Page 1 of 3
This repackaged standard-def edition presents ol' Allen as the lovably batty poet he was...
Docurama / 84 Minutes / 1994 / Unrated / Street Date: June 11, 2013
I first came across Jack Kerouac’s novels in a small high-school library in Shingle Springs, CA. We had just finished a big report on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and in much of the research I’d done, authors kept citing On the Road as a major work of 20th century American mythos. So I picked it up at the library. The paperback was well-worn, and there were scribbles in it. The book had met many before me and I hope has continued to find its way to younger folk than I.
I won’t waste space waxing eloquent about the novel; let’s just say it altered the trajectory of everything I knew at the time. In addition to other things, it turned me into a Beat Generation junky (blame that spelling on William Burroughs).
So any DVD with even minor Beat leanings gets shoved to the top of my must-see list, and this Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg documentary has been near the top for a while. Director Jerry Aronson spent a long time getting this sucker together; finished in rough form in 1994, he’s been fiddling with it ever since. And I’ve seen bootleg copies available all over the place.
So, how’s the movie? Well, I have no idea. It’s amazing to see footage of the authors merely speaking, so I really have no concept as to whether the Life and Times documentary filmmaking is any good. Hell, once you throw a talking Kerouac into the mix, I’m liable to call it a classic by gut reflex.
The one thing I do need to mention, however, is that Ginsberg – while a towering monolith who kept poetry modern and popular – has never been a favorite of mine. Sure, I read Howl and enjoyed it (like everybody else), but to me, his contribution to the literary world is far more important tangentially than in terms of his own output. The man helped inspire On the Road. He assisted in the construction of Burroughs’ massive epic Naked Lunch. His contribution to the Beat Generation as a movement is monumental. But to me his poetry, though sometimes inspired, has remained a pale shadow compared to the other works of the period. (I’d take Gary Snyder over Ginsberg every time, for what that’s worth).
That taste preference ironically makes this documentary such a hoot. Everybody interviewed loves Ginsberg, whether from a personal experience or through the pages of a book. They know that while the perception of Ginsberg’s work is six of one and half-dozen of another, it cannot be refuted that the man was a major planetary body in the solar system of the Beat Movement. Thurston Moore gets it spot-on in his interview segment.
So is The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg a notable portrait of the man, the artist, and the legend? I don’t know. I think so, but I’m not sure. Aronson definitely knows how to pace his star-studded interview sequences; that’s for damned sure. But even if Life and Times isn’t the most soul-searching of documentaries, for anyone who ever read On the Road or any of the other monolithic literary achievements of the time, this documentary is a wild, illuminating experience.