Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks DVD Verdict should hold its own poetry slam.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…"—Howl, Allen Ginsberg
For all the prose that I've taught over the years, I've never been much for poetry. There are only a handful of poets that I can genuinely say I enjoy, or whose work I would even go out of my way to collect and read. On that short list is Allen Ginsberg. Part of his appeal, for me at least, is the sheer weight of his personality. Ginsberg always gave his poetry readings a passion and energy that brings the work off the page. His work is meant to be performed, as a prophetic call. He is the successor to William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams—a fusion of the great poet of the spirit, the poet of the body, and the poet of the real.
Ginsberg is a poet whose personal life is crucial to understanding his work. His best poem, the intense Kaddish, works through the dual mental collapses of his mother and himself. He calls it "poetic paranoia," and its toll on his mind has always pushed him beyond mere self-indulgence and into a political consciousness that made him the most important voice of that fragmented and nomadic group once known as the "Beats." He was also the most successful of his contemporaries at imitating that jazz rhythm that drove their work. This is the key to Ginsberg's poetics: it looks improvisational, random. But a quick glance at his notes for the seminal Howl reveals that he was a craftsman with the ability to make his work appear spontaneous.
Documentary filmmaker Jerry Aronson traces The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg in a fast-moving 84 minutes. Aronson's documentary is organized more or less chronologically by decade, but like Ginsberg's work, it seems to ramble, made up as a collage of interview clips, photographs, and poetry readings. The rambling nature of the film makes it somewhat inaccessible for newcomers, and The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is really less a straightforward biography than a meandering tour through the soul of the poet, much like his own poetry. For instance, there is little context provided to explain, say, the significance of Neal Cassady, the macho muse of the Beat circle. If you have not read On the Road (where Cassady appears as the heroic Dean Moriarty) or a history of the Beats, you might not be able to follow how these strange characters—Cassady, Kerouac, William Burroughs, and the like—drifted into one another's' lives and managed to reshape American postwar literature. Ginsberg calls their art a "united front of pure angelic poetry." Ginsberg's complex relationship with his mother, to provide another example, is explored through fragments the searing Kaddish, but if you haven't read the whole poem, you might find yourself wondering how the pieces—Naomi's madness, her "strange prophecies"—all fit together.
Sixties counterculture icons like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey trace how their friendship with Ginsberg influenced the best minds of their generation. Ginsberg's vital work shifted its focus toward the psychedelic, toward experiments in altered consciousness (and—you guessed it—hallucinogenic drugs). Ginsberg also became a political force, showing up in Prague in 1965, in Chicago in 1968, and in other places where the action was.
The 1970s saw Ginsberg shift toward spiritualism, inspired perhaps by the gradual decline of his father (as opposed to the fiery insanity of his mother, which inspired the more muscular Kaddish). He also settled into a comfortable role as a canonical figure, recording albums with Philip Glass, playing college professor, publishing respectable poetry collections—a far cry from the protest rallies and obscenity trials of his youth. Just like his pal William Burroughs, Ginsberg seemed to groove on his quirky celebrity, winking through his public appearances and establishment accolades. But by that point, the public's memories of the Beats had blurred into cartoon depictions of beatniks…
Aronson offers little in the film about the sexual politics in Ginsberg's poetry (and his role in the gay rights movement), other than a brief tribute to Ginsberg's longtime partner Peter Orlovsky near the end. And the overall tone, while moving and sympathetic, does not really give a critical appraisal of Ginsberg's place in the literary canon. Even as a fan and a defender of the poet, I felt the hagiographic tone got thick.
Where the two-disc DVD for The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg excels is in its overwhelming collection of bonus material. Disc One includes footage of encounters between Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (filmed in 1983), Neal Cassady (1965), Stan Brakhage (1996), and Bob Dylan (recorded at Kerouac's grave in 1975). There is some poetry: excerpts from "Howl" and several late works. Enjoy an artifact of Ginsberg's late-career rebirth as an icon for Gen Xers in the form of an MTV video for "Ballad of the Skeletons," featuring Paul McCartney and Philip Glass, with Gus Van Sant directing. What a combination!
The oddest thing on this disc is a piece of home-movie footage of Ginsberg's funeral wake in 1997, featuring a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony. In a more conventional mode, Jerry Aronson also includes a making-of featurette and three photo galleries. Aronson took a dozen years to assemble the original cut of the film (released in 1993), then went back to rework the entire project in the wake of Ginsberg's death (creating this "director's cut" DVD).
Some of that 100 hours or so of additional material gathered in the decade after Ginsberg's death is featured on Disc Two: over three and a half hours of interviews collected between 1983 and 2005, spotlighting footage of everybody from Andy Warhol to Yoko Ono. Some of the interview subjects (Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman) appear in the feature, but many (what exactly are Beck and Bono doing here?) were left out. Since some of the interviews were recorded while Ginsberg was alive, those participants offer direct tributes to their friends. The interviews recorded after his death are tinged with regret and nostalgia. Unfortunately, there is no "play all" feature for this.
Finally, there is a half-hour of excerpts from a 1998 memorial tribute to the poet hosted by his secretary, Bob Rosenthal. The sense of Ginsberg's importance here as a personal friend and mentor balances the documentary's sense of Ginsberg as a public figure and artist.
If you have an interest in American poetry or Beat culture, then The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg might serve a tasteful, if overly deferential, survey of one of the more colorful artists of the last half century. I have many CDs of Ginsberg reading his own poetry already (and there are plenty of great Ginsberg collections out there that only prove that his work is better performed than read), but I enjoyed the film as the tribute which it was intended to be. We usually think of Ginsberg as a poet of a particular time and place, one whose youthful rebellion gave way to a sort of comfortable oddness. The older Ginsberg, unofficial laureate of all postwar American poetry, reached an almost transcendent state by his dotage. I remember—maybe it was only a dream—the image of Ginsberg on a late-night talk show a couple of years before his death (it might have been Conan O'Brien), laying down on the middle of the stage like a literate Buddha. He was just there. Now, that's what the Beats were all about.
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