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Beat These Films!
Over the past three years there have been no less than four narrative films about the beat generation, starting with “Howl” in September 2010. Walter Salles’s “On the Road” followed in 2012, and then just a month ago “Kill Your Darlings”, about Ginsberg and Kerouac at Columbia University, arrived. And now there is “Big Sur” that opens on November first at the Cinema Village in New York. All of these films reflect continued interest in the lives and work of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al, motivated in large part by a new generation of “hipsters” needing to understand what Ginsberg called “the Nightmare of Moloch”. This article will assess the four films as well as a BBC documentary featuring Russell Brand that traces Kerouac’s itinerary in “On the Road”, a film that says more about Brand than it does about Kerouac. It will conclude with some thoughts about the connections between the beats and the radical movement, something that deserves a book of its own.
“Howl” borders on mockumentary with a reenactment of the obscenity trial of 1957 that pitted Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing company against the forces of law and order embodied by a district attorney played by Jeff Daniels (cast perhaps for his lead in “Dumb and Dumber”) who tells the court that “Howl” was not genuine literature because it imitated the form of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. When the defense attorney asks him whom Whitman imitated, he could not answer. James Franco, who is a mediocre actor and an even more mediocre writer, plays Allen Ginsberg. Thankfully, the film survives Franco mostly on the virtues of its faithfulness to the event, a trial that along with those involving “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” broke the chains of sexual censorship just as the free speech movement at Berkeley would break those on politics. The film is available as a DVD from Netflix and Amazon streaming.
The Brazilian director Walter Salles was no newcomer to road movies when he decided to make “On the Road”. His “Central Station” was a powerful study of a bus and hitchhiking odyssey made by a middle-aged woman and a homeless 9-year old boy in search of his father in the remote Northeast region of Brazil. Even more closely related is his “Motorcycle Diaries” based on Che Guevara’s trip through Latin America that blended political commitment with the “living in the moment” spirit of “On the Road”. Although Kerouac was apolitical when he made his cross-country trips, he shared Guevara’s empathy with ordinary working people.
That being said, “On the Road” is an unmitigated disaster, which is still worth watching for anybody curious about the beat generation and how artists and actors involved with such a project perceive it. Francis Ford Coppola was the executive producer of the film, who bought the film rights in 1979. Apparently Kerouac always had a film project in the back of his mind since he sent Marlin Brando a one-page proposal in 1957 suggesting that Brando play Neal Cassady and that Kerouac would play himself. Now that’s a film I would have given my eyeteeth to see—unfortunately Brando was not interested.
The film includes a number of big-name actors in cameo roles that almost make it interesting. Viggo Mortenson plays William S. Burroughs and Steve Buscemi plays a salesman who pays the Neal Cassady character for sex. It can safely be assumed that such actors would have agreed to perform for scale since they obviously identified with the beats.
What the film lacks, and perhaps anything based on “On the Road” would lack, is Kerouac’s unique voice and vision incorporated in his prose style. The dialog of Jose Rivera’s screenplay (he fared better in “Motorcycle Diaries”) is wooden and the episodes selected were almost uniformly uninspiring. There is simply no way that a camera could convey what Kerouac wrote close to the end of “On the Road”:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
Ironically, these words are heard in a voice-over at the very end of the film and serve as a reminder of what the film medium cannot convey, even if it has replaced the novel as the ultimate art form of late capitalism. Ultimately the mind’s eye is more powerful than any camera, even one using 70-millimeter film.
“On the Road” can be seen on Youtube after paying a modest fee to Google Inc. but not on the usual venues including Netflix. It looks like Google has figured out a way to make money from Youtube.
The first half-hour or so of “Kill Your Darlings” by first-time director and screenwriter John Krokidas contains some of the most stunning dialog I have heard in an American film in quite some time. The exchanges between freshman Allen Ginsberg and upperclassman Lucien Carr in their Columbia University dorm that revolve around art, sexuality, and society are a reminder that screenwriting is key to the success of any film. Based on the real life friendship of Carr, a key figure in the emergence of the beat generation who never wrote anything himself, and Ginsberg, who is Carr’s disciple and to whom the first edition of “Howl” is dedicated, we understand what guts it took to stand up to conventional thinking about literature in the 1940s when Ogden Nash—their bête noir—was considered the nation’s greatest poet. Carr is constantly turning Ginsberg on to modernist classics, from Rimbaud to Yeats. The young man is primed for a break with the formalism incorporated in his father’s poetry. With his embrace of rhyme and meter, Louis Ginsberg was a dominant Oedipal figure to be overthrown.
Daniel Radcliffe, the lead in all the Harry Potter films who is now 24 years old, plays Ginsberg. This was a clever choice since Columbia University was a sort of training camp for aspiring wizard-poets. Besides evoking the Potter films, “Kill Your Darlings” will also remind you of the great “Brideshead Revisited” adaptation on PBS that featured a decadent and wealthy upperclassman seducing a straight-laced freshman.
Unfortunately the film goes downhill to some extent after it becomes more and more a conventional melodrama focused on Lucien Carr’s murder of David Kammerer, an older gay man who has stalked Carr from city to city. Carr spent only 18 months in prison, taking advantage of a loophole in the homicide law that allowed leniency for a heterosexual male “defending” himself against a gay man. Director Krokidas, a gay man, makes the case that Carr was gay as well. Whatever the facts, the killing and the subsequent arrests of Burroughs and Kerouac as material witnesses are not so nearly as interesting as the bull sessions that took place in Carr’s dorm room or their trysts downtown to Chelsea and the Village looking for excitement.
“Kill Your Darlings” is still playing in New York City theaters. Look for it at better theaters in your hometown.
Unlike Salles’s “On the Road”, “Big Sur” benefits from a voice-over throughout the entire film with the Kerouac character reading from the 1962 novel that was essentially his swan song.
I discovered “On the Road” in 1960, a book completed in 1951 and published in 1957. Given the boundless energy and enthusiasm of Kerouac’s first novel, I expected “Big Sur” to be more of the same. I was shocked to discover that “Big Sur” had more in common with “Under the Volcano” or “Miss Lonelyhearts”, novels about personal crisis and terminal despair.
Kerouac was 40 years old when “Big Sur” was published and pretty much washed up as a writer and a human being. He was an alcoholic hooked on port wine and tired of being a celebrity. He decided to go on a retreat in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur in one last-ditch effort at spiritual self-discovery and a release from bad karma.
Temptation came in the form of parties and drinking bouts in San Francisco that proved irresistible. Like Charles Bukowski, Kerouac could not elude fans and old friends luring him into easy debauchery. Both writers found it impossible to say no, but only Bukowski kept writing productively until his final days. Kerouac had simply run out of things to say by the time he was forty. After “Big Sur”, there were only drunken rightwing rants on television shows.
Since everybody has been chattering about Russell Brand’s “revolutionary” call in a TV interview, I could not resist watching a documentary he did for BBC just two years ago about “On the Road”. Google “Russell Brand, BBC, On the Road” and you will find a link to a 7-part sixty minute Youtube video.
Brand and his pal Matt Morgan start off in Lowell, Massachusetts—Kerouac’s hometown that they find quite boring—and head west in a pickup truck to San Francisco, stopping off in various places that are featured in “On the Road”, from cities like New York and Denver to villages in the Rocky Mountain boondocks.
I regret to report that the inspiration for their voyage is more Borat than Kerouac. Everything is played for laughs except for an illuminating three or four minutes spent with Joyce Johnson, Jack Kerouac’s one-time lover and the author of the must-read “Minor Characters”, a book that treats Kerouac both fairly and critically.
Some of it is funny, like the visit to Indianapolis Colts football team owner James Irsay who owns the original “teletype roll” copy of “On the Road” (it was actually ordinary pieces of paper taped together.) Brand, who shares Borat’s impudence, asks Irsay if he feels that there is any contradiction between being a billionaire and owning a manuscript to a book with a message about spurning the pursuit of wealth. Of course, the same question can be posed about being a Hollywood film star going “on the road”. Brand might have traveled the same roads as Kerouac but in complete comfort.
When they get to Denver, things take a turn for the worse. Brand approaches a bunch of homeless people and asks them if they feel any connection to the theme of Kerouac’s book, namely that it is easier to be “spiritual” when you are poor. As he departs, he dispenses cash to them like someone to a beggar on N.Y.’s subways. A social worker taking in the scene reprimands Brand for enabling their crack habit, to which he responds: “it will help them get through the day”. The entire segment is not only tasteless; it is a travesty on Kerouac. I do encourage people to watch it, however. It will give you a feel for the brand name Brand.
None of these films, least of all Brand’s documentary, gives you a feel for the social and economic backdrop of the emerging beat generation of the late 1940s and early 50s. It is as if they emerged out of nowhere.
It should never be forgotten that Allen Ginsberg’s mother was an active member of the Communist Party who took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. When he applied to Columbia University, it was his intention to become a labor lawyer and serve the poor. Nor should we forget that Denise Levertov used to sell the Daily Worker as a teenager in East London in the 1930s.
For that matter the San Francisco Renaissance was intimately connected to anarchist politics. Kenneth Rexroth was a member of the IWW. The sights of Hiroshima and Nagasaki radicalized Lawrence Ferlinghetti when he was part of a landing party of the American navy in 1945. Kenneth Patchen, who was a life-long pacifist, was exactly the kind of writer would have influenced Ginsberg coming up, with his affinity for Walt Whitman.
There’s also a strong connection with the surrealist movement of the 1920s and 30s that took its inspiration from Trotskyist André Breton. A surrealist magazine called VVV included Phillip Lamantia and Ted Joans, two stalwarts of the beat generation, on the editorial board. The late Franklin Rosemont, who was a major figure in the American surrealist revival of the 1960s as well as the New Left, hitchhiked 20,000 miles around Mexico and the USA after discovering “On the Road”.
And in the grand scheme of things, it might make sense not to think of one movement influencing another but to simply look at writers going back to Walt Whitman and forward to Allen Ginsberg as being part of the unified bohemian opposition that arose out of necessity to the “Nightmare of Moloch” that has existed from the beginning of the republic with its slavery, genocide against the American Indian, and colonial wars.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.