Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Ferlinghetti: The Beat Goes On

Lawrence Ferlighetti never attracted the cult followings of his Beat Generation colleagues, but he notched sales that were comparable or stronger.  As a publisher himself, he would appreciate the latter.  Nonetheless, it is clear why scores of college students are more drawn to Kerouac and Burroughs when watching Christopher Felver’s slavish documentary profile Ferlighetti: a Rebirth of Wonder (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ferlinghetti co-founded the City Lights Bookstore and associated small press, gaining instant notoriety when he published Ginsberg’s Howl.  Ferlignhetti was afraid he would have to take one for the team when he was subsequently brought up on obscenity charges, but the presiding Republican Municipal Judge Clayton W. Horn confounded expectations when he issued a precedent-setting First Amendment ruling.  Yet, the experience obviously did not inspire warm feelings of bipartisanship in Ferlinghetti.

Frankly, Felver spends way too much time on Ferlinghetti the activist, running the risk of alienating half the audience outside New York and San Francisco.  It hardly burnishes the poet’s reputation either, when first he is laudably dubbed an anarchist and then shown celebrating authoritarian Latin American regimes.  No matter how you look at it, the two are mutually exclusive.

Arguably, Michael Polish’s Sundance premiere Big Sur better serves Ferlinghetti’s image, presenting him as the responsible Beat, portrayed with quiet sensitivity by Anthony Edwards.  At least the score is snappy, including original music from David Amram, an apostolic link to Pull My Daisy.  Ferlinghetti clearly granted Felver ample time and access (perhaps too much), as do several of his surviving compatriots, including fellow poets Michael McClure and Gary Snyder.  While Rebirth offers a credible introduction to Ferlinghetti’s poetry, his painting is rather shoe-horned into the seventy-nine minute running time.

Still, brevity is always a wise documentary strategy.  Rebirth sounds great, but it is not especially cinematic, mostly looking like it was shot on a consumer video camera.  Not recommended for general audiences, Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is strictly for Beat fanatics when it opens this Friday (2/8) in New York at the Quad Cinema.