Judge Gordon Sullivan is often Beat after a long day of work.
"Don't call me a Beat poet. I was never a Beat."—Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is without a doubt one of the most significant people of letters of the twentieth century. Whether we measure his importance in terms of direct achievements (like ensuring that Allen Ginsberg's Howl was published and then recognized as Constitutionally protected) or in a game of six degrees that connects him to numerous famous figures over the past six decades (including, for instance, the way in which his City Lights bookstore served as a refuge for the perennially persecuted Lenny Bruce). Even cinema fans can find him tucked away in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, which connects him to a whole sphere of musical and cinematic figures (like Dennis Hopper). And yet for all of his impact Ferlinghetti has remained a largely local figure, a fixture in his adopted home of San Francisco. Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder hopes to document the aging icon while providing viewers with his life's story. It's a worthwhile attempt, but more likely to appeal to Ferlinghetti's existing fans rather than winning him new ones.
Frelinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder takes a pretty standard biographical approach, starting with the man's early childhood and following him up through some of the highlights of his life, including a degree from the Sorbonne, the founding of City Lights Books, and his famous defense of Howl. The story is told through interviews with Ferlinghetti and others as well as archival material including film and audio clips alongside photographs. More recently shot footage accompanies Ferlinghetti around San Francisco as he lives life in his nineties.
A Rebirth of Wonder plays like a love letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Painting all of his (admittedly remarkable) achievements in the best light possible, with interviewee after interviewee praising his work, the film offers a solid overview of what Ferlinghetti has been responsible for in his numerous decades as a leading light (pun intended) for poets and activists. For those already familiar with his formidable achievements, A Rebirth of Wonder also includes contemporary footage of Ferlinghetti. Some of this material is more formal interview scenes, while elsewhere we see Ferlinghetti interacting with friends and family. Finally, there are numerous instances of Ferlinghetti reading his work. Considering he probably won't be with us that much longer, A Rebirth of Wonder will be a vital document for fans of the poet.
This DVD respects the film's status as an important document. The DVD itself is housed in an environmentally conscious cardboard sleeve. In addition to the standard cover the inside includes a reprinting of Ferlinghetti's poem "The First and Last of Everything." The 1.33:1 transfer on the disc is similarly sturdy. It balances the archival material and contemporary footage well. Neither is particularly visually stunning, but there are no compression artifacts or other hiccups that can be attributed to the transfer itself. It's not a visual feast but A Rebirth of Wonder looks fine. The stereo audio track is on a similar level; much of the audio is obviously recorded "rough," and distortion seems to be endemic to a lot of the interviews captured for this set. Balance, however, is fine, and the use of jazzy music is appropriate. The set's lone extra is a "bonus film" of Ferlinghetti reading his poem "The History of the Airplane."
The biggest problem with A Rebirth of Wonder is that it takes its subject as a fiat accompli; if you don't already recognize Ferlinghetti's greatness, then A Rebirth of Wonder isn't really out to convince you. Instead, it takes for granted that its subject is a cultural hero. That's not a problem for Ferlinghetti fans coming to the film, but to those who don't already know about the film's subject it means that the documentary itself can seem like being invited to a party where you don't know anyone. Perhaps more significantly, it means that the filmmakers ignore a structure that would make the documentary more compelling for fans and newcomers alike by showing the struggles for what they were. Which is to say that the film would be more compelling if it didn't present problems like the publication of Howl as if they were battles that had already been won (or were always going to be won). That would have given the disparate parts of the film a structure other than the biographical narrative and this would expand the audience of the film beyond the Ferlinghetti faithful. A few more special features couldn't have hurt, either.
Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder does a fine job profiling its subject, hitting the highlights of the life of an important cultural force by combining interviews and archival material. Though it won't do much to expand Ferlingehtti's fanbase, A Rebirth of Wonder is worth at least a rental for anyone interested in American literary culture, especially the beats.
Could be better, but will rekindle some wonder for Ferlinghetti fans. Not guilty.
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