A Valentine to Ferlinghetti
If you think a valentine is a message from the heart to someone special, and that someone special for you is Lawrence Ferlinghetti — considered by many to be the bestselling poet of the modern era — then Christopher Felver’s new documentary, FERLINGHETTI, A Rebirth of Wonder is the film for you.
Felver’s documentary, above all else, is an unapologetic homage. It risks not only a highly subjective look at its subject but unabashed sentimentality. It explores through a whirligig of archival photo stills, historical footage, and a mélange of appearances with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, Billy Collins, Dennis Hopper, Gary Snyder, and Dave Eggers, among others, one of the most impassioned and iconoclastic artists of our time.
Ferlinghetti is not only the rebel libertarian creator of Coney Island of the Mind, the 1958 poetry anthology that sold over a million copies and was translated into nine languages, but the publisher of Ginsberg’s Howl. This was no ordinary feat for a fledgling bookseller, but an act that led to an infamous 1956 censorship trial versus the city of San Francisco that set an irreversible precedent for the freedom of speech in literature. You could say the seismic reverberations of that trial were equaled only by the Great San Francisco quake of 1906 itself. In poet Billie Collins’ tribute, he sums up Ferlinghetti as a man who “has retained his political edge, honed by time and American politics, using poetry as the ultimate freedom of speech.” Ferlinghetti’s City of Lights Bookstore, founded in 1953, continues to thrive over five decades, and according to writer Dave Eggers, still remains “the guiding light of the city and the best literary environment in the world.”
Indisputably, the bookstore plays a major role in this documentary, with a storehouse of images of the exterior on the now legendary North Beach corner. Not to be overlooked is Jack Kerouac’s Alley, which was transformed by Ferlinghetti’s own efforts in 1987, and which lays intact alongside the shop. Ferlinghetti’s words are emblazoned there for the random stroller: “Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imagination.” The star of the show is posed repeatedly in front of the storefront or in its cheerful interior over the prism of time, in all his black and white, and later, Technicolor glory. There’s no mistaking what a prodigious effort the filmmaker made to recreate the atmosphere of the place through these stills as well as live footage. We see the youthful ingenuousness — the peacockish pride of new ownership, the magisterial, middle-aged proprietor and the wizened, grinning survivor — reading to hordes of admirers, accepting his fame and a bucket of awards almost nonchalantly, as if in the natural order of things.
The genesis of The City of Lights Bookstore seems as delightfully improvisational as Ferlinghetti himself. The young poet spied a sign for a pocket book shop (there were no paperback book stores in the country at that time) and he approached the owner. Ferlinghetti’s own friend George Whitman had just opened his own version in Paris, now called Shakespeare and Company. After a short discussion with the owner, Peter D. Martin, Ferlinghetti tossed in $500 and with a handshake, became the proud co-owner of a bookstore.
Two years later, after Martin’s departure, Ferlinghetti set up his own publishing arm, the Pocket Poets Series. His own Pictures of the Gone World became the first number, followed by books by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams, and Gregory Corso. Nevertheless, the Beat Generation writers, though forever married to the public’s perception of City Lights Publishers, are not the whole story. Ferlinghetti never intended to publish them exclusively — he never considered himself a Beat writer, though arguably there are parallels, and the house has continued to maintain a strong international list.
Felver allows many of the details of his hero’s life to unravel through the drawling, sometimes differential twang of his subject, which could slow the flow of the film in less experienced hands. Thanks to a combination of rapid-fire images and continent-chasing sequences — following Ferlinghetti to Paris where he received a doctorate at the Sorbonne; to the beaches of Normandie where he served as a Navy commander of a sub chaser during the D-Day invasion; to the burnt-out landscape of Nagasaki six weeks after the atom bomb dropped; then onward in the march of time to the small towns of Italy on a search for the father he never knew; to finally the cabin in the woods of Big Sur, basking in the sun, we are brought along for the ride.
And what a ride — a blurry roller coaster of courtship recounted between his Italian father and his French mother on Coney Island, when in the poet’s words, Ferlinghetti was hanging “in the bucket of eternity.” Born March 24, 1919, the early death of both parents left him in the hands of his aunt Emilie, who kept him in Strasbourg for the first five years of his life, until she returned to the States to take up employment as a governess with the wealthy Bisland family in Chappaqua, New York. A highly literate couple (the wife’s father had founded Sarah Lawrence College), Ferlinghetti was surrounded by books. It was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel that persuaded him to attend The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Wolfe’s own alma mater. The fact that the Bislands had lost their first born son Lawrence in infancy, did not go unnoticed to the young poet, who considered this a serendipitous stroke of fate.
You might wonder whether such a history lesson, with its requisite archival footage is all that necessary to such a documentary about a poet in the heat of the Beat era’s revels. It’s a relevant question, but given Ferlinghetti’s own personal quest for answers through his poetry, painting and liberal activism, filmmaker Felver obviously felt it essential to understanding a very complicated man.
There are scenes that grab the heart like a tight fist and don’t easily release their hold. One of these is the series of bleached-out landscapes of Nagasaki with the poet’s narration. The sight of “human flesh fused to a teacup” is only one of many. These images turned Ferlinghetti into an instant pacifist. Later in the film, he states “if Japan had had a white skin, we never would have dropped the bomb.” He calls himself merely “a tourist at the revolution” — an apt description for a man who was in Cuba in ’59 (the second anniversary of Castro’s revolution), at the Paris riots of ’68, and the same year at the Sandinista revolution, among others. Ferlinghetti never took government funding for his business. He identified instead with the plight of that “little man” Charlie Chaplin, an early hero whose antics show up in this film more than once.
It was his Coney Island of the Mind, inspired by Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life that set the literary world on its ear. It was such an earful that publisher James Laughlin appealed to the American Legion in Woodstock, New York for its right to exist. In Ferlinghetti’s rolling narrative, he recounts for us the Christ figure: “Sometime during eternity/some guys show up and one of them/who shows up real late/is a kind of carpenter/from some square-type place/like Galilee/and he starts wailing/and claiming he is hip/to who made heaven/and earth/and that the cat/who really laid it on us/is his Dad.”
The ear is not subjected to Ferlinghetti’s voice alone. Throughout this finely-wrought biofilm, the overlay of music by composer Rick DePofi and performer David Amram is integral to the sweeping rush of narrative. Its discordant notes, along with many images from a handheld camera with a nod to cinema verite, keep the viewer glued but swaying in his seat. In notes to the “Rebirth of Wonder” section of Coney Island, the author specifies that a music accompaniment is part of an essentially oral piece. Actor Dennis Hopper in his interview claims that without the San Francisco poets, their jazz included, the Los Angeles art scene couldn’t have happened. What the film makes clear is that this fusion of poetry, art, music and activism defined not only the Beat generation but the ones that followed.
This is a “feel good” film that invites us to embrace Ferlinghetti and Felver’s valentine to him. Do we need to be reassured the poet has feet of clay, whose disparate parts may crumble like the rest of us? Perhaps, but when the poet tells us he is still “waiting for the rebirth of wonder,” we can’t help wanting to believe he’s already found it.
Rating: 4 out of 4
(“FERLINGHETTI, A Rebirth of Wonder,” a First Run Features release, opened February 8th at the Quad Cinema in New York City. For ticket information visit www.firstrunfeatures.com or call (212) 243-0600).
Featured image: A 2000 studio photograph of a masked Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as seen in “FERLINGHETTI, A Rebirth of Wonder,” a film by Chris Felver. A First Run Features release. Photo Credit: Chris Felver.