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Wednesday, Apr 29 2009

The San Francisco poet, painter, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who just turned 90, is a well-traveled citizen of the world, a North Beach character whose tenure predates the Beats, a staunch member of the international left, and a seminal figure in the history of West Coast letters (not least for co-founding City Lights bookstore in 1953). Unfortunately, local photographer and filmmaker Chris Felver has little notion how to weave these disparate but interlinking threads into a compelling narrative, resulting in an audiovisual scrapbook that's more pastiche than portrait. Felver has known and filmed Ferlinghetti for more than 30 years, but their friendship doesn't enrich the film: The director confuses familiarity for intimacy, and offers admiration in lieu of revelation. (He also has an ill-advised tendency toward literalism, illustrating the sequence on the poet's smash collection A Coney Island of the Mind with, I kid you not, vintage amusement park shots.) The documentary's most resonant section revisits the 1956-'57 furor engendered by Ferlinghetti's publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, providing a taste of a time when poets were the most dangerous people in America. For a few delicious moments, we're touched instead of told, and inspired rather than informed.

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Michael Fox


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