A City light: Photographer Chris Felver's "Ferlinghetti" lionizes the SF poet who also happens to be the smartest guy in town.

SFIFF52: Chris Felver's "Ferlinghetti" Captures an Icon

David Winks Gray April 26, 2009

Chris Felver has kept up a friendship with doyen of local poets and founder of City Lights Books Lawrence Ferlinghetti for almost 30 years, and his new film Ferlinghetti is the product of that friendship. Combining footage that Felver has collected over the years with a few archival gems, Felver traces the life of his antiauthoritarian subject from his days as a Navy serviceman in World War II, through the landmark First Amendment trial sparked by his publishing of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, to the more recent use of City Lights’ upstairs windows as billboards protesting the Bush Administration’s wars. Interviews with writers like Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg and Dave Eggers testify to Ferlinghetti’s wide-ranging and continued influence.

Best known for his work as a photographer, Chris Felver’s enduring project has been a documentation of the creative life through a wide-ranging series of portraits of poets, musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers. His subjects smile back from the page in the warm poses that fill books like Beat and The Importance of Being, and he has also published tomes devoted to Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. As he states below, he sees his photography and filmmaking as pieces of the same process, and his newest work on Ferlinghetti appears as the natural continuation of a decades-long project circled around the poet. Ferlinghetti screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival (Tue., April 28, 6 p.m. and Thurs., April 30, 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki, Wed., May 6, 6:30 p.m., PFA). I spoke with Felver on the phone as he walked through Union Square in Manhattan, a day after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 90th birthday.

SF360: How did you first meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti? It seems that you’ve been filming him off and on since the early 1980s.

Chris Felver: I first met him at a Bukowski reading in the ’70s, and we started making a couple little short things about his paintings in 1980-81 and then he was going to Nicaragua, when Gary Snyder’s mother got ill, so he took me with him. That’s how we started our professional relationship. I was always making portraits of poets at the time with Poetry Flash, Joyce Jenkins’ review in Berkeley.

SF360: I’m curious about the trip to Nicaragua, which is documented in the film. Can you tell us a bit about how Ferlinghetti’s work was received there, and what importance that trip might have had for him and his politics?

Felver: The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal invited him down for the Ruben Dario Poetry Festival, and Ferlinghetti gave Cardenal a seed given to him by Vozneschensky, taken from Boris Pasternak’s grave. In Nicaragua they always said they were happier to see Lawrence than any of the politicians who came down. They were even happier to see him than the Pope, who had visited a few months before.

SF360: There’s a real wealth of archival footage in the film. How much of that footage did you film, and how much of it was found footage?

Felver: All the black-and-white footage was found, everything before 1978. Everything else, I filmed, I’m the cinematographer.

SF360: You appear to have an abiding interest in the Beats. Where did that begin, and where do you see Ferlinghetti fitting in with the other writers of the Beat Generation?

Felver: Well, like he says in the film, he’s not a Beat. But what is a Beat? Are there 20 or 30 Beats? 40 or 50? It can be a very large category. I did a book on the Beats, and in my book I include people like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, and Dizzy Gillespie.

But, with computers and the way things have changed, I think Ferlinghetti is the last of the old school. Soon it’ll be a different story. I just love writers. I love the creative spirit.

SF360: Many of the interview subjects in the film—people like Amiri Baraka, Dennis Hopper, Anne Waldman, and Gary Snyder—have also posed for your photographs. How did your work as a photographer aid you in making this film, and how does it affect your filmmaking practice more generally?

Felver: For me it’s all the same process. I went to the film school at the London College of Printing, which is where I made the film The Last Time I Saw Neal, and we had a motto, which was ‘any camera, any place, any time.’ I’ve tried to keep that as my motto since then.

SF360: The short clip in which Ferlinghetti puts on a mask and sits at his typewriter is very suggestive. Where does that footage come from? I’m also interested in the origins of the film that is included in which Ferlinghetti’s head is superimposed over footage of Nixon as Ferlinghetti reads a poem about him.

Felver: The Nixon footage is from a short film called Tyrannus Nix, which is also the name of the poem that Ferlinghetti is reading. The mask footage comes from extensive research. I just came across it, and thought it would be the perfect way to transition between his life and his work.

SF360: One of the strengths of the film is the sense that it gives of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s local importance, both in North Beach and in the entire city of San Francisco, with not only the creation of City Lights, but also his position as both mentor and publisher for many of the Beats. How do you see Ferlinghetti’s influence persisting today in the city?

Felver: He’s considered like Kenneth Rexroth was, a pater familias. I think he’s basically the smartest guy in town. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it; he’s the most well-rounded. But also, he’s like everyone else, he’s not pretentious. He’s a realist with a deep understanding that the human condition is constantly under political pressure from the state. He’s a working artist; almost every day he paints, he writes. The accessibility of his poems is what we love. It’s a public poetry, like Ginsberg said.

He’s one of our greatest poets, and he’s also been instrumental on the First Amendment with the Howl trial, and with everything he’s published at City Lights. And he’s been a great voice against the regime we just suffered through—the Bush administration.

This film’s really about a lifelong friendship. I made the film to celebrate with a new generation his heroic presence in the world community. You know Lawrence just turned 90, and when we get together we’re not suffering, it’s a joyous thing.

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