Wednesday, May 18, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Gordon Ball on life around the Beats
and his longtime career in academia
|Conversations: Looking back|
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A longtime friend of Allen Ginsberg, Gordon Ball has done his share of documenting the Beat generation through the lens and the pen.
Among his many accomplishments, he has made 14 independent films and co-edited with Ginsberg the book “Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics and Consciousness,” which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Selected works by the VMI professor will be on display in Blacksburg’s Armory Gallery next week, and Ball himself will be in town to offer a reading of some of his writings. Here he gives a look back at how it all started, and shares some thoughts on the nature of his films.
How did you know Allen Ginsberg?
I’ve known him a long time, and worked with him on various literary and artistic projects. Among them, I edited three books with him and also took many, many photographs of him and his colleagues in the Beat Generation.
What is the upcoming show going to feature?
It consists of 21 prints, 21 photographs that I took from the years 1969 to 1997, starting in the fall of 1969 when I was on a farm with Allen Ginsberg and other poets in upstate New York. The first shot you’ll see is one made just two days before the death of Kerouac. And then it goes up until the time of Ginsberg’s death, and includes a couple of shots at his funeral in New York. And in between are shots at Boulder, Colo., at the Buddhist school where he taught for many years: Naropa Institute. Also there’s a shot from VMI — he was here; there’s a shot of cadets reading “Howl.” There are shots of other colleagues: Orlovsky, William Burroughs the novelist, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other poets and writers.
What’s the brief history, back in the day, of how all this started to happen?
I went to Davidson College and I was running the film program there for the student union, the campus film program — that was sort of my extra-curricular specialty; for decades I had been in love with film. And I had the opportunity to invite an experimental filmmaker, Jonas Mekas … Jonas came to campus, gave me a camera. I ended up going to New York in the fall of 1966 and working for Jonas and met a lot of people there, including another young filmmaker, Barbara Rubin, who is to be the subject of an article in “Art Forum” this summer, as I understand it. She was kind of an inspiration to a lot of people. She introduced The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, for instance. She brought a lot of people together. So she and I became friends. And it was her idea that she and her friend Allen Ginsberg and a couple of others should start a farm in upstate New York, which Allen sort of wanted to do anyway as a refuge for friends of his who needed to get away from the city. So that’s how I ended up on the farm … where I ended up staying for three years.
So you got your doctorate in 1980, and started teaching at VMI in 1989. What about the eighties?
I taught a couple of years at ODU in Norfolk. And I had a Fulbright Lectureship in Tokyo. I had grown up in Tokyo, and that’s where I first saw film seriously … You go to these wonderful theatres and see movies on huge screens. I did that frequently as a kid growing up in Tokyo, which was then the world’s largest city. I had a Fulbright back to Tokyo in ‘83, and took my wife and daughter for that year. And then I taught four years at a historically black college right outside of Jackson, Miss.: Tougaloo College.
What about your films?
I’ve made 14 films. They’re all of a personal nature. Many of them are autobiographical. One is a film about teaching in Poland; I taught two summers in Poland before the fall of the wall, in ‘86 and ‘88, and made a film about that. One is a film on the death of my mother … They’re just about my life … I’ve gone through periods of shooting almost every day, diaristically rather than working with scripted material … While I shoot spontaneously and without a plan a lot, I do at the same time sometimes have a voice-over script. In other words, I don’t make movies with actors and actresses. My work is too close to my life, so I don’t plan things out in that way … I don’t make narrative films in the usual sense of that word; I don’t make theatrical films. I guess you could say I make lyrical films.
Is there an over-arching aesthetic aim for you?
Yeah, being true to the circumstances of my life. Trusting in the notion that if I can get to the heart of that, then there will be something of interest to someone else, or something that might affect someone else.
That’s not the easiest conviction in the world to maintain, is it?
What do you think is the compulsion to record, to record life?
A sense that life is sacred. Each moment passing.