An uneven new documentary looks at all things Beat.
The Beats have returned with a vengeance. New editions of On the Road are rolling off the presses; interest in Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs is at an all-time high; Beat women like Diane di Prima are getting some well-deserved attention, as are black Beats such as Amiri Baraka. Like other counterculture movements, the Beat generation has for some been reduced to a fashion statement – chinos, T-shirt, and masculine scowl. It’s also been neatly coopted by corporations seeking street credibility – even Ginsberg did a Gap ad before he died. It’s not hard to imagine Kerouac’s face next to John and Yoko’s in those duplicitous “Think Different” billboards from Apple.
Chuck Workman’s The Source looks at these issues and the whole history of the Beats in a intriguing, if ultimately rather shallow, documentary that’s less a linear biography of the movement than a kind of “Beat chic” sampler. (No real surprise here: Workman’s also responsible for those slick, empty montages at the Academy Awards every year.) This collage portrait moves giddily from the ‘40s to the ‘90s, from historical footage to Hollywood send-ups of Beat culture, from realism to re-creation via a trio of actors who impersonate Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Newsreel footage of Eisenhower America and Levittown, shots from Ozzie and Harriet, and scenes from the HUAC hearings show precisely why the Beats were so welcomed by the 1950s as an antidote to noxious postwar conformity.
Workman is generous and sometimes witty in showing how the movement permeated pop culture. Alongside images of “Mighty Mouth” Ginsberg doing Buddhist chants, or Ken Kesey explaining the significance of drugs among the group, we get Alfred Hitchcockintroducing one of his shows dressed in Beat drag, or a cartoon Beatnik from The Flintstones, or Steve Martin satirizing the Beat aesthetic of improvisation by secretly looking at crib notes on how to act “wacky.”
In spite of its sometimes irritatingly dizzy style – you’d need a supercomputer to count the number of cuts – The Source gives some sense of Beat trajectory from a kind of unconscious collaboration among a group of hipsters, to a defined and recognized movement, to a parody of itself as early as the 1960s. The re-creations are mostly stylized and silly – Turturro posing in front of a bridge screeching lines from Ginsberg; Johnny Depp smarmily returning Kerouac to life; and Dennis Hopper most successful, inexplicably both sounding and looking like the sweet-sinister William Burroughs in a seedy hotel room.
Of course, the authentic article is always better than such pastiches, and the film interpolates welcome archival footage and interviews with the major players. Ferlinghetti is persuasive in describing the cultural stewpot that both created Beat culture and paralleled it: jazz, abstract expressionism, poetry, the Living Theatre, John Cage. Ginsberg expresses the movement’s exuberance and hubris when he says “We’re taking over the universe!” Burroughs’s Margaret Dumont-like double-takes during interviews with clueless commentators trying to get at the heart of what he’s up to with his infamous cut-and-paste method of novel construction are unfailingly fun. Sample bittersweet dish from the wizened master: “I’m a WASP washout.”
Not everyone was as thrilled by the Beats as they were with themselves. The fine filmmaker Shirley Clarke, of The Connection fame, dismisses them as self-enthralled sexists and says with righteous irritation, “They got away with a lot.” Gregory Corso’s biographer seconds that opinion: “Women were ornaments for the men … caretakers.” Unfortunately The Source is too captivated by its own breakneck style and the standard reading of the Beats as a fabulous all-boys club to dwell on such insights, and soon it’s back to those boys.
If women were often outside the Beat orbit, gay men were more than welcome. The movement by most accounts was intensely homosexual, with the major architects, and many of the hangers-on, either gay or bisexual: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, along with Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Peter Orlovsky, and Carl Solomon.
Jack Kerouac, who died in 1969 at age 47, was the model for the Beat look, an image he’s said to have created while in the Navy when he bucked tradition by wearing chino jeans, a white T-shirt, and leather jacket. This former football player was also, by some recent accounts, a “homosexual homophobe” who also became a sexist, racist drunk and all manner of anti-social creature due perhaps to his inability to acknowledge his queer side. (Critic Julie Burchill, trashing On the Road as overrated, recently called him a “stoned fag too doped to get out of the closet.”) The film shows him in every imaginable guise – from gorgeous young hunk to slightly psycho interviewee (with “straight queen” William Buckley, no less) to glassy-eyed wreck. Surprisingly, Ginsberg, at least in the film, avoids saying what most in their circle knew – that he had indeed slept with Kerouac, as had, again by recent accounts, Gore Vidal, Neal Cassady, and, toward the end of his life, “hundreds of men.” Ginsberg leaves it with a coy “I had a crush on him.”
All things good and bad must come to an end, and the Beats were no exception. As a mock-shocked Ed Sanders says, when the ’60s arrived, “All of a sudden you were no longer a beatnik, you were a hippie!”