The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg
Directed by Jerry Aronson. (1994)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 25, 1994
After numerous documentaries tracing the lively literary exploits of Beat icons William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, someone has finally brought us full circle with this engaging look at the man some people have called the emotional epicenter of the Beat triad, poet Allen Ginsberg. Aronson's 83-minute film is a meticulously-researched chunk of underground Americana that traces the poet's full life from his rather dysfunctional childhood (beneath the hoary shadow of his mentally ill mother) to his meetings and eventual friendships with Kerouac, Burroughs, Neal Cassady and other Beat luminaries, and from there to the publication during the Sixties of such groundbreaking American poems as “Howl” and the emotionally wrenching “Kaddish” (one recent measure of the enduring power of these works can be found on a recent episode of The Simpsons, wherein daughter Lisa paraphrases the opening lines of “Howl” while bemoaning a botched Thanksgiving dinner). Aronson arranges the film along a strict timeline, breaking his subject's life into the various decades, and then covering the facets of those years before moving on. It's an easy way to keep track of the myriad goings-on in Ginsberg's wildly varied life, and it lends the film a linear unity that many biographical documentaries lack. The Life and Times... is peppered with wonderful cameos, friends and relations of Ginsberg from Burroughs to Norman Mailer, Joan Baez to Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Even conservative ideologue William F. Buckley is along for the ride, seen here in a clip from a 1960s edition of Firing Line with guest Ginsberg. Despite his weasel-like pomposity, even Buckley seems nonplussed by the poet's good nature, and his right-wing barbs (“On the subject of politics, you are naïve”) fall flat. It's a comic moment, quickly followed by another, this time of Ginsberg on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett seems at a loss as to how best to approach his famous guest, and he's so obviously in awe of Ginsberg that he acts like a puppy. If there is any fault to Aronson's film, it may be that it comes across like one huge warm fuzzy: Ginsberg comes across almost saint-like, the great, virtuous American poet of the underground, just come up for air. Big deal. He is, without a doubt, an artistic fireball of great passion and tremendous heart, a man who was perhaps the sanest of all the participants in the melees of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention (ample footage is given to Mayor Daley's police beating the stuffing out of protesters while Ginsberg is seen, bullhorn in front of him, chanting a quavering Buddhist mantra and trying to calm the madness around him -- by all accounts, the gambit worked). And Aronson makes it clear that to this day Ginsberg continues working, speaking, and writing, ever busy and vigilant.