There wasn’t a lack of berets at the screening of “Ferlinghetti” on Tuesday, that’s for sure. There also wasn’t a lack of your usual San Francisco filmgoing…eccentrics, as was evidenced by the questions asked during the post-movie Q&A session.
The documentary, by director Christopher Felver, is a portrait of the legendary San Francisco beat poet, book publisher, and City Lights proprietor Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The focus is on the man and his work, and less on the beat movement in general, but his influence on the scene is undeniable, and it’s unlikely San Francisco would have built the literary reputation it has without the presence of Ferlinghetti. Unfortunately, what we learn about him leaves a lot of stuff out. It’s only until close to the end of the film that we learn he has kids and (had?) a wife. (That’s not really made clear, as she isn’t discussed, and is only shown in a photo.) The extent of his current involvement with City Lights also isn’t addressed. The movie is a portrait, but not a biography.*
After the movie, Ferlinghetti took the stage to give a very brief thank you to the director for making it (although he admitted he felt the director presented a portrait free of warts, and he thought a few warts should have been thrown in) and to the audience for coming out to see it. After that Christopher Felver took the stage to answer audience questions, and that’s when the cringe-inducing moments began. Two separate people felt compelled to talk about Timothy Leary (who plays no part in the movie, and is only seen briefly in a crowd scene) and both seemed to hold grudges against the guy, (apparently, he got all his LSD from the CIA, and was nothing but a big phony). Another person asked about drug use during the beatnik era (although the way the question was phrased made it sound like she was wondering about drug portrayals IN the movie, of which there weren’t any). And another woman asked about the lack of women in the film. Which was actually a good question. Felver didn’t really address it, though, instead saying he did the best he could. But really, women were always underrepresented during the beatnik era. It seems like the beats were willing to rage against a lot of things, but sexism wasn’t one of them. Later, as my father, Alan, and I discussed the movie over some noodles at Sapporo-Ya, he pointed out that the beats were kind of the last gasp of machismo in art. Ain’t no room for chicks in that!
My dad, back in the day, was an aspiring beatnik, and though younger than the guys who pioneered the movement, he still found himself crossing paths with some of them more than once. The best story he has about that is probably the time he found himself in New York with no place to stay, so he called Allen Ginsberg’s roommate, Peter Orlovsky, who he had met the previous summer, to see if he could crash at their place. Orlovsky said that he could crash in Allen’s room, since he wasn’t there that night, but my dad would have to leave first thing in the morning because the landlord was a “hardass.” Once there, Orlovsky showed my dad the place, and where he’d be sleeping, and admonished him, more than once with, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth.” He was very adamant about it. Strange thing was, to get to the bathroom, you had to go through his room, and my dad didn’t want to disturb the guy, so he just went to sleep.
The next morning, the first thing Orlovsky said to my dad was, “You didn’t…brush…your teeth.”
A weirdly disguised attempt to get my father into his room in the middle of the night? Or just a guy obsessed with oral hygiene? We’ll never know. But at least my dad has a good beatnik story to share with the ages.
The SFIFF screens Ferlinghetti again today at 4 at the Kabuki, and next Wednesday, May 6, at 6:30 at the PFA. Info.
*Ordinarily, here’s where Rain would tell you more about the movie, but since the SFIFF asked us to hold off on reviewing the film for now, that’s all she could say.