavett and the scarily pompous, bug-eyed young William F. Buckley, provide definite amusement. Ginsberg answers Buckley's conservative condescension by calling himself a "faggot individualist" and then begins a Buddhist rant that has the right-wing pundit frankly agog.
But the film could have used an edit, as a lot of the information is redundant and the pacing is quite leisurely, to put it mildly. There's a mother lode of interviews with Burroughs, Joan Baez, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Abbie Hoffman, you name them. Ginsberg's voice is heard reciting many of his poems, some decidedly superior to others. And, in the later years, when he became a "singer," accompanying himself excruciatingly on the harmonium, less would have definitely been more here.