Ferlinghetti: A City Light (2009)

Genres - Language & Literature  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Literary Studies  |   Release Date - Feb 8, 2013 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 79 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Mark Deming

In his book on the Beat writers of the 1950s and '60s, Harvey Pekar wrote, "Poetry and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have done very well for each other." Ferlinghetti was, with the exception of Allen Ginsberg, the most celebrated figure to rise from the Beat poetry community, but while he managed to sell more than a million copies of his book A Coney Island of the Mind (an unheard of figure for a poetry collection), his love of the form didn't merely benefit himself. Ferlinghetti was a tireless champion of other writers he admired; he opened one of America's most celebrated bookstores, San Francisco's City Lights Books, to promote the sort of literature other shops weren't willing to carry. Ferlinghetti then went a step further, creating a publishing house to put the work of important writers and poets in print. Ferlinghetti's City Lights Publishing issued Ginsberg's first book, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, and when the work was hit with an obscenity suit, Ferlinghetti partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to defend the book in court. Judge Clayton Horn declared that Howl was not obscene as it possessed literary merit and redeeming social importance, and the case opened the doors for the free publication of many watershed literary works.

All of this points to the fact that Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a genuinely important figure in 20th century American culture, but one thing that becomes clear early on in Christopher Felver's documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder (aka Ferlinghetti) is that he is a man who stubbornly refuses to take himself seriously. In Ferlinghetti's world, poetry is important, art is important, free expression is important, global politics are important, and the environment is important. Ferlinghetti himself, however, is a "Zen fool," and happily so. In the film, he cites Charlie Chaplin as one of his heroes and a potent source of inspiration, and one can see in his attitude a bit of the Little Tramp, a man whose rumpled dignity doesn't disguise his desire to make mischief and give those who deserve it a kick in the pants. Except where Chaplin never spoke, Ferlinghetti uses his words with the same playful élan Chaplin used with his body.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder also makes it clear that the poet's buoyant approach to life and creation did not come easily. Ferlinghetti's father died before he was born, his mother fell into a severe post-partum depression that led her to give up her son, and he was left with an aunt who was forced to place him with an orphanage for a while. The aunt later found work as a domestic with a wealthy family, and they took young Lawrence under their wing, supporting him and providing him with an excellent education. While Ferlinghetti doesn't dwell much on his childhood (which he jokes is like "something out of Dickens"), there is a sequence where he visits Italy, and after tracking down the house where his father once lived, becomes frustrated when he can't go inside. Glimmers of the sadness and disappointment of his childhood are visible in his face.

But a more powerful moment comes when Ferlinghetti talks about his experiences in the Army during World War II, particularly the day his company visited Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bomb had been dropped on the Japanese city. Ferlinghetti says the experience made him "an instant pacifist," and the poet's activist streak comes through very strongly in this film. Ferlinghetti, a self-proclaimed anarchist, never seems more serious and engaged than when he talks about issues of social justice, and near the end of the film, he's shown tending to his "public blog," placing hand-painted signs that express his progressive beliefs in the windows of City Lights.

As compelling as Ferlinghetti's story may be and as passionate as he is in his beliefs, what really makes Christopher Felver's film something to watch is Ferlinghetti himself. The poet is a great and enthusiastic storyteller, whether he's talking about painting, anarchy, or Jack Kerouac, and Felver is smart enough to let the man's words carry the film, even when his friends and admirers chime in as well.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is as breezy and entertaining as the man it celebrates, and just as the poet is in love with the world around him, the film can't hide its admiration for someone who has done so much and still feels compelled to do more each day, spreading some joy as he goes along.