Before Netflix killed Blockbuster, Blockbuster killed the mom and pop video store. Maybe you had your favorite ma and pa shop, where under the surface of new releases you'd find the quirky, curated selections that reflected the mind of the owner.
When Allen Ginsberg lived in New York’s East Village, it was Kim’s Video, opened in 1987 by Yongman Kim. With so many artists frequenting its St. Marks Place location, Kim asked its more famous customers to share their lists of top ten favorite films. Ginsberg obliged. And you can now find his top 10 list online (in two parts: Part 1 - Part 2) thanks to The Allen Ginsberg Project.
Ginsberg's oldest choice is Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 Battleship Potemkin, which you can watch above. One must wonder if it was the very poetic editing that drew Ginsberg to the film, or something else, perhaps, maybe the film’s revolutionary nature?
Many of Ginsberg's choices reflect his interest in poetic realism, the French film movement that combined stories of real folks with sometimes very impressionist camera work. Three of its most famous proponents, Julian Duvivier, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carné appear on the Ginsberg list.
Julian Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937) is set in that most wonderful location for the Beat poets, Tangiers, and inspired Graham Greene to write The Third Man. Marcel Carné’s classic Children of Paradise (1945) makes the list, as does his 1938 film noir Port of Shadows. Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, which still tops many top 10 film lists today, is here too.
Another Frenchman, Jean Cocteau gets on the list twice, with two films from his Orphic trilogy, The Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orpheé (1950). The mix of the dreamlike and the erotic make a perfect choice for the poet.
Ginsberg saves space for Beat cinema, a lot of which is still not on DVD. Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960) is often called one of the main films of the Beat Generation, a largely improvised, low budget film about the artists and writers of San Francisco. It sadly remains unavailable on DVD, and one wonders if the film was even available at Kim’s, as it doesn’t appear to be on VHS either.
More available are his final two choices, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959), which was named after (and executed in a style similar to) an Exquisite Corpse-style poem written by Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neil Cassady in the late ‘40s. Also largely improvised, the film involves bohemian party crashers who make life complicated for a man and wife trying to impress a respectable bishop who’s come for dinner.
Lastly, Ginsberg names Harry Smith’s visionary cut-up animation masterpiece Heaven and Earth Magic (1957 - 1962), which you can see above. Smith was not just a superb filmmaker, but a great influence on the Beats through his interest in psychedelics and mysticism, as well as the man behind the American Anthology of Folk Music on Folkways records. A great friend of Ginsberg, Harry Smith gets the final tip of the hat.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.