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|William S. Burroughs||Participant|
|Dr. Timothy Leary||Participant|
|Jean de Segonzac||Cinematographer|
Posted October 27, 2013
The Boston Globe
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 1993, then in a revised version in 2012 (15 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, Paul McCartney (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.