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Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder: Film Review

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder - P 2013
Chris Felver

The Bottom Line

This affectionate documentary doesn't do full justice to its important subject.

Director-producer

Christopher Felver

Christopher Felver's documentary deals with the life and career of the legendary poet and social activist.

Considering that its subject is the iconic poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Christopher Felver’s Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is surprisingly prosaic. This loving documentary certainly covers all the biographical bases in its subject’s life as well as providing him plenty of opportunity to read from his work. But considering the importance of the still-active 93-year-old poet’s art and social activism, the film seems slight and discursive, more of an introduction than a definitive portrait.

Felver, an acclaimed photographer who’s already made one film about Ferlinghetti, clearly has an affinity for his subject. He wisely allows the poet free rein to provide a running commentary about his event-filled life and career, which includes not only the million-selling collection A Coney Island of the Mind but also the founding of the legendary City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

That store’s publishing division provides the film’s most dramatic chapter, the 1957 trial in which Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem Howl. He eventually was acquitted on the grounds that the work had redeeming social value, in a case that laid the groundwork for many First Amendment battles to follow

Ginsberg and such fellow Beat writers as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Michael McClure -- Ferlinghetti denied that he was in their ranks -- are given prominent attention in the proceedings. McClure is one of its many interview subjects, who also include Dave Eggers, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder and the late Dennis Hopper (the film was completed in 2009).

But it’s the irrepressible Ferlinghetti himself who infuses this cinematic portrait with much-needed vibrancy. Whether discussing his Italian immigrant parents, his wartime experiences -- which included going to Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bombing -- his co-founding of the invaluable City Lights Bookstore, his acclaimed work as a painter and the political activism that hit its fever pitch in the Vietnam War-era but continues unabated, he’s an endlessly articulate, engaging presence. And one who deserves a more substantial documentary treatment.

Opens Feb. 8 (First Run Features)
Production: Felver Photography, Physical Features
Director-producer: Christopher Felver
Editor: Brett Marty
Composers: Rick DePofi, David Amram
No rating, 79 minutes