Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, The

Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan. 27, 1993–The best thing to be said about the new, painstaking documentary, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, is that it provides a systematic look at the noted poet from his childhood to the present. However, considering Ginsberg's flamboyant and complex personality and the intriguing gallery of writers and artists who have been part of his life, Jerry Aronson's docu is a disappointingly conventional work. Still, continuous interest in Ginsberg's poetry and renewed interest in the Beatnik generation will facilitate docu's showings in film fest, universities, and public TV.

Producer-director Jerry Aronson, a film instructor in Colorado, imposes a strict chronological order on his material, with each decade serving as a chapter in Ginsberg's life.

Docu begins rather interestingly with the young handsome Ginsberg learning the art of poetry from his father Louis, and suffering from loneliness and sadness when his mentally ill mother was institutionalized. Ginsberg acknowledges that he has fused the different temperaments of his parents into his own personality–his political paranoia was inherited from his mother.

Ginsberg's formative years were in the late l940s and l950s, when he met and befriended Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, who helped him to come out of the closet and establish his unique persona as an intellectual.

In the l960s and l970s, he became a political activist, participating in mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War and American nuclear policy. The film concludes with a portrait of the elderly Ginsberg as university professor.

Ginsberg's readings of his best-known poems, "Howl" and "Kaddish" are engrossing, though they would have been more effective had they been filmed during a live performance.

Docu is quite methodical in covering Ginsberg's public persona, but it doesn't provide deep insights into his private life, particularly concerning his homosexuality. Ginsberg's long time companion, Peter Orlovsky, is mentioned in the context of their "deep bond" and vows for eternal love, but not much information is conveyed about the kind of relationship they had or their life together.

Regrettably, the comments by Ginsberg's friends and followers tend to be too brief and not particularly illuminating. "Allen and Peter were true bohemians," says Timothy Leary, and Joan Baez recalls, "Allen could behave like a nut, but he was serious about things."

The most amusing moment occurs during Ginsberg's appearance on William Buckley's "Firing Line," with the conservative host trying to conceal his bewilderment with a forced smile.

Though centered on a compelling figure who has defied time and fashion, Aronson provides no particular focal point and no revelations that challenge what is already known about Ginsberg. Even so, docu's power is in recapitulating the poet's life and its place in American intellectual history of the last 50 years. Always in command of his subject matter, Aronson succeeds in communicating his respect and love for Ginsberg.