Allen Ginsburg, the American Buffalo, Life on Other Planets, and a Young Person’s Dreams | Real Reels

This month’s key documentaries cover the life and times of Allen Ginsburg, the history of the American buffalo, sending messages to extraterrestrial life, and the dreams of a 24-year-old with cerebral palsy.

The American Buffalo. 240 min. PBS. 2023. DVD UPC 4188704747. $39.99.

Director Ken Burns’s latest epic tale of the fabric of American history is the story of a magnificent animal—the buffalo (technically the bison). No animal was as important to the American West and the Great Plains, from the Dakotas to the tall-grass prairies of Oklahoma. The bison has been sacred for centuries to Indigenous peoples, who use every part of the animal for survival. When bison were slaughtered by the millions for economic gain in the 19th century, it was a blow to Indigenous ways of life and to the environment of the American West. With a four-hour run time, Burns’s film leaves no element of the bison’s history untouched. Every tragedy, every positive link to culture, life, and art is covered here in a thought-provoking and respectful way. VERDICT Burns adds to his unparalleled oeuvre with this tragic yet hopeful tale of a most American animal.

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. 84 min. First Run Features. 1994. DVD UPC 2022991830. $24.99.

Poet, activist, and American cultural visionary Allen Ginsberg’s 1994 bio-documentary gets a re-release with over six hours of DVD extras. Director Jerry Aronson worked with Ginsberg for 25 years to compile material—audio, video, and photographs—for the film. The result is a comprehensive story of a complicated man who is indelibly linked with the beat and hippie movements of the 1950s–60s and whose counterculture influence is still vital decades after his death. This is a sensitive, open-hearted version of Ginsberg’s life, full of his powerful poems and philosophy. The abundant extras allow fans to fully immerse themselves. VERDICT A fearlessly introspective film about Ginsberg’s life and work.

A Message to the Stars. 53 min. Dreamscape. 2021. DVD UPC 1007144754. $17.49.

The possibility of extraterrestrial life has been in the news the last couple of years; now director Ruth Chao’s documentary delves into sending messages to (and receiving them from) outer space. It isn’t as simple as Earthlings sending out a quick intergalactic message; one must consider what to say and how, using what universal language. Scientists face still other, more philosophical questions—Is it dangerous to reach out? What is the nature of communication?—in their multidisciplinary quest for first contact. This is a complex endeavor, and the film struggles at times to successfully crystallize all the moving parts. VERDICT Slightly overcomplicated and repetitive, Chao’s documentary is still a nice introduction chronicling human attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial life.

Your Friend, Memphis. 95 min. Greenwich Entertainment. 2022. DVD UPC 3832926416. $19.99.

Twenty-four-year-old Memphis, who has cerebral palsy, dreams of independence, self-sufficiency, and creative success. His path won’t be easy. David Zucker’s film follows the likable Memphis as he embraces his cerebral palsy with an open honesty and joyful spirit, even as obstacles are placed in his path: state bureaucracy, a lack of job opportunities, dysfunctional parents. There are also matters of the heart (like Memphis’s unrequited feelings for a friend) in this poignant, melancholic, and hopeful film about a dreamer. VERDICT An intimate and bittersweet snapshot of a man with a disability, living life to the fullest.

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