Volume 74, Number 15 | August 11 - 17 , 2004



From Allen’s ‘Ohmm’ to HOWL! ’04, Beat goes on

By Jerry Tallmer

Allen Ginsberg sits at his kitchen table, a morning cup of coffee before him. The open window behind him looks out on an early sun washing clean the Lower East Side’s Alphabet City, the very territory that’s to be infiltrated for a week starting next Tues., Aug. 17, by the second annual big blooming Festival of East Village Arts that takes its name of HOWL! from the poem Allen wrote that gave hope, fear and validation not just to the Beat Generation but to three going on four succeeding generations now.

In the film we are watching — it opens the motion-picture portion of the festival 7 p.m. Wed., Aug. 18, at E. 12th St.’s Cinema Village — Allen at that kitchen table is in a neat, light summer jacket and dark necktie, beard neatly cropped, just starting to grow gray around the edges.

He is not reading or reciting from “Howl” or, for that matter, from “Kaddish,” his wrenching, hollowing long poem about the madness and death of his mother, but he is indeed calmly and quietly talking about that mother’s shuttling in and out of such as Greystone State Hospital, a scar on her head from the lobotomy — beseeching “Allen, take me home!” — and it is almost too much to bear.

The movie, quite appropriate to open this or any other HOWL! festival, is Jerry Aronson’s 84-minute documentary, or bio-mentary, “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” first released in 1984 and now re-released as a director’s cut incorporating new, updated, remastered footage.

It is about Allen Ginsberg, yes. But it is also about the life and times of all of us, these past and present 70 years, with terrible relevance just at this moment, with what well might be a replay of 1968 Chicago coming up for four days starting Aug. 30 at Madison Square Garden, with no Allen Ginsberg to cool the fury, stanch the bloodletting with pacifying chants of “OMMMMMMMM!”

That traumatic year, 1968, the year of Chicago, of assassinations (Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., almost George Wallace), of student revolution in Paris, and of Soviet tanks putting an end to Prague Spring, was also the year of playwright Michael McClure’s sexual-political shocker, “The Beard,” and mild, soft-spoken McClure is on hand in this film to establish the zeitgeist of the post-Eisenhower era:

“The people in the streets were white men with crew cuts . . . Young men were looked on as cannon fodder . . . the American Dream . . . a time of deep psychic pain . . . “ — or what Norman Mailer termed a near national nervous breakdown.

Norman is on hand here, too, to say generous (and accurate) things about Allen Ginsberg, himself the most completely generous of men. “That poem [‘Howl’] had an immense effect on me,” says Mailer. “I’d never known any poetry that intense.”

And then, in the 1968 Chicago section, Mailer tells how prescient Ginsberg had been, six months earlier, foreseeing the violence to come at the hands of Mayor Daley’s club-wielding, tear-gassing cops, and how scared he, Ginsberg, had also been.

Scared, but there. Mailer puts his finger on it, indeed puts his finger on everything: “To my mind, Allen [was the exemplification of] courage transcending fear.”

Not just vs. Daley’s cops. In everything, including — most notably including — Ginsberg’s unwavering homosexuality.

But speaking of cops, there is one delicious moment in “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.” It’s 1967. John Lennon, Yoko Ono and thousands of others are singing: “Give peace a chance.” Allen, surrounded by young and old, is “OMMMMMM-ING” in, it looks like, Hyde Park. Suddenly a handsome, tall-helmeted London bobby materializes. He walks over to Allen Ginsberg, leans in . . . and whispers what appears to be a polite request in his ear.

The 2004 HOWL! Festival of East Village Arts, presented by FEVA (the Federation of East Village Artists), actually starts, as noted, Tues., Aug. 17, with a party, a Karen Finley performance, an art auction, a guitar concert and some 50 other events of music, dance, poetry, what have you.

Festival founder Phil Hartman looks forward to an increase beyond last year’s 100,000 attendees. “I think the Republican National Convention will inspire HOWL! ’04 to new levels of outrage and outrageousness,” he says. But where will Ginsberg be to quiet things with his OMMMMMM? Only in this film.

Little festivals within the main festival include a Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, a Wigstock, an Art Around the [Tompkins Sq.] Park — in which Tompkins Sq. will be ringed with paintings done on the scene — a Way-the-F—- -Off-Broadway, an Avenue A Processional and an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Festival.

There will be workshops in didgeridoo and African guitar, poetry readings by the likes of Taylor Mead, a bluegrass festival, a HOWL! Jr. children’s festival and much more.

For schedules and all other details, call FEVA at 212-505-2225, or visit www.howlfestival.com.

The dozens of other films include “We Interrupt This Empire,” “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” “The Mammals of Victoria” (by the late Stan Brakhage), “Resist” (about the Living Theater), “Scenes From an Endless War,” “The Carlyle Connection,” “The Blame Show: Before You Don’t Vote,” Penny Arcade and Steve Zehentner’s “Sex, Politics, and Reality” and “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.”

The Aug. 18 screening of “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” a New Yorker Films release, at Cinema Village also marks the start of its commercial run there. If for nothing else, this documentary should be treasured for the inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s snapshot of Jack Kerouac on their fire escape, in profile, in the 1950s (?), cigarette in hand, incredibly handsome.

But there is much else. “Well, while I’m here,” Allen had written upon the death of Kerouac, “I’ll do the work — and what’s the Work? To ease the pain of living / Everything else, drunken dumbshow.”

He left us on April 5, 1997. Before that, Allen Ginsberg eased plenty of pain.

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