Widely proclaimed as the preeminent "underground" American poet of the postwar years, Allen Ginsberg (together with his colleagues Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, et al.) not only defined and epitomized Beat literature but vocalized the long inchoate yearnings of 1950s and '60s counterculture youth. An unrepentant rebel and an unabashed celebrator of stream-of-consciousness literature, mind-altering substances, homosexuality, and Marxism, Ginsberg carried an irrepressible spirit and a seemingly boundless humanism, only equaled by his contempt for war and the CIA. When Ginsberg died suddenly and unexpectedly in April 1997, fellow authors flocked to eulogize the author, paying unbridled homage to his contributions to the American literary canon.
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Though it is often forgotten in light of his enduring poetics, Ginsberg actually enjoyed a fascinating onscreen film career during the 1960s, typically as an actor in the low-budget films of New York's avant-garde. His cinematic appearances began with a turn as himself in Robert Frank's 28-minute "Beat" film Pull My Daisy (1959, a picture that also featured Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Ginsberg's lover of 30-plus years, Peter Orlovsky). After cameos in Andy Warhol's "do anything" experiment Couch (1964), and in Peter Whitehead's "Beat performance film" Wholly Communion (1965, a motion picture that documented the first joint public performance of American and English alternative poets), Ginsberg played, alongside William S. Burroughs, Ravi Shankar, and others, one of the hallucinogenic figures in Conrad Rooks' psychedelic mind-trip Chappaqua (1966). Ginsberg then re-teamed with director Frank, appearing as himself in the documentary Me and My Brother (1968), a cinematic exploration of Julius Orlovsky's bout with schizophrenia. After a cameo as himself in Robin Spry's May 1968 docudrama Prologue (1969), Ginsberg and Norman Mailer appeared together, protesting the Vietnam War, in American indie legend Jonas Mekas' "compilation" film Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1970). In 1978, Ginsberg read "Kaddish" in Bob Dylan's ill-advised, three-and-a-half-hour performance film Renaldo and Clara.
This more or less marked the extent of Ginsberg's avant-garde cinematic work, but he continued his filmed appearances during the '80s and '90s, this time in a far more conservative vein; most of the efforts were nostalgic documentaries about the 1950s and '60s counterculture that featured Ginsberg as an interviewee. These included Burroughs (1983), Kerouac (1984), Berkeley in the Sixties (1990), On the Road with Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (1994), Jonas in the Desert (1994), and (in a posthumous appearance) Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles (1999). ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi