Jerry Aronson has augmented his crisp, straightforward 1993 documentary portrait of the poet Allen Ginsberg with six hours of extra material for this double-disc release, which now makes it a scholarly resource as well as a remarkably clearheaded study of a singularly complex individual.
Mr. Aronson's film follows Ginsberg from his middle-class upbringing in New Jersey through the media explosion that was the Beat movement, his role in the flowering youth movement of the 1960s and his last years as a devoted Buddhist and political activist. Those interviewed range from close friends and family members to artists whose relationship to Ginsberg was more remote (Beck, Bono and Johnny Depp), while the footage Mr. Aronson has gathered includes lengthy excerpts from Ginsberg's 1998 memorial tribute at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Ginsberg and Bob Dylan visiting Jack Kerouac's grave, a 1965 reading with Neal Cassady at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and sequences from Jonas Mekas's touching record of Ginsberg's wake, "Scenes From Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit."
Jerry Aronson's 1994 documentary on the famed Beat poet arrives in a two-disc set in honor of the 10th anniversary of Ginsberg's death. Extras include interviews with Johnny Depp, Beck, Bono, William S. Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman, Andy Warhol and Hunter S. Thompson about Ginsberg, a "making of" documentary, footage from his memorial at St. John the Divine in New York, clips of Ginsberg and Neal Cassady at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1965, and Burroughs and Ginsberg chatting at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., in 1984.
Beating the drum for a poet-visionary.
Desk officers at the State Department have a term for what befalls colleagues stationed abroad: "clientism." It describes what happens when diplomats get so caught up in the opinions, attitudes, and needs of the country they're stationed in that their dispatches begin to take on a native coloration. They end up unconsciously representing their "client" country more than they do the United States.
Something similar tends to occur among documentary filmmakers. Spending so much time with their subjects, they make the person or persons they're shooting their client - rather than the viewers they're shooting for. What this all too often results in are documentaries that meander, overflow, and otherwise go on too long. The miraculous thing about Jerry Aronson's "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg" is its concision. It weighs in at a quite taut 84 minutes, this despite the remarkably full and varied life of the great Beat poet-visionary, as well as the onscreen presence of numerous family members and friends.
First released in 1994, then in a revised version in 2005 (eight years after Ginsberg's death), Aronson's film is a labor of love. He spent a dozen years filming Ginsberg - we see him reading his poetry, answering questions, conversing with old pals like William Burroughs - yet there's a sense of every frame and syllable mattering.
If anyone could be forgiven for suffering from documentary clientism, it's Aronson. The capaciousness of the DVD format now lets him indulge the temptations he avoided in the film. So let's hear it for indulgence. We get a two-minute look at Ginsberg and Bob Dylan visiting Jack Kerouac's grave, in Lowell. There are snippets of film Jonas Mekas shot of Ginsberg during his last few dying days. There are also 25 minutes of footage recording Ginsberg and Neal Cassady at San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, in 1965. (That sound you hear in the background isn't cable cars - it's the shifting of cultural tectonic plates.)
A second disc includes footage from a memorial service for Ginsberg at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as well as excerpts from the extensive interviews Aronson conducted with friends and associates. How extensive? We get Hunter S. Thompson, Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, Ken Kesey, Stan Brakhage, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (you get the idea), as well as such latter-day admirers as Beck, Bono, and Johnny Depp.
This is a very rich slice of cultural history, lovingly presented.
Jerry Aronson's "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg", on the other hand, is a work of zero pretensions. This modest documentary seeks to honor its subject, not to bury or compete with it. Humility is an effective strategy: I laughed a little, I cried a little. The spirits were lifted. Though Aronson has a formidable list of filmmaking credits, Life and Times is simple, formally conventional, and straightforwardly chronological. For the past 10 years he's been conducting talking-head interviews, collecting archival footage and stills, all with Ginsberg's cooperation. The end product is frankly adulatory. No reason why it shouldn't be.
The International Documentary Assn. presented its ninth annual awards Nov. 5, 1994 , to five nonfiction features: "Intimate Stranger," "Silverlake Life: The View From Here," "Something Within Me," "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg," and "The Donner Party."
Fabulous deluxe two-disc DVD of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, directed by Jerry Aronson is out now on Cinedigm. I loved the movie when I reviewed it in 1994, but watching it again was bliss. It's a touching and insightful documentary on Beat poet and prophet of the hippie movement Allen Ginsberg that really translates to film the beauty and power of his words. Covering 50 turbulent years with other Beat writers such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, the film mixes great archive footage and features revealing interviews with Joan Baez, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey and Ginsberg himself, painting a full-blooded portrait of a visionary writer and gentle soul.
Long sequences of Ginsberg reading two of his most famous poems, Howl and Kaddish
(a poem he wrote for his mother, who died in a mental institution), give you insight as to how influential he really was. A hilarious section with a blissed-out Ginsberg chanting mantras on William F. Buckley's Firing Line television show while Buckley looks on with customary sanctimonious bemusement is definitely a highlight.
What's great is the extras: Ginsberg and Bob Dylan over Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell, Mass. Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady at the City Lights Bookstore in 1965. Plus touching interviews with Timothy Leary and Andy Warhol. Patti Smith tells a wonderful story about Ginsberg buying her a sandwich in an automat and mistaking her for a boy, and the late great filmmaker Stan Brakhage describes Ginsberg by quoting Tennessee Williams and describing how Ginsberg was truly a kind spirit.
With Ginsberg's help, Jerry Aronson has been culling material for 10 years to produce this scrapbook of a remarkable life. The result, including interviews with the likes of Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Joan Baez, William Burroughs and Timothy Leary, is a fiercely funny and moving document of a cultural era.
A skilful documentarian, Aronson splices together many different perspectives on Ginsberg into a seamless, chronological whole. Without manipulation, Aronson evokes emotion through his selection of images, poetry and reminiscence.
Aronson paints a fully realized picture of one of the most important and controversial American artists of the twentieth century.
As an introduction to a poet, "Life and Times" achieves the most important goal of making you want to go and read more of his work.
The man who wrote the Beat Generation epic poem "Howl" is the subject of this in-depth portrait from director Jerry Aronson, who spent 25 years gathering interviews and footage of Ginsberg, his associates and his admirers. The film follows Ginsberg, who died in 1997, from his rise to literary fame during the beat movement through his counterculture and political activism, his spiritual quests, his photography work and other varied preoccupations and interests. The impressive lineup of interviews in the documentary include Andy Warhol, Hunter S. Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, William Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Joan Baez, Bono and Johnny Depp. The two-disc set also packs a huge range of extras, featuring Ginsberg reading some of his poems, visiting Jack Kerouac's grave with Bob Dylan and offering an exhibition of his photos.
Poet Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, N.J., in 1926.
His best known poem is Howl, which includes the opening line: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .
He died in 1997 at age 70.
For those who missed the documentary chronicling the life of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, you can now catch it on DVD. The two-DVD set, which went on sale Tuesday, also includes more than six hours of new footage not included in the original 1993 documentary.
Filmmaker Jerry Aronson presents a compelling decade-by-decade telling of Ginsberg's life. The interviews, old photos and film footage weave a rich narrative starting with his childhood, which was typical enough until at a young age he witnessed the nervous breakdown and institutionalization of his mother.
During his freshman year at Columbia University in 1943 he met Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, who, along with Ginsberg, formed the core of the 1950s literary-political movement known as the Beat Generation. The DVD set includes a long conversation between Ginsberg and Burroughs at a kitchen table in 1983, reflecting on much of their experiences. Ginsberg guides viewers through an exhibition of his photographs, which chronicled the early years of the Beats.
The film also touches on the indecency charges brought over the sexual language in Ginsberg's landmark 1955 poem Howl.
I interviewed Ginsberg in 1994 when he was performing at a film festival in Arkansas. Ginsberg said the charges proved to be a big help. "The police made the mistake of advertising the book by trying to seize it and therefore what would have been a sort of esoteric, charming lavender volume of poetry printed in a couple hundred copies then began selling like hotcakes," Ginsberg said. "So I have to thank the police for advertising the book." A judge later ruled the poem was not obscene, saying it had "redeeming social importance."
The DVD set also includes Ginsberg and Bob Dylan at Kerouac's grave in Lowell, Mass., in 1975. Ginsberg toured with the singer that year as part of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.
The DVD features more recent interviews with the likes of Bono, Paul McCartney and Beck, showing the influence Ginsberg continues to exert on today's culture, a decade after his death in 1997 at age 70. The DVDs provide a rich insight into his life and appeal.
Just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Ginsberg's groundbreaking poem Howl, this is a DVD update of the original film (reviewed in Booklist in 1994). Broken down by decades, this insightful program uses stills, home movies, interview clips, and news footage to trace Ginsberg's life from his traumatic childhood (his mother had a nervous breakdown) through his emerging homosexuality and friendship with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in the 1950s, to his reign as counterculture poet in the 1970s. Perceptive commentary by Ginsberg's stepmother and touching scenes of supportive friends as Ginsberg nears death in 1997 are among the DVD updates. More than a tribute to his life and work, this provocative documentary captures the soul of the times. Bonus material includes extensive interviews with artists who were influenced by Ginsberg's work.
Few Americans can hope to live a life as vibrant as Ginsberg's over a course of six decades. It's a natural, albeit often restrictive, human trait to want to classify individuals into one category or another, but that process would be almost impossible with Ginsberg. Is he primarily an avant-garde poet? Political activist? Human rights campaigner? Social reformer? Aronson's extensive documentary melds all those facets of Ginsberg's life into what might well be the definitive media study of one of America's most intriguing personalities. The main portion of the two-disc set is the re-mastered and updated director's cut of the documentary of Ginsberg's life originally produced in 1994. This title is worthy of purchase for this segment alone, which includes a wide variety of materials, e.g., home movies and clips of Ginsberg's televised interviews with both William F. Buckley and Dick Cavett. Viewers follow the forces that shape Ginsberg into the visionary reformer and controversial creator he became. Additionally, Aronson has included an extensive collection of extras, for example, interviews with almost 30 public figures (ranging from psychologist Timothy Leary to actor Johnny Depp) who share comments on Ginsberg's effect on their particular craft. Ginsberg's colorful life deserves this monument by the Academy Award-nominated Aronson. Highly recommended for all libraries.
Dwain Thomas, Lake Park H.S., Roselle, IL
Admirers of Allen Ginsberg - influential Beat poet, genial activist, and Buddhist - will appreciate this generous double-disc compilation, the centerpiece of which is Jerry Aronson's director's cut of his documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg , originally released in 1994 but slightly extended to cover Ginsberg's death in 1997 and re-released in 2006. Aronson's approach is straightforwardly chronological, combining archival footage (including excerpts from Ginsberg's television appearances with Dick Cavett and William F. Buckley) with extensive interviews, including comments by his brother, aunt, and stepmother. While there's a worshipful tone to the film, Ginsberg seems quite deserving, given his troubled family life and his genuinely mild, gentle demeanor. DVD extras include a veritable cornucopia of bonus material -a "making-of" featurette, a short on the making of Gus Van Sant's music video of "A Ballad of the Skeletons," footage of Ginsberg reading his poems and commenting on his photographs, conversations between Ginsberg and others (Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady), and excerpts from Jonas Mekas' Scenes from Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit, which the avant-garde director shot in Ginsberg's apartment shortly after his death. In addition, the second disc offers a series of remarks about Ginsberg from a slew of friends and fans (including Joan Baez, Bono, Paul McCartney, Stan Brakhage, Johnny Depp, and Philip Glass), as well as portions of the memorial service held for Ginsberg in New York. Serving up a fascinating portrait of an important literary and cultural figure in modern American life, this is highly recommended.
Filmmaker Jerry Aronson met Allen Ginsberg in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention protests and then later in Boulder, Colorado where each of the men had relocated in the early '70s. It wasn't until 1983 however that Aronson started filming The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, an 85 minute documentary that includes interviews with Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Joan Baez, Norman Mailer, and many others.
Aronson's film was released in 1993, but after Ginsberg's death in 1997, the filmmaker set out to update it, adding interviews with a number of artists impacted by Ginsberg and his work, including Andy Warhol, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip Glass, Johnny Depp, Joan Baez, and Bono, to name but a few.
The 2 DVD set goes on sale today marking 10 years since Allen Ginsberg died, and while it's fascinating to listen to the interviews of the artists and musicians who were touched by Ginsberg's work, still more enjoyable I think is revisiting the original 85 minute film in which Ginsberg, in the presence of various interviewers - Dick Cavett, William F. Buckley, and Aronson himself - reads and speaks about his poetry.
Jerry Aronson's affecting 1994 documentary brings home how much we needed Allen Ginsberg and how much, since his death in 1997, we've missed him. More than a poet, Ginsberg was a luminous being - an example of essential humanness.
"The weight of the world is love," says Ginsberg. As this film shows, it was Allen's ecstatic response to life - mystic, joyful, vulnerable - that made him a mentor to those who knew him and to those that didn't. Aronson, who knew him quite well, gives us Allen Ginsberg as a hub of love - and not your nonspecific, Aquarian-age love either, but the fleshly, hurting, resilient kind between mother and son, father and son, lover and lover.
Mother Naomi's mental illness blasted and shaped Allen's soul just as he was entering puberty. As his stepmother Edith relates, "He saw too much." Anyone remembering various harrowing details from the poem Kaddish would tend to agree with her, but, as the older Allen ruminates, he himself had a certain ability to survive personal cataclysms and "get on with it." So, too, could admirable Louis Ginsberg, who in spite of the aesthetic and political differences between them, was inordinately proud of his son. The sight of the two survivors, growing old and sometimes reading poetry together, gives the last quarter of the film a poignant stance on death and endings.
In between eras of family tragedy/reunion enters his self-proclaimed supplementary family, the Beats - Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs - all "trembling, lonely individuals." They took him in, fostered his gay sexuality, gave an ear to his burgeoning poetry of "mystic paranoia," and helped him escape Brooks Brothers suited servitude in the workaday world. "You were a conformist," says the elder Burroughs to old lion Ginsberg.
With the sixties came political activism and experiments with LSD, all of which Allen combined into a "politics of ecstasy." While some of his Beat compatriots sank into depression and used drugs and alcohol as escape hatches, Ginsberg praised LSD as a tool to break down fear in order to enter into a state of Blakean spirituality and finally recognize the unity of all being. Not an unusual sort of epiphany for an acidhead, to be sure, but in the hands of an artist like Ginsberg a gateway to the numinous lyrics of the poem Wales Visitation. The documentary gives us a clip of Allen reading a shortened version of the poem to William F. Buckley on his Firing Line show in '68. In response to the poem's exalted imagery and Allen's powerful delivery, Buckley's patented shit-eating grin becomes a frozen rictus, and the host is forced to admit his admiration.
Cinedigm's two-disc set includes not only what it claims is an updated version of the feature, but a massive amount of extras. Some of these - vintage interviews and newer readings - are material excerpted for the film but in more complete form. There's also a making-of, a short film by Jonas Mekas, and a delightful MTV music video of Ballad of the Skeletons. The second disc hosts numerous isolated interviews, from the '80s to 2004, with greats like William Burroughs and Ferlinghetti along with actors like Johnny Depp and musicians like Beck.
It's all a wondrous celebration of Ginsberg. Years ago, I heard someone call Allen Ginsberg a "transitional poet." Now I would ask: transitional to what and to whom?
USA/1994/B&W and color/Fullscreen/84 minutes. Issued by Cinedigm, 2007. Available now.
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