The exploits of poet, publisher, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti are undeniably relevant to a society that seemingly measures an artist’s success by his or her ability to nab a six- or seven-figure Coke or Capital One endorsement. Refusing to accept national grants to aid his self-published work and protesting America’s endless involvement in various war efforts before it was hip to do so, Ferlinghetti is a bracing affirmation of the possibility that we don’t necessarily have to entirely compromise ourselves in an effort to function in an aggressively capitalist society.
Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, sadly, isn’t the film to preserve Ferlinghetti’s legacy for the YouTube and iPod generation. It’s clear that director Christopher Felver holds Ferlinghetti in high esteem (he previously directed The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and has written a volume called Ferlinghetti Portrait), but that passion clouds his judgment, as the doc waffles between two incompatible structures. At times, the film is a mixture of varying forms of multimedia (archive footage, interviews, spoken verse) that recalls Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl in its effort to approximate the free-associative energy of the work of Ferlinghetti and the subsequent Beat legends he championed and mentored. At other times, Felver follows an elderly Ferlinghetti around as he visits with his family and reads verses aloud in a nostalgic gambit that recalls the Gary Snyder documentary The Practice of the Wild.
Though flawed, Howl managed to fleetingly capture the restless torment and rage that was almost certainly a driving force of the Beat movement, while The Practice of the Wild poignantly elaborated on the hard-won grace and contentment of a legend. But melding these methods together in the same film manages to render their respective potentials for empathy moot. The risks Ferlinghetti undertook throughout his life, particularly his decision to publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, are drained of their urgency by the footage of a contemporary Ferlinghetti watching his grown son blow out a birthday cake; the legend’s ultimate victories contextually appear to have been preordained. And the potential resonance of seeing a crusader of advancing years coming to a resigned and ambiguous rest is compromised by the occasional flashback to headier, more exhilarating times.
Felver adequately covers the highlights of Ferlinghetti’s life (his childhood abroad, his dawning political engagement, the opening of his City Lights Bookstore, etc.), but the film’s failures are more galling than they otherwise might be because it’s distressingly easy to imagine a contemporary teen rolling his or her eyes at the irrelevancy of these old fogies with their chants and beards and paperback books. This film is ultimately too rote and chaotic, too dull, to appeal to the imaginations of a generation that might not, tragically, grasp the loss of community that’s been engendered by the continuing evolution of social technology, by the everyday citizen’s increasingly insatiable hunger for gadgets at the expense of political engagement. Felver is too reverent to properly convey the invigoratingly profane, angry messiness of the sense of community that Ferlinghetti and his peers too briefly brought to life.