Running Time: 82 minutes
Premiere: San Francisco Intn'l Film Festival - April 28, 2009
The poet and writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti is an iconic presence in the world of arts and letters. For well over half a century he has helped shape the currents of poetry and literature through his forceful engagement with society. Armed with an ideological position that often found him at odds with the political dogma of his day, Ferlinghetti became the best selling poet of the modern era, a literary mercenary and a rebel at the forefront of a cultural revolution.
In this definitive documentary, director Christopher Felver crafts an incisive, sharply wrought portrait that reveals Ferlinghetti's true role as catalyst for numerous literary careers and for the Beat movement itself. Felver's one-on-one interviews with Ferlinghetti, made over the course of a decade, touch upon a rich mélange of characters and events that began to unfold in postwar America. These events include the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, as well as the divisive events of the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, and this country's perilous march towards intellectual and political bankruptcy. Since its inception in 1953, Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore quickly became an iconic literary institution that embodied social change and literary freedom. Continuing to thrive for over five decades, it is a cornerstone of America's modern literary and cultural history.
Ferlinghetti explores the world of San Francisco's legendary poet, artist, publisher and civil libertarian. Presenting himself as a living presence in poetry, Mr. Ferlinghetti reads many of his significant poems, discusses his political and social activism, and gives viewers an insight into his public and private life as it unfolds over nine remarkable decades. His ideological identity began to coalesce soon after visiting the ruins of Nagasaki – just weeks after the devastation of the atomic bomb in 1945 – an event which he says transformed him into "an instant pacifist." Ferlinghetti's newfound skepticism regarding the power of the state materialized into his unique brand of political activism shortly after he moved to San Francisco and made the acquaintance of Kenneth Rexroth.
The political principles he infused into his poetry, rooted in anarchist thought and civil libertarianism, quickly spread throughout the world — even cited as one of the primary catalysts of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Back at home, the Beat Generation's rebellion against the social conservatism of the 1950's jump-started social awareness and permanently impacted the tone and character of American culture. And it was Ferlinghetti's infamous censorship trial – for his publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl in 1956 – versus the City of San Francisco that launched the social rebellion of the Beats into national consciousness. By winning the trail, Ferlinghetti set a precedent that secured the First Amendment rights of publishing in this country and preserved the freedom of speech in literature. He set the foundation for successive generations of First Amendment activists: the musicians, poets, authors, and filmmakers who continue to protect our freedom of speech today.
The film features archival photographs and historical footage, with appearances by Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Billy Collins, Dennis Hopper, Robert Scheer, Dave Eggers, and Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder. The appearance of numerous other prominent figures from the literary, political, and art community further underscore the enormous social impact Ferlinghetti's legacy continues to have on the American cultural scene. As he reads from A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti manifests what it means to be a rebel poet, a renegade publisher and a true bearer of the Whitman tradition. And despite being the bestselling poet in modern literature, his place in the history of American literature was not carved out by his pen alone. With his publishing house at City Lights, he has championed the writings of countless other writers and continues to turn successive generations on to poetry. This film hopes to further educate the general public as to why Lawrence Ferlinghetti is easily one of the preeminent figures of modern political activism and perhaps the most influential artist in the history of American literature since the 1950s.