The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg

on February 17, 1994 by Ray Greene
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The greatest contribution to literature made by Beat Generation icon Allen Ginsberg was also the most perishable. For Ginsberg, verse wasn't something to be entombed in zero circulation magazines and academic journals, but a magic incantation to be chanted, howled out and spoken aloud. A born performer and spokesperson, Ginsberg reclaimed for poetry its rightful place as a theatrical art form. To see him read from even his most mediocre works was to witness a man in the grip of an enormous and charismatic gift that was closer in kind to Marlon Brando and Richard Burton than to Blake or Keats or Yeats.

In the mad carnival of post-WWII America, Ginsberg was poetry's player king--a writer of wildly uneven quality but with a sweeping capacity for creating and delivering broad and self-mythologizing rhetoric in a riveting emotive style. It was a talent perfectly suited to the burgeoning media age, one that made Allen Ginsberg as much an icon of his times as Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

All of which makes filmmaker Jerry Aronson's somewhat erratic documentary "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg" a must-see movie for anyone with an interest in modern poetry generally or in Ginsberg specifically. Though hardly the daring or experimental portrait Ginsberg himself might have advocated back in the days when he and Jack Kerouac were creating their bizarre underground movie "Pull My Daisy" with director Robert Frank, Aronson's workmanlike piece--originally released in 1993, but recut in this new edition to reflect Ginsberg's passing in 1997--has the great good sense to feature a wide range of Ginsberg's poetry as "read"--acted, really--by the author himself.

Here are long excerpts from the acknowledged masterworks (Ginsberg's breakthrough poem "Howl" as performed on record in 1955 and for the camera in 1992) as well as lesser poems like "Plutonian Ode," a platitudinous protest epic which the film tries to imply had a decisive influence on shutting down Colorado's Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. (The facility, which manufactured plutonium triggers for hydrogen bombs for over 40 years, was actually shut down by the EPA 11 years after "Plutonian Ode" was published). As enacted for the camera, Ginsberg's death poetry is particularly effective. His justly famous "Kaddish," about the suffering and early death of his deranged mother Naomi, remains a moving cry of the heart, but so too are the more gently lyrical excerpts from "Don't Grow Old," the later and less renowned poetry cycle he created in memory of his father, the poet Louis Ginsberg.

Given Ginsberg's hectic and very public life, there is also a good deal of footage placing him in contexts that are alternately heroic and bizarre. A section on the riotous clashes between the police and hippies during the Chicago-based Democratic Convention of 1968 plays like unintentional comedy, with Ginsberg chanting Buddhist "Ommmmmmmmms" into a PA system while cops bust heads to an underscore of Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner." Far better is an encounter between Ginsberg and the oily conservative TV host William F. Buckley, with Ginsberg at his absolute peak as an iconic shaman of the coming hippie apocalypse, and Buckley smiling mirthlessly and lobbing arid bon mots at this dervish of positive vibrations that has somehow got loose on his soundstage.

Ginsberg participated heavily in creating "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg," and the film suffers from the same problems that impact most authorized biographies, especially in its tendency to sand down rough edges in order to please the widest possible audience. Still, the Ginsberg that emerges from Aronson's worshipful portrait is enough of an iconoclast to make for some unexpected utterances, as when Ginsberg blames the American Left for the rise of Richard Nixon, and by implication for the death of the hippie millennium Ginsberg himself worked so hard to create.

If a tendency toward hagiography was the price Aronson paid for his virtually unfettered access to Ginsberg the man, it seems an acceptable trade-off. When Ginsberg rants, raves, shouts and coos his poems for the camera, this "Life and Times" has all the justification it needs. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer and Ken Kesey. Directed and produced by Jerry Aronson. A New Yorker release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 85 min

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