Nov 1, 2007

A Poet on the Lower East Side (1997)

In 1995, Allen Ginsberg's Hungarian translator, Istvan Eorsi, travelled to New York for several days to meet with the legendary poet-activist-prankster to check on his latest body of work. The two men were followed around by director Gyula Gazdag (perhaps best known here for A Hungarian Fairy Tale), and two cameras. The result, subtitled "A Docu-Diary on Allen Ginsberg", is an endlessly fascinating look at the ghosts of the past.

At first, the film is a bit offputting, as there is really no traditional beginning of hello's or salutations. We open quite abruplty in Ginsberg's apartment with the two men going over sheets of poetry. And I began to fear the worst too, as at first this resembles the shaky camcorder histrionics of "America's Funniest Home Videos", instead of feeling like a "film". But in short order, the direction and camerawork become more assured, as if this small group charted out a more clear purpose for the next few days. As a result one feels this project becoming more alive, and it is exciting to watch.

While we do see some candid footage of the two men at work, discussing Ginsberg's poetry, the ulterior motif of this film is a travelogue of Ginsberg, with Eorsi, not far behind, visiting the remnants of his legacy in New York City. Each day of Eorsi's visit begins with a title card summarizing the day's events that we are about to see. The effect is much like the diary films of Jonas Mekas, who is also featured prominently in this picture.

In this travelogue, we also witness such luminaries as Ginsberg's companion Peter Orlovsky and Beat Generation poet Gregory Corso (who is in his element here). But even more moving, Allen Ginsberg takes the camera crew (and ultimately, the viewer) on a tour through the monuments of the great struggle for change that he and his contemporaries underwent in the tumultuous 1950's. We witness the old jazz club where Charlie Parket played near the end of his life, former beatnik cafes, buildings before which Ginsberg had protested to decriminalize marijuana, among other landmark relics. In fact, the long travelling shot which follows Mekas through the basement of Anthology Film Archives, with rows upon rows of film cans, seems also pertinent to this theme, as we remember the great adversity Mekas had experienced back in the day to show these controversial underground films. And to remind us that the struggle for change continues, we also witness some excellent footage of a squatter's demonstration.

As such, the film ends as abruptly as it began, with no traditional goodbyes. Like a diary entry, the film closes with the activities of the final day-- no great resolutions... his life and work will continue on.

It is re-assuring to hear Ginsberg, almost 70, still hang on to his ideals of social change. Perhaps Ginsberg is-was the most Christ-like figure in American pop culture.... his words and demeanour, alternately angry and calming, standing up for those voices oppressed by the societal norm, are tremendously healing. And he is certainly among the most important voices of the past century-- few other figures in popular culture have spoken to as many generations as he, from the beatniks to the hippies, from the punks to the Gen X'ers... he is a saint to them all.

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