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'The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 25, 1994

For a film about a poet -- arguably, one of our time's best known and most influential -- Jerry Aronson's "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg" is pretty prosaic stuff.

The documentary lives up to its ambitious title. After more than a decade spent accumulating the interviews, photographs and mountains of memorabilia needed to give a full accounting of this Beat prototype's excellently adventurous life, Aronson has, indeed, compiled the most complete, most meticulously comprehensive and warmly straightforward portrait of the artist imaginable. Still, after all that, I wondered, is that all?

How could such a vital, eccentric life be reduced to such a commonplace record? Most likely, because of too much respect and admiration. In trying to convince us that Ginsberg is a writer of brilliance who hasn't yet truly gotten his due, Aronson turns his subject into a sage and takes all the fun out of it. Yes, the movie is a worthy accomplishment. But is it scintillating, nutty, madly inspired or ecstatically preposterous? Ginsberg himself is all these things, but this movie is not.

In truth, Aronson might have done better had he collected less and imagined more. To its credit, the movie delivers a treasure trove of information about Ginsberg, not least a stunning collection of snapshots of him and his immensely photogenic family of assorted dharma bums.

The documentary also includes long passages of the poet reading aloud and filmed testimony from William Burroughs as well as just about every important friend and family member still living, not to mention ample participation from Ginsberg himself. But Ginsberg here is so tame and respectful, so revered and worthy, that he seems to have been transformed into a sort of secular holy man.

The Allen Ginsberg I remember is an unapologetic nonconformist, gay blade, activist, agitator and anti-establishmentarian. Where, in "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg," has all that blessed freakiness gone?

Maybe this softening is what always happens when yesterday's news -- and yesterday's heroes -- are transmuted into history. Maybe the wild, uninhibited flesh of the real man is always replaced by the waxy facsimile of the official, historical person. With Ginsberg, though, the sacrifice of this wild human spirit to posterity seems especially sad, mainly because the subject has remained so steadfastly joyous in his nonconformity, so happy to go his own idiosyncratic way. This is, after all, the man who took LSD, then went before Congress and enthusiastically shared his experiences, and later went on television, with William F. Buckley, no less, who sat in amazement as Ginsberg read a poem he wrote after taking the drug. Or, as Buckley put it, "under the influence."

The movie is more a celebration of Ginsberg than an objective biography, yet it is successful as the former without compromising its claims to accuracy. Taking a chronological approach divided by decade, Aronson shows us all sides of the man. He shows us the self-conscious pre-teenager with the bucktoothed smile, the big, black glasses and the "weird" hair -- the fledgling hipster before he let his freak flag fly.

Aronson shows us the Beat icon of the '50s and proud member of the Beat inner circle, the Kerouac rat pack; and later, the '60s activist peacemaker and hippie guru; and later still, the love child in full blossom. All this is here, as well as the poet in old age, the gentle, mature man of today as he approaches his 70th birthday, and very ably presented too. Even so, the whole exercise comes across as a kind of premature embalming. Watching it, I had to keep reminding myself that the man is still alive.

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is not rated.

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