In a 1968 appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” Allen Ginsberg reads his poem “Wales Visitation.” He moves his hand as if conducting his own personal symphony, and his rhythmic, rapturous delivery proves that the word “lyrical” is not merely the most overused adjective in film or literary criticism. Buckley is polite and attentive, but later in the interview he condescendingly observes that the poet is politically naïve. The steely glare that Ginsberg returns is a reminder of just how serious and committed the beat icon was to his humanist cause. Commentators who couldn’t take flower power or Buddhist chants or even poetry seriously were doomed to underestimate his resolve time and again.
For “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg” (1994, re-released in 2004), director Jerry Aronson spent nearly 25 years interviewing peers and associates and gathering archival material to assemble this multi-layered portrait of the great beat icon. Though Aronson whittled down his final cut from over 120 hours of footage to a lean 83 minutes running time, he covers the entire span of Ginsberg’s life. The film shows a teenaged Ginsberg playing at the beach with his family and follows him decade by decade as he meets Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and evolves from one of the younger beat artists to the great gray eminence admired by multiple generations as a philosopher with a unique ability to articulate his vision.
A homosexual man accused of degeneracy for his “perverted” language and imagery, Ginsberg responded by observing that a society engaged in sexual repression and powered by the global war machine was the true degenerate. He advocated a non-violent but vigorous resistance, and backed up his words with actions. He seamlessly integrated his roles as a poet and a political activist, expressing a private sensibility while gracefully accepting the responsibilities of an influential public figure.
Aronson’s film necessarily omits some important material; scant mention is made of the obscenity trial sparked by “Howl.” But the film devotes chapters to each decade in Ginsberg’s life which, of course, mirror each decade in American politics. Celebrity interviews (Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman) are sprinkled throughout, but the film focuses on more personal influences in Ginsberg’s life, including his step-mother and brother, and providing constant reminders of the formative influence of Ginsberg’s parents: mother Naomi who spent many years in mental institutions and father Louis, also a poet.
The documentary is always most alive when Ginsberg takes center stage. He is an electric performer who is so comfortable with introspection that he is the rare subject who provides the best insight into his inner life. Perhaps the most profound aspect of Ginsberg’s wisdom is his perceptive humility: “When I was young I thought I was dumb… so I (decided to) shut up and listen.” Nobody can argue with the results of that simple but seldom-used strategy.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image quality varies greatly as the film cycles through many different archival sources. The SD transfer is perfectly adequate, however.
The DVD is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. Most of the dialogue is clearly mixed though, again, the quality varies depending on the archival source. No subtitles are provided.
This two-disc deluxe package from Docurama was originally released in 2007 by New Yorker. As far as I can tell, this 2013 re-release includes all of the same extra features. They are, to say the least, comprehensive.
Disc One includes the film as well as a collection of archival footafe of Ginsberg conversing with peers and friends. They include: Ginsberg and William Burroughs from Aug 17, 1983 in Boulder, Co (14 min.), Ginsberg and Neal Cassady from 1965 at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (25 min.), Ginsberg and Bob Dylan at Kerouac’s gravesite (2 min.), and Ginsberg and Stan Brakhage from Jul 11, 1996 in Boulder, CO (3 min.)
Disc One also includes a “Making Of” feature (12 min.) and excerpts from the Jonas Mekas film “Scenes From Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth As A Spirit” (7 min.). The latter includes footage of Ginsberg on his deathbed surround by loved ones chanting Buddhist prayers. “Ballad of the Skeletons” (7 min.) is an music video of Ginsberg’s poem directed by Gus Van Sant. The first half of this featurette includes an appearance by Paul McCartney. We also get readings from Selected Poems recorded in July of 1992 (24 min. total), a short piece from Allen Ginsberg’s Jan 6, 1985 photo exhibition in New York (8 min.) along with photo galleries from ginsberg and from director Aronson.
And that’s just the start.
Disc Two includes the most extensive array of interviews I’ve ever seen collected on a single disc: Joan Baez (4 min.), Beck (6 min.), Bono (10 min.), Stan Brakhage (5 min.), William Burroughs (9 min.), Johnny Depp (11 min.), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (6 min.), Philip Glass (10 min.), Peter Hale (12 min.), John Hammond, Sr. (3 min.), Abbie Hoffman (6 min.), Jack Johnson (3 min.), Ken Kesey (3 min.), Timothy Leary (9 min.), Judith Melina and Julian Beck of The Living Theater (5 min.), Paul McCartney (6 min.), Jonas Mekas (11 min.), Thurston Moore (9 min.), Yoko Ono (8 min.), Lee Renaldo (10 min.), Gehlek Rimpoche (5 min.), Bob Rosenthal (9 min.), Ed Sanders (13 min.), Patti Smith (13 min.), Steven Taylor (15 min.), Hunter s. Thompson (2 min.), Bob Thurman (7 min.), Anne Waldman (7 min.), and Andy Warhol (3 min.)
Disc Two also includes excerpts from the Allen Ginsberg memorial which is listed under the title “Planet News: A Tribute To Allen Ginsberg” (27 min.) and took place on May 19, 1998 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
With six hours of additional material on this “Deluxe 2-Disc Set” the main feature almost gets overwhelmed. But it’s a fine representation of the extensive scholarship director Jerry Aronson put into the epic project. As far as I can tell, the material presented here is precisely the same as the “Deluxe 2-Disc set” released in 2007 by New Yorker, so no need to double dip if you already have that. But anyone looking for a Ginsberg fix has plenty to choose from here.