Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Most weeks our list is a riff on a current movie or TV show — but for America’s Independence Day we were inspired by a NYTimes article about the last Beat standing: Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
At 97, he’s getting ready to publish an experimental autobiography new book. He’s also the author of a poem we first read in sixth grade: “I Am Waiting”. Take a minute to read it.
In addition to being a poet and painter himself, in 1953 Ferlinghetti founded San Francisco’s City Lights. It’s still there. City Lights became the West Coast eye of the Beat hurricane, and he went on to publish such cornerstones as Ginsberg’s HOWL, taking on the prudes and winning.
The Beats were the first and last authentic American bohemian revolutionaries – a tiny lunatic fringe of the Greatest Generation, who came back from WWII and rejected rational behavior and bourgeois security in favor of a drugs, debauchery and a relentless spiritual quest.
Sixty years on, they continue to be a beacon for freethinkers of every stripe.
No wonder. At a time when materialism and media have so thoroughly seduced and subverted us all, it feels like we could really use a rebirth of wonder
The story is about the 97-year-old Ferlinghetti’s new experimental autobiography and his relationship with his agent of 50+ years, the legendary Sterling Lord.
Alan Ginsberg was nebbishy and he self-identified as queer long before it was either stylish or safe. Yet in the last few years he’s been the subject of two feature films and played by two different straight male movie stars – Daniel Radcliffe and James Franco. Which to us says a lot about the mythic appeal of the Beat generation.
We’ve only got five picks to cover a lot of ground, so we felt we had to choose between Kill Your Darlings (Radcliffe) and Howl (Franco). Both are worth watching, but we decided to feature Howl, because it gives you a remarkable, enlightening sense of what it was like to experience Howl at the moment of its creation.
Before Ginsberg was an “angelheaded hipster burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” he was a middle class Jewish kid from Jersey who had made it to Columbia and had a lot to lose. In writing and outing Howl, Ginsberg was taking a huge risk. But he did it.
The film is an unusual hybrid between biopic, documentary and cartoon. But even though the cartoon part doesn’t really work, what could have been an uneasy balancing act is pulled off with grace and gusto by directorial team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman.
There are many many documentaries on the Beats, and probably a couple more in the works at this moment.
But in terms of not just covering the material but also evoking the unmediated rush of Beat experience, there is still nothing better than this 1999 film from Chuck Workman.
The doc it focuses on Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, with their writing being read by Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp and John Turturro.
If you’re looking for logical structure and a compendium of facts, don’t look here. What this documentary delivers is a rapid-fire rush of experience edited together from an amazing wealth of primary materials. It works best if – for at least the first time through — you turn off the left side of your brain and let it wash over you.
This was surprisingly hard to find. Although we normally don’t do this, it seems to be here: For FREE
This is another balancing act – a fiction film heavily overlaid with VO from Kerouac’s novel of the same name. The effect is very polarizing – people either hate the use of VO or love it.
We love hearing the words themselves and thus the VO and the movie. So much of what was remarkable about the Beats was interior monologue – it’s virtually impossible to capture what was going on without recourse to the literature itself.
The friendship between Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac was also a bromance and balancing act. Cassady was the charismatic model for the Dean Moriarty character in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. After On The Road was published to great acclaim, Kerouac was feeling overwhelmed by fame, so Lawrence Ferlinghetti invited the gang to his cabin in Big Sur to get away from the hurly-burly.
As it turns out Big Sur itself is restorative, but the complications that ensue are not. Kerouac embarks on an affair with Cassady’s mistress, starts drinking again and as he descends into fullblown alcoholism, everything falls apart.
The film is directed by acclaimed indie filmmaker Michael Polish, one of the few projects he’s done independently of his twin brother. Kerouac is played by Lars von Trier favorite Jean-Marc Barr. Josh Lucas is Cassady, Radha Mitchell and Polish’s wife Kate Bosworth are Casady’s wife and lover.
The third member of the core Beat triumvirate (along with Kerouac and Ginsberg) was William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was a scion of the wealthy St. Louis Burroughs calculator family who lived a long, troubled, and ultimately triumphant life as a literary innovator and homosexual junkie.
Burroughs’ most famous work is the brilliant hallucinogenic “cut-up” novel Naked Lunch. Like Howl, it was labeled obscene but eventually vindicated on First Amendment basis.
The book is composed of randomly assembled drug-tinged vignettes. Even though several adaptations were planned over the years (including a musical version that would have starred Mick Jagger) it came to be regarded as un-filmable. But the man for the job was certainly director David Cronenberg, who combined elements from the book with biographical elements from Burroughs life to produce a grotesque, phantasmagoric film.
Even though it isn’t an exact translation of Burrough’s book, it hits the nail on the head. But, like the book, watching it takes determination, a certain amount of patience and a strong stomach. It ain’t something you want to watch with the parents or the kids. Your best companion would be an adventuresome friend who has spent time either drug addled, depraved, or both.
And yet, we recommend it. Peter Weller coolly plays the Burroughs stand-in, an exterminator with delusions of persecution who uses insecticide as a drug and is befriended by a series of larger and larger insects. Judy Davis plays the wife who, like Burroughs’ own wife, is shot in the head during a drunken reenactment of William Tell. Enough said.
NAKED LUNCH doesn’t seem to be available digitally, but you can get it here:
There are many other intriguing docs on the Beats (Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder; What Happened to Jack Kerouac?; the hard-to-find Corso – The Last Beat).
All are labors of love. But we’re choosing this one for its impeccable heritage and authentic insight.
Director Howard Brookner started shooting the film in 1978 when he was still at NYU. He shot for 5 years, working in collaboration with Burroughs himself and with help from NYU classmates Jim Jarmusch and Tom DeCillo. It premiered at the 1983 NY Film Festival, praised for its unparalled access and intimacy. Burroughs tells much of the story himself, with interjections from Ginsberg, and a poignant meeting with his estranged son, who is in the last stages of drinking himself to death. Patti Smith, Francis Bacon, Lauren Hutton and Terry Southern also appear.
Brookner was regarded as a director of great promise. He directed two more documentaries before he died at 34 at the height of the AIDS crisis. The film almost disappeared before Brookner’s nephew Aaron championed a digital restoration in 2012. Aaron Brookner then went on to direct his own moving tribute to his uncle, the documentary Uncle Howard, which features many outtakes from the Burroughs film and premiered at Sundance this January.