The Best Minds of Their Generation
The Beat Generation. In the face of The Red Scare, Mutual Assured Destruction, and Brown vs. The Board of Education, youths were stricken with a malaise that made them “beat.” Beaten down, down-and-out, broke, exhausted. But as co-opted by Jack Kerouac, the term “beat” also meant “beatific.” Holy, sacred. His generation found the divine in the downtrodden. Unable to fit in as soldiers, businessmen or any other “straight” gig, the Beats struggled to survive, living in hovels, selling dope or committing petty crimes for food-money, hitchhiking, hoboing– Dharma Bums.
This restlessness became the recurring theme of a small group of young writers from Columbia University and San Francisco, whose fresh approach to literature borrowed heavily from the underbelly of the streets and railed against "The Establishment." Without a doubt, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, elder statesman William S. Burroughs and their non-writer companion Neal Cassady, are the posterboys of the Beats. Their escapades, whether transposed as literature in their poems, novels, and letters, or legends orally transmitted through the undergound, shaped the public perception of the lifestyle and art of the Beatniks.
The Grand Daddy-o’s of Beat
Attempts to convey the literature and lives of the Beats on celluloid have ranged from the imminently watchable--the forthcoming The Source (1999)--to the incredibly laughable--The Beatniks (1960).
Photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank first dissected this subculture in his seminal work Pull My Daisy (1958). This pseudo-documentary written by Jack Kerouac and staged with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso playing hipsters who crash a high society soiree exposed America, for the first time, to Beat culture from the point-of-view of the Beats.
The Subterraneans, based on Kerouac’s novel, was Hollywood’s first attempt to adapt the vibe of the Beats to the Big Screen. This film has been seriously derided for mainstreaming the interracial love triangle at the heart of the novel right out of the movie. The black girl Kerouac and Gregory Corso feud over in the story is replaced by the very Caucasian, Leslie Caron. However, under Kerouac’s consultation, some of the seedier aspects of subterranean culture drip with honesty--and the music provided by Andre Previn, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer and other jazz masters cooks with gas.
Although Neal Cassady never completed a novel, he was a prolific letter writer. The rollicking prose of his letters was aped by Kerouac and became Jack’s signature style. The subject matter—Cassady’s insane adventures, mainly trying to make chicks—provided fodder for hilarious and often harrowing episodes throughout Kerouac’s body of work. In 1997, one of the letters–what Kerouac called The Great Sex Letter--became fodder for The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), an uneven yet stylish coming-of-age film about Cassady’s rejection of the white-picket-fence lifestyle in favor of that of rambler and rogue.
William S. Burroughs was never a stranger to film. The definition of experimentation, Burroughs made several avant-garde films, was the subject of numerous documentaries (Burroughs 1984), and even starred in movies like Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989). In 1991, his classic science-fiction novel, Naked Lunch, once banned as pornographic, was released as a feature. Surrealist horror filmmaker David Cronenberg retold Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as an avant-garde fusion of Burrough’s life story, his literary style using excerpts from the book.
The world has yet to see a cinematic adaptation of Howl—who knows why?--but Ginsberg, who until his death two years ago carried the torch of the Beats across four decades, was the key figure in several films. In the trippy Chappaqua (1966), a film about the junk dreams of a heroin addict in withdrawal, Ginsberg played Messiah (Burroughs played a character called Opium Jones). In the even trippier Bob Dylan film Renaldo and Clara (1978), Ginsberg played himself, with a shave.
From Hipsters to Hippies
In the fifties, The Beat Movement was associated with personal freedom, marijuana, narcotics, Abstract Expressionism and bebop jazz. Into the sixties, the Beats began to influence a younger audience. These kids became the counterculture of the sixties. The New Radicalism echoed the spirit of the Beats: the hippies and yippies espoused the virtues of political freedom, psychedelics, Pop Art and rock-n-roll.
A companion of The Grateful Dead, Author Ken Kesey typified the carnivalesque characters who drifted in and out of the Beat universe in the sixties. With his Cat-in-the-Hat chapeaus and Pop Art bell-bottoms, Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters (Neal Cassady among them) traversed the US, staging media pranks and dropping acid. Somehow, in the midst of all this merriment and LSD, Kesey was able to write several incredible novels, two of which became incredible movies, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Sometimes A Great Notion (1971). The former is an indictment of America’s oppressive class structure, the latter, a travelogue more on-the-road (or river, as it were) than On The Road.
Kesey’s compatriot was Dr. Timothy Leary, a West Point graduate and noted research psychologist who began experimenting with psychedelics to raise consciousness. His advocacy of psilocybin and LSD summed up with the mantra “Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out” endeared him to the Beats and their hippie offspring. Dr. Leary’s life and philosophy was documented in Return Engagement (1983), while his very public death was documented in the terrific Timothy Leary’s Last Trip (1996).
The progenitor of “gonzo journalism,” Hunter S. Thompson was a sportswriter who, fueled by wanderlust, boozing and psychedelics, began to weave bizarre, rambling, hallucinatory tales instead of writing standard journalistic prose. Mixing the facts of events he was covering, with wildly imaginative fictions, Thompson created alter-egos for himself and his comrades in the tradition of Kerouac. His book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was adapted into a bizarre, rambling, hallucinatory film of the same name by Terry Gilliam.
Novelist Terry Southern, a satirist of the highest distinction, wrote two hilarious Beat novels, Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian, before turning his pen to screenwriting. In the first meaningful, significant way, Southern brought the attitudes, humor and rhythm of Beat to mainstream audiences with films like Dr. Strangelove, Candy and The Cincinatti Kid. In 1969, Southern, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda wrote Easy Rider. The poster for the film, not only summarized the movie, but summed up all of Beat literature: "A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere..."
The Beat Goes On…
As the decade turned, the low culture that much of the literature reveled in was no longer celebrated; glam was the new flavor. Hip youths were turning away from political concerns and toward all night boogeying. Many of the Beat forefathers—Kerouac and Cassady among them—had met untimely deaths. The legacy of Beat carried on, however, in both the art rock and the burgeoning punk rock scene.
Performance poet and musician Laurie Anderson drafted Burroughs to perform poetry with her for the 1986 performance film (and recording) Home Of The Brave, and both Burroughs and Ginsberg make appearances in the classic punk rock outing Heavy Petting (1988). American Punks were, themselves, the literary great-grandchildren of Beat: Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, X’s Exene Cervenko, and Richard Hell are poet/performers who continue the Beat tradition.
Jim Carroll, a poet, novelist and punk musician, engendered the new Beat ideal. His novel, The Basketball Diaries chronicled his life story as a young artist and junkie in the making. In 1995, Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Carroll in a screen version of the story. Unfortunately, the film, which featured a fantasy sequence in which Carroll murders his teacher, has been recalled by MGM in light of the recent school shootings.
In Los Angeles, Charles Bukowski wrote endless volumes of sketches, stories, poems, and novels. While many of his stories have been made into features, Barfly (1987), a quasi-autobiographical character study in alcoholism, is the film which made him celebrated, if only for a moment.
However, by far Bukowski’s most interesting foray into film was 1982’s Poetry in Motion, a cinematic conference of the greatest living poets: Ginsberg, Burroughs, McClure, Creeley, Waldman, Berrigan, Carroll, Baraka, Tom Waits, and John Cage. While the authors waxed poetic about poetics, they were counterpointed viciously by Bukowski who attacked them as pretentious and in love with their own voices. In his own words, "To say I'm a poet puts me in the company of versifiers, neontasters, fools, clods, and skoundrels masquerading as wise men."
Versifiers, neontasters, fools, clods, scoundrels and wise men, all.