'The Ballad of Greenwich Village'

Listen to the film's bongos—go, big daddy, go, yah! It's all going to come flooding back as you walk among the drunk T-shirts and the rich who now own the garrets—Greenwich Village, beginning in the l850s, la Paris, has always celebrated exactly what mattered: cheese, picketing, poetry, typewriter keys, sex. It was "mecca," says Norman Mailer, sitting at the White Horse in his blue sweater. Karen Kramer's hopeful, lovingly made documentary, a ballad with a recurrent refrain, never lets us forget that the spirit will not die. It lives in the wet wood at the Bitter End, in every romantic who flees Idaho, sobbing onto the page—in all, the eternal recurrence of revolt, youth, and art. Kramer, a respected New York–based filmmaker since her 1978 Appalachian snake-handling church film, uses a straightforward presentation to tell the story of a twisting, alternative land. Information and short, close-up, passionate interviews rule: Tim Robbins ("horrible gentrification"), Woody Allen (on Eugene O'Neill), Maya Angelou (feeling like "Brer Rabbit in the briar patch"). In 70 minutes, partly filled with archival Kodachrome's soft rosy glow, Kramer filters down an enormous history. Think of having to choose just one Washington Square protest, one NYU takeover, one drag queen, one Living Theater performer jumping up and down and screaming. Lili Taylor narrates.

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