The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg DVD Review: See One of the Best Minds of His Generation

Originally released in 1993, Jerry Aronson documents The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, the famed Beat Generation poet who was frequently at the forefront of American counterculture throughout his life. Ginsberg, and also his fellow Beats, embraced American ideals of freedom more so than the restrictive society of the time. He experimented with psychedelic drugs, sexual liberation, and Eastern philosophy, all of which contributed to his mind being open to life’s possibilities.

Aronson tells of Ginsberg’s parents (his father Louis also a poet, his mother suffered from schizophrenia), each of whom had an impact upon him. Aronson then proceeds to cover’s Ginsberg’s life by decade, from attending Columbia University in the ’40s where he meets future Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac; moving to San Francisco in the ’50s and having his writings published, some of which drew the ire and outrage of folks offended by his word choices and subject matter; being an inspiration to a young generation in the ’60s and ’70s as he protested against injustice, against the ’68 Democratic Convention, and against the Vietnam War. Ginsberg even pops up at the beginning of D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, off to the side of the frame as Bob Dylan shuffles through cards containing lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.

Aronson accesses a treasure trove of archival material and interviews conducted over the years with many of Ginsberg’s famous friends and admirers to tell this biography. Interestingly, Aronson kept tinkering with the project. Initially released during Ginsberg’s lifetime, the movie now concludes with his cemetary headstone. In the bonus material, 18 of the 29 interviews were recorded in the first decade of this century.

Disc One Extras:

  • Ginsberg & Burroughs (14 min) – The pair talk in Boulder, CO, 1983. They cover their first meeting which they remember differently.
  • Ginsberg & Cassady (25 min) – At San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore 1965. Ginsberg appears to be set for a performance with Cassady for audience than participant.
  • Ginsberg & Dylan (2 min) – At Kerouac’s Grave, 1975, in Lowell, MA.
  • Ginsberg & Brakhage (2 min) – A brief interaction in Boulder, CO, July 1996.
  • Selected Poems (24 min) – Recorded in Boulder, CO, 1992. Ginsberg recites directly into the camera “Selected Poems” on July 17 and “Howl” Excerpts on July 25.
  • Ballad of the Skeletons (7 min) – Ginsberg, Lenny Kaye, Phillip Glass talk about performing it. Gus Van Sant talks about creating the music video. Ginsberg can be seen reciting alongside Paul McCartney’s guitar accompaniment.
  • Making “Life and Times” (11 min) – Not so much a “making of”, but rather a collection of interview clips.
  • Photo Exhibition (8 min) – Ginsberg’s first photo exhibit at Holly Solomon Gallery, January 1985, New York, NY
  • Ginsberg Photo Gallery
  • Director’s Photo Gallery
  • “Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit” (8 min) – Excerpts from the film made of Ginsberg’s final days.

Disc Two Extras:

  • Interviews (220 min) – Twenty-nine interview clips, from Joan Baez to Andy Warhol, some are extended scenes, many recorded after the film’s release.
  • Memorial Service (27 min) – Excerpts from Planet News, a Tribute to Allen Ginsberg at Cathdral of St. John the Divine on May 14, 1998, New York, NY. Friends, including Phillip Glass and Patti Smith, perform his poems to music.

As Aronson’s documentary makes clear, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg were both fascinating because the choices Ginsberg made in the former made an impact upon the latter whether someone was a fellow traveler or viewed him as an “immoral menace” as Czechoslovakian authorities did when they kicked him out of the country in 1965. He is an American hero and this movie does a very good job honoring the man and his works, both literary and politically.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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