‘Abstract Alchemist of Flesh’ is an offbeat look at a Beat writer

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In a surprisingly small theater at the East Bay Media Center, the 2013 Berkeley Video and Film Festival started inauspiciously with veggies, hummus, wine and cheese. Michael McClure, legendary poet and star of the documentary “Abstract Alchemist of Flesh,” sat unobtrusively in one of the few neat rows of stackable chairs with the rest of the attendees Friday. McClure’s wispy white head surveyed the room as a benevolent ruler, at once powerful and humble. He chatted with the patrons and snacked and smiled so genuinely as to put everyone there at ease.

The documentary, directed by U.K. filmmaker Colin Still, explores McClure’s participation in counterculture endeavors, chronicling his life from his famous first poetry reading in 1955 — the unofficial start of the Beat Movement — through the ’60s and all its psychedelics, madness and insight.

McClure told The Daily Californian about this time in his own words. “I was part of an enormous burst of creativity that came out of painting and all the arts simultaneously. It didn’t distinguish between the arts — we didn’t distinguish between poetry and music or between poetry and painting or between poetry and painting and music. It was all seen as art.”

Throughout the film, friends and collaborators, such as Ray Manzarek of the Doors, read McClure’s work and offer anecdotes  that paint the poet as half Hemingway, half Buddha. Grainy footage of Allen Ginsberg shimmying and old photos of devilishly handsome young men are juxtaposed with wide-eyed interviews and endearing sincerity of youthful ambition. “It was a cold, bitter ’50s, and we spoke out against it. And we kept on doing so, and we kept on doing so,” McClure said on the passionate stance of these counterculture activists.

The most prominent feature of “Alchemist” is its humor. McClure and his buddies joke over the past as well as McClure’s poetry, which in this context is incredibly accessible. The viewer feels the depth of emotion in McClure’s poetry through the forceful reverberations in his recent voiceovers and old performance videos. McClure explains communication’s imperfections through noises and grunts. “To bring a greater awareness of man as being a mammal — and if he was less than a mammal, he was less than a man — if that makes sense to you,” McClure said when asked about his reason for writing. This awe-inspiring silliness is the crux of the documentary.

In the film’s climax, Still’s panel discusses McClure’s famed poetry stunt at the San Francisco Zoo. Scenes of McClure reading excerpts from his “Ghost Tantras” to caged lions are interspersed with commentary. Everyone interviewed giggled unabashedly, remembering the raw absurdity of McClure’s guttural roars and the lions’ bellowing replies. But no one interviewed minimized the importance of that occurrence. McClure writes poetry to unite all living beings, his roaring volleys being interspecies art.

However, the film falls short in showing interaction between genders. McClure recalls his greatest influences, none of whom are female. Also, though the cast of interviewees in “Alchemist” is small, the only two women are McClure’s ex- and current wives. This is understandable in portraying the homoerotically charged boys’ club of the Beat Generation but less so in portraying the more liberated ’60s and ’70s.

“I would say that Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and I were like senior figures to those younger freedom-lovers. And they listened to us, and we listened to them, and we learned from everybody,” McClure explained about the hippie mentality.

“Abstract Alchemist of Flesh” portrays a beautifully eloquent, curious young man and those who surrounded him. McClure joked, “Things always happen around me. It’s their fate.” This documentary proves that quip to be eerily accurate.

Contact Cara Cerino at [email protected].

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