FERLINGHETTI: A Rebirth of Wonder

A Film by Christopher Felver


Lawrence Ferlinghetti fans as well as people who’ve never heard of this iconic author, painter, publisher, and activist will enjoy Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder – a documentary film by Christopher Felver released in June 2013 — thanks to the movie’s “Wow! Did that really happen?” factor.

You might call Ferlinghetti “fate’s chosen son” – judging by the incredible coincidences and strokes of luck that came his way. Granted, Ferlinghetti knew how to seize the moment – as in 1953 when he stopped at the just-opened Pocket Book Shop (the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S.) at 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco and made a deal on the spot to go into business with the owner (Peter D. Martin), who also published a small literary magazine called City Lights. The renamed City Lights Bookstore – a nod to Charlie Chaplin and his character “The Tramp,” who fought the system in the 1931 movie City Lights – became a magnet for artists and writers and reinvented the bookstore as cultural epicenter, meeting place, and hangout.

A few years later, in 1955, Ferlinghetti was again in the right place at the right time when he attended Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. The next day, Ferlinghetti – by this time a publisher – sent Ginsberg a telegram offering to publish the poem (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”).

The decision to publish “Howl” led to a 1957 obscenity trial where Ferlinghetti and co-defendant Shig Murao, City Lights manager, risked prison to defend First Amendment rights. When the presiding judge ruled that “Howl” was not obscene, a new chapter in American Arts & Letters opened – ushering in the publication of now-classic novels by William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and many other avant garde writers.

What I appreciated most about Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder was the personal side of Ferlinghetti’s story – again, with fate playing a starring role. In a range of interviews, Ferlinghetti shares aspects of his childhood, noting that much of his story is “out of Dickens.” Yes, this is Dickens in overdrive – and I don’t want to give away too much, because here the “Wow! Did that really happen?” factor is in full bloom. From his birth on March 24, 1919 through his WWII service in the U.S. Navy, Ferlinghetti leads a life that is alternately heartbreaking, charmed, blessed, harrowing, and sublime.

Still going strong at age 94 – on May 30, 2013 an exhibit of his paintings opened in San Francisco – Ferlinghetti shows us what it means to “live a life well lived.”

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is a loving portrait of the artist as both a young and old man – a celebration of an American icon who personifies what it means, and what it takes, to have the courage of your convictions and put it all on the line for your beliefs and your art. Today, everyone in the arts owes Lawrence Ferlinghetti a debt of gratitude – and watching this wonderful documentary is a place to start.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is available on DVD