Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 22, 2016 11:12 am 
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A marginalized Beat talent brought back to the light on film

Sometimes watching a documentary leads to a discovery, and this one offers Bob Kaufman, a figure in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950's you may never have heard of. (I had not). Kaufman was black and Jewish and a Beat poet, his work surreal, improvisational, and jazz inspired. He was born into a large family in New Orleans, served in the Merchant Marine, and spent years in San Francisco in cheap North Beach hotels. Though not as famous as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs or even Corso, whom he once proclaimed to his face "major minor," Bob Kaufman has a large following in France, and some of his books of poetry published by New Directions and City Lights are still in print. Titles are Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965, New Directions), Golden Sardine (1967, City Lights), and The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978 (1981, New Directions). There is also the posthumous Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman (1995, Coffee House Press). We hear enough excerpts to suggest Kaufman's prose-poetry vies with Ginsberg's for visionary hipness.

Neil Young's review of this documentary for Hollywood Reporter helps us to understand the context of this film, which is rich in archival footage, atmosphere, and jazz music, with interviews with City Lights editor and Beat chronicler Raymond Foye and denizens of North Beach cafes and academics. There is layering to this film. It is significant that black Beats were initially excluded from Beat anthologies. Billy Woodberry is himself a long-unseen African-American filmmaker who has been teaching at CalArts since 1989. He is part of a loose Seventies Southern California community of UCLA renegade filmmakers called L.A. Rebellion. It's 31 years since his feature film, Bless Their Little Hearts, a neo-realist study of a cash-strapped Watts family; he has been a collaborator of Charles Burnett of Killer of Sheep. His feature was plugged by his CalArts colleague Thom Andersen in the latter's epic film on the role of local locations in Hollywood movies, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003 & 2014). Now Woodberry is helping retrieve a forgotten black artist from obscurity.

Woodberry's film is a little weighed down by its droning talking heads toward the end, as so many documentaries are. But for a long time it remains wonderfully atmospheric and alive as the evocation of a time and place with its blend of jazz and old footage of San Francisco streets and North Beach cafes.

When I Die is historically and politically savvy, filling in where its subject fits. It seems Bob was a victim of stereotyping on several counts. In the Merchant Marine he joined a leftist seamen's union that was later outlawed, and the FBI followed him around. He remained an activist, and led the Beats in this role. During a time in New York in 1961 (in the Village, when the folk scene was taking off) he was sent to jail for a trivial offense and that led to Bellevue and Bellevue led to shock treatments. He returned to San Francisco a shell of his former self. After Kennedy's assassination he took a vow of silence that lasted ten years. The shattered man remained in North Beach, a doper and drinker and a wild dresser who abandoned his child to be raised by his wife. He was outrageous, jumping on cars, reciting his poetry, so often in the news, it's said, it was for him that columnist Herb Caen coined the term "beatnik." But the poetry went on and was admired by inner circles. Hanging in cafes, Kaufman or admirers might be reciting lines such as these by him evoking black life in deep irony (from "Bagel Shop Jazz"):

Coffee-faced Ivy Leaguers, in Cambridge jackets,
Whose personal Harvard was a Fillmore district step,
Weighted down with conga drums,
The ancestral cross, the Othello-laid curse,
Talking of Bird and Diz and Miles,
The secret terrible hurts,
Wrapped in cool hipster smiles,
Telling themselves, under the talk,
This shot must be the end,
Hoping the beat is really the truth.

Young notes the succinct, astute coverage of the political repression that came in at the end of the Forties, the mistreatment Kaufman suffered, but also some carelessness, uneven sound levels, typos in onscreen captions. And also the nice, resonant readings from Kaufman's lines by the likes of Roscoe Lee Browne, often with period-appropriate bongo-drum backup. Some collaborators compare Kaufman with Rimbaud and Lorca; one says he's more poetic than Ginsberg. Raymond Foye, who has become a chronicler of and authority on the Beats, tells how he (Foye) quit the Art Institute of Chicago (where he'd been studying avant-garde filmmaking with Stan Brakhage) in a bad Seventies winter, took his money out of the bank and went to North Beach. Checking into a cheap hotel he met this film's subject and said "Are you Bob Kaufman?" and he said "Sometimes," and, Foye says, "I knew I was home." Later he told Foye, unhelpfully, "My ambition is to be forgotten." This film will counter that aim a bit.

And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead, 89 mins., debuted at Vienna, also Doclisboa, in Oct. 2015; US theatrical premiere in Los Angeles 11 Jan. 2016. Also Rotterdam. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it shows 1 May 2016.

You can learn more about Bob Kaufman from a two-part program about him on Radio Free Amsterdam. A many-voiced audio portrait.

When I heard Anne Waldman performing Kaufman's poetry at the San Francisco Public Library with a saxophone and drum accompaniment I finally really started to get it, and laughed.


©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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