The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (1994)


(director/editor/producer: Jerry Aronson; cinematographers: Jean de Segonzac/Richard Lerner/Roger Carter; editor: Nathaniel Dorsky; music: Tom Capek; cast: Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, William Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, William F. Buckley, Peter Orlovsky, Chögyam Trungpa, Neal Cassady, Hannah Litsky (Aunt), Eugene Ginsberg (Brother); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; First Run Features; 1993)
It’s more pedantically informative and admiring than amusing or provacative, but worth seeing for all the memories of cultural changes it evokes.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A routine linear biopic about the transformation of noted American poet Allen Ginsberg from a conforming nice Jewish boy to a significant leadership role in the protest movements of the last half of the 20th century. Allen was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, to Russian immigrant parents escaping from the pogroms. Jerry Aronson’s documentary is unimaginative, but this b/w and in parts color film does itself justice by capturing through family snapshots and talking-head interviews and archive footage and Allen’s poetry readings the legacy of the poet. It’s more pedantically informative and admiring than amusing or provocative, but worth seeing for all the memories of cultural changes it evokes. Allen died in 1998, so the film leaves off at the point where he seemed more mellow and was teaching at Brooklyn College and concerned with his physical state of being.

Allen emerged through the decades of the 1950s and onward as an easily recognized and accepted icon for those of the counterculture movement alienated from the system. He was a colorful character, noted for his generosity and seriousness to the cause of world peace. The film opens with him reading a poem summing up his philosophy that “the weight of the world is love.”

In the 1940s Allen was shy and in the closet about his homosexuality. While at Columbia he met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and opened up to them about his repressed feelings. He felt comfortable to tell Kerouac he was gay, which is the first time he let that be known. Their “dharma bums” friendship was chronicled by Kerouac, as the Beat literary scene was introduced by them to the world. Allen’s father was a respected high school teacher and minor poet, while mom Naomi was a paranoid who ended up in a mental institution during Allen’s formative childhood years. Her mental illness left Allen caught in her sufferings, something that became a part of his own personality and gave him an added need to work for a more gentle world.

In the 1950s Allen became liberated and broke away from his childhood middle-class conformity by becoming a bohemian character and hanging out with such Beat luminaries as Kerouac, Burroughs, Hunke, and Cassady. He wrote during this time his two most well-known poems “Howl” and “Kaddish,” which were read on film and still resonate with power. With the Vietnam War in the ’60s, he became a more peaceful symbol of political protest against the war, as he became an activist and a kindly father figure of the hippies and the children of “flower power.” Allen became a cosmic public defender, fighting to save the universe from being torn apart by strife. At this time he was taking psychedelic drugs, but in his meeting with Timothy Leary he cautioned that the drugs should be used for spiritual growth. The 28-year-old Allen also met the 21-year-old handsome artist Peter Orlovsky, and they became longtime lovers. During the bloody 1968 Democratic Convention, Allen was a voice of calm chanting Buddhist mantras in Lincoln Park to the more peaceful demonstrators. In 1970 Allen accidentally met the Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa on a NYC street and joined the lama’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, teaching poetry. It was a spontaneous poetry, where “first thought is best thought.”

The death of his beloved father Louis in 1976 left him saddened, but he was inspired to write a moving poem dedicated to his father as he took the jet back from Boulder to attend the funeral. In the ’80s and ’90s the poet continued to be a voice of social protest against the nuclear buildup and the de-humanization of the world.

On a personal note, I got to know Allen somewhat and know first-hand what a generous and compassionate person he really was. In the many poetry readings I attended of Allen’s, there was always a magical quality in those readings that inspired an audience. Though the documentary was satisfying and presented a good collection of Ginsberg’s public works, I nevertheless wished it could have caught more of Allen’s eccentric magical energy and have been a more exceptional film. Due to time constraints it, through no fault of its own, nevertheless left out much of Allen’s private life and controversies and also his love for the poets William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.