Naked Lunch is the book that catapulted William S. Burroughs from a minor author and figure of interest in the wake of beatnik hysteria into a notorious and, eventually, respected postmodernist writer. His book shocked the literary world and continues to do so, despite having more or less become canon. It has had an immense impact upon literature, art, and music in the West, and famously won a court case to signal a shift away from repressive censorship in American law. It is also known, however, for its eerily accurate prophesies. Continue Reading…
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In recent years, William S. Burroughs’ work and life has been examined from various vantage points. In my own 2013 book, I explored his relationship with the Church of Scientology and pored over his work for references to the religion. That same year, Jorge Garcia-Robles looked at Burroughs’ time in Mexico. In 2014, Matthew Levi Stevens looked at Burroughs in terms of magic and the occult, while a plethora of work appeared across the spectrum in celebration of the author’s hundredth birthday. One even focused on his work as a photographer. Then 2015 saw the release of Barry Miles’ superlative biography, which surpassed any of the earlier efforts, including Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw. Continue Reading…
In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund
From Beatdom #16
William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:
I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …
But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…
“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all”
— William Burroughs,
William Burroughs (1914-1997), the eccentric, the sardonic humoured, and the rebellious; he is a writer who took all traditional forms of literature and threw them into the garbage. Or rather, cut them into fragments, mixed them all around, and glued them back together in complete and utter random selections of prose. This is the technique in which he composed Naked Lunch, along with the help of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) in 1957, and published in 1959. Considered to be “literature of risk” (Charters 103), it tells the story of Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, as he narrates his narcotic-fueled life of chosen criminality. Street life and crime are common themes throughout these texts, along with other works ranging from novels, poems, and letters of correspondence that take the form of various mediums—novels, poems, audio lectures, short films, etc. These two correlative themes are represented through an array of eclectic personas. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful in examining Burroughs’s work to underscore the performative acts that his characters, and himself, take on as a way of elucidating that identity is formed through bodily acts to suit the needs of a discursively constructed self. Continue Reading…
The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it. Continue Reading…
Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72 Through ’92.
Allen Ginsberg invited me to see William S. Burroughs in January 1977, when I was visiting NYC. As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed The Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, with literally no windows and a shiny steel door. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art, like that of his old colleague Brion Gysin’s.
I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young people were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and then-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him and some weed, and he became a hilarious story teller.
I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.”
I told Burroughs about this great sci-fi movie called They Came From Within – released as Shivers in 1976 – that reminded me of his work, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, made fifteen years prior to his Naked Lunch adaptation.
Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the idea to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a “yes.” We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.
The next morning, accompanied by my old pal, Richard Modiano, I went to the diner armed with my Bauer Super 8 and a primitive cassette tape recorder. But when we met, Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff, and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.
I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera angle was a moral statement.
“To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely audible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words. Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.
Later, I intercut the then rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love, and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.
The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99: Alien Anomalies Under America), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was originally a full shot, and filming second and third generations of Super 8 footage. Craig was a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. He lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover Street in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.
Blue first Burroughs walk?
— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.
I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom and empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.
I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishingand screening it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated but took the print to Naropa University in the summer of 1978 when Allen invited me out.
Burroughs had this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Grauerholz but a new kid named Cabal, dressed in thrift store New Wave – literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short fifties hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-Man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembled Burroughs’ cowboy porn, The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – he was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’d shot up with Cabal.
A teaching assistant, as per Ginsberg’s request, arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the Vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked. He wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “He’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied.
Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State University Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.
Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, and sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.
Costanzo Allione, Italian documentary filmmaker and future husband of meditation teacher Tsultrim (nee Joan Rousmaniere) Ewing, (They met here for the first time), was shooting what became a great film on ’78 Naropa – Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds. Beat translator Nanda Pivano came along. She was the connection between Allione and Ginsberg, and had set up this meeting in Ginsberg’s apartment. Allione was in Allen’s apartment with his crew catching the conversation of Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and of course Ginsberg himself. Part of the time, I was also running around with a Super 8 camera making what would become my short collage, American Mutant. Gregory came in with his 16mm camera and announced, “I’m gonna shoot everybody’s feet,” and proceeded to do so. The film crew caught me over Burroughs’ shoulder.
The New Wave hip look came up again when this interesting queer had wrangled his way into Allen’s kitchen to hang with Leary. The guy had a weird sort of glam look, not quite on the money with it – but he was clearly not a hippie even with Prince Valiant hair – maybe it was vague eye make-up or his clothes, but it was some different quality that was glitter queer like the New York Dolls (whom I didn’t even know about yet and were actually straight anyway).
“What do you think of Crowley’s Book of the Law?” he asked Leary. “Not much,” Leary replied. That was interesting, since he had said in his writing that he considered himself to be carrying on where Aleister Crowley left off, and the queer had just mentioned Crowley’s most important work. It was fairly clear Leary felt no need to be consistent about anything. Ginsberg made some reference to me being of the David Bowie generation, and Leary said, “He isn’t Bowie, this guy is Bowie,” pointing to the glam queer. Well, he had that sorta right, and I duly noted it, even if Bowie had moved on to his Thin White Duke persona already – which was more like Burroughs’ Naropa secretary. I wanted to be like Bowie or Burroughs’ secretary, if not this glam queer, but not some old hippie, definitely, not anymore.
As for Leary’s lack of consistency, Allen and I were talking with him and Allen made some reference to his claim that LSD could cure homosexuality. Leary said, “Oh that was Ram Dass, not me.” Apparently colleague Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass had once wall-papered a room with Playboy centerfolds and attempted to reprogram himself with a massive dose of LSD. Remembering how astounded I was by porn when on mescaline at age sixteen (vaginas like the mandibles of strange alien fauna); I could guess this hadn’t worked out. After Leary left, both Ginsberg and I recalled that Leary had made such pronouncements in the past, particularly in a Playboy interview. Ginsberg wondered if they’d done something to Leary’s brain at Folsom, since Eldridge Cleaver had also come out of there as a “Mooney,” a follower of Sun Myung-Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Christian Second Coming; Cleaver later identified himself as a Republican. During Leary’s Folsom stay, Tim started talking extensively about outer space travel, and in particular about alien contact, but dropped the alien bit very rapidly – a wise move, to be sure. Dolphin scientist John Lily had completely discredited himself once he began about his alien chats on LSD. Tim’s new slogan was SMI2LE, “Space Migration/Intelligence Squared/Life Extension.” He was also saying “Stamp Out Death.” Burroughs was actually intrigued, since he saw little hope for the planet.
I think it was this same conversation with Leary about the Book of the Law and homosexuality that included one of his typical quips that if Buddha was back today he’d be a molecular scientist or one of the Bee Gees. He also referred to Ralph Nader as an ecological fascist, which really bugged Ginsberg. “Now stop that!” he actually shouted, adding, “What does that mean, anyway?” Leary quickly backed down and said it was his position to be provocateur, not necessarily believing what he said; just stirring things up. A good gig if you can get it.
Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.”
One morning, I got up and saw them both brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, both naked. Leary was tall with a basketball gut. He saw me and gave his characteristic conspiratorial wink. Tell me life isn’t a dream.
I finally started to really physically crash from the Ritalin and profound lack of sleep that everyone seemed to run on while partying at Naropa, with Allen at the head of the list. I was upstairs lying in bed when Allen came up and said, “Burroughs and Leary are downstairs!” “That’s ok, Allen. I’m tired.” “You’re missing all the good parties,” he said. “What’s the matter, you depressed?” I was depressed, and hated that he could see it. It was one of those depressions where you know that what’s going around you would be the envy of many, but it wasn’t working for you. I really just wanted a girl like in the movies. That’s why they call it samsara, or as my dad’s favorite reference, “the vale of tears.” Nobody gets what they want. Poet Amelie Frank later saw me brooding on a couch in a scene from Fried Shoes and said, “the little pouter.” Bingo. By the way, my traveling companion Richard Modiano is in the movie throughout, way more than me, and he’s probably one of the least ambitious people I know. More proof of Buddhism’s sensible irony in a brutal world. Cue that Buddhist monk with the tennis racket drum we kept hearing all over the place.
So in my American Mutant film, Leary was a CIA government official (when I asked him to be in the movie he was doubtful until I told him he’d be playing the head of the CIA), Allen some sort of Tibetan Mutant King, and Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.” When I tried to direct Burroughs a little more closely, he said “I am not an actor.” Apparently he changed his mind, given the number of roles he wound up playing on screen, though arguably they were just about as demanding as what he did for me. Leary was even harder to direct – he kept looking in the camera and grinning idiotically. “That was great, Tim, but ah… could you not look into the camera next time?” Tim announced he always looked into the camera and smiled. It was a rule of his. “Well, if it’s a rule…” I trailed off, obviously disgusted. “Oh fuck it,” he said, and did it my way. I think I may have spared the directors who later used him (as in Wes Craven’s Shocker, of all things – good movie, odd choice for Leary).
I tried to persuade Gregory Corso to take a part as a sci-fi gangster. I had a .45 replica BB gun for Gregory but when I talked to him he was very hungover, saying with disinterest “Guns are bad karma, man.” I shrugged and his toddler son Max escorted me to the door, slamming it behind me while shouting “Get out!”
Leary came back from a meeting with Allen’s Tibetan Lama, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, expecting to be recognized as some sort of colleague, it seemed. Instead he was made to cool his heels in what he described as a dentist’s waiting room, and when he was finally allowed to see Trungpa, all that the Lama said was “stay out of trouble,” seemed good advice to me.
1959 was an important year in Beat Generation history. It was the year that William S. Burroughs published Naked Lunch from Paris’ Beat Hotel, that the Beats were first profiled in Life magazine, and the year the MGM released a sensationalist cinematic nightmare called The Beat Generation. In the previous three years, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had shattered the notion that young people must conform to strict social codes, and paved the way for further decades of rebellion, growth, and acceptance. The Beat movement was in full-swing and these once literary wannabes were now idols to an entire generation. But they were not stuffy and unreachable; they were literary bad boys in the vein of Rimbaud.
In 1959 Ginsberg was looking forward with visions of a new American voice, Kerouac was awkwardly attempting to live his life in the startling media spotlight, and Burroughs was overseas, a decade into his long exile from the United States. Back home, and even in newspapers around the world, they were known derisively as the “beatniks.” At a time when calling someone a Communist was about the greatest insult that could be uttered, Herb Caen had added “-nik” to Kerouac’s “Beat,” and suddenly what started as a literary movement was now tabloid fodder. The Beats were vilified as detrimental to the morality of the nation’s youth, and as such they were used as subject matter for Hollywood’s spectacularly vapid output.
In the coming years, the image of the Beatnik as a finger-snapping poseur or a drug-addled maniac would persist, yet in the world of reality – located far from Hollywood on any map – the Beats continued to develop upon their own ideas and literature. They continued to write, to read their poems aloud, to explore new avenues in publishing and in creating art. They even dabbled – to varying degrees – in filmmaking. One such example was Pull My Daisy, a short film that aimed to incorporate the sort of spontaneous, free-form, jazz-inspired principals that governed the Beats’ written work. Directed by photographer, Robert Frank, and painter, Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy began filming began on 2nd January and it premiered 11th November.
The film was based upon the third act of Jack Kerouac’s play, The Beat Generation, and it was supposed to share the same name, with Kerouac having coined the term about a decade earlier. However, in true Hollywood style, MGM had capitalized on the movement and copyrighted the title, leaving the filmmakers to choose the title of a poem that was collaboratively written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady in 1949. It didn’t hurt that the phrase “pull my daisy” was loaded with sexual innuendo, either.
The poem from which the movie took its title was written in the “exquisite corpse” Surrealist tradition, wherein various artists would take turns to add to a piece of work – whether a poem or painting or anything else. This fit in rather well with the spontaneous prose method and best “first thought best thought” notion that influenced the Beats, and was most noticeably espoused by Kerouac. Part of the poem is included below:
Rob my locker
lick my rocks
leap my cock in school
Rack my lacks
lark my looks
jump right up my hole
Whore my door
beat my door
eat my snake of fool
Craze my hair
bare my poor
asshole shorn of wool
The purpose of this method of composition, later used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in their Cut-up Method, as well as numerous other artists before and after the Beats, was to create a more accurate picture of reality by not over-thinking, and perhaps, as Burroughs often claimed, to cut to the truth that your mind would otherwise hide.
Indeed, the film is best known for being narrated by Kerouac, who again supposedly improvised his lines rather than reading from script or memory. Critics have compared his reading to that of someone in a “trance,” furthering his reputation as a mystical and near mythical artist, while others have noted that he sounded exhausted and that he had lost his youthful playfulness. The film, as mentioned above, was adapted from his play, The Beat Generation, and yet he seems to spontaneously riff the lines rather than reading his pre-written dialogue. There is no sound, and Kerouac speaks the lines for each character, regardless of gender, and narrates everything seemingly as it happens, in his inimitable scat-style.
Come on, Milo. Here comes sweet Milo, beautiful Milo.
Da da da da da.
And they’re going dada da da dada da da da… Let’s go. ‘sgo. ‘sgo.
Listening to him speak, it’s as though he was watching the movie for the first time, just saying the things that came into his head, even if just filler. There are very few periods of silence, and so Kerouac – who does not appear on screen at any stage – dominates the film simply through his voice. This is an attempt to continue Kerouac’s sketching style of writing, wherein he would attempt to note down everything that was going on around him. As such, the camera frequently pans back and forth, attempting to catch all the action as it transpires, rather than take it moment by moment, focusing on one character or one action.
For these reasons, Pull My Daisy, unlike The Beat Generation, was lauded by critics for many years. Like the poem from which it took its name, Pull My Daisy was considered a masterpiece of ad-libbed, off-the-cuff acting and narration. In the movie, key members of the Beat Generation including Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, goof around, even smoking a joint at one stage. There are fewer hijinks than one might have imagined, and although the Beat characters’ antics result in comedy and farce, the action is toned down. Still, the legend goes that the actors simply did what they felt – being themselves, essentially – while Frank and Leslie recorded it all.
Yet Pull My Daisy, while certainly a Beat movie, and truer to the Beat ethos than the sensationalist attempts in 1959 and later years, was not as spontaneous as it was claimed to be. Nine years later, in 1968, Leslie revealed to the Village Voice that the movie was thoroughly scripted, with the implication being that the apparent improvisation was due to a lack of acting ability on the part of Ginsberg and the others. Later, both directors admitted that the movie had not – as was previously claimed – been shot in Leslie’s apartment, but had instead been filmed on a professional film set with a budget of $15,000. While not a large sum of money for a movie, it shows that the film was not quite what it appeared to be. Ultimately, while it had been implied that the film was just the poets goofing around as themselves, with hip artists filming and the hottest novelist around narrating, essentially gaining the best filmed record of the Beat Generation as it naturally existed, instead it was a carefully constructed piece of fiction. Many hours of film were shot and edited down into the twenty-eight minute film. Additionally, and most shockingly to fans of the movie, Kerouac’s lines had been recorded as many as four times as Amram tinkled on the piano and the movie played silently in front of him. While this is hardly a great crime, it certainly detracts from the movie’s reputation and Kerouac’s supposed adherence to spontaneous prose, and his depiction as the literary jazzman.
In the end, though, it is important to acknowledge that despite Kerouac’s advocacy of spontaneous prose – or even Burroughs’ automatic writing and routines, which are referenced in the film – the Beats were guilty of editing. Burroughs’ nearly unreadable texts were endlessly composed, Kerouac’s famous writing sessions that would end in a publishable book were often edited over many years, and Ginsberg, who tended to differ, only occasionally dabbled in unrevised poetry. It should be, therefore, no great surprise that Pull My Daisy – though it may appear to be entirely unrehearsed – was an answer to their critics. It was a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the notion of the Beats as unrestrained literary bad boys, and to hold their hands up and say that they are not ashamed, for this is their life and it how they wish to live. They considered themselves the Rimbauds of their age, and wanted the world to know. We should be thankful that it is this movie, and not the numerous Hollywood cash-ins, that is preserved, remembered, and freely disseminated online more than fifty years later.
 MGM would release The Beat Generation in 1959, the same year as Pull my Daisy. The movie was not based on any work by any Beat author, but rather was a sensationalist attempt to cash in on the Beat fad.
 The poem itself was set to music by legendary composer and Beat figure, David Amram. However, Ginsberg and Kerouac were reportedly displeased that when the lyrics were sung by Anita Ellis, certain words had been changed.
Love or hate him, venerate or revile him, the life and work of William Seward Burroughs continues to inspire and intrigue. In addition to “The Work,” since his death in 1997 we have seen further biographies, celebrations, collections of letters, and critical studies, as well as restored and even previously unpublished texts. There has been reassessment and re-examination of various aspects of the life and work, starting with Burroughs and Homosexuality in Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs, Burroughs and Literature in Michael Stevens’ The Road to Interpose (an encyclopaedic study of “reading Burroughs’ reading” that is surely essential to fan and scholar alike); and more recently, Mayfair Burroughs in the introduction to Graham Masterton’s Rules of Duel. Continue Reading…
By Neil Reddy
Originally published in Beatdom #14
There are two questions that have to be asked about Beat movies. What do we want and why can’t they get it right?
If we’re looking for Beat movies as in expressions of the flow and rhythm of Beat poetry and Jazz Bebop, then you have to go to the source material: Pull My Daisy (1959), or The Flower Thief (1960), or Howl (2010). If you want to get derivative, try any college arts course or gifted YouTube contributor – if you can’t find them there, then get on your laptop and build your own. But, if you’re looking for fictional movies about the poets and the Beat Generation, then the latter question remains valid – why can’t they get it right?
It seemed to go wrong from the off with The Beat Generation (1959), which stole the title Kerouac had planned to use on Pull My Daisy. The Beat Generation is nothing more than a sleaze noir flick whose villain, a serial rapist no less, has Beat connections and “makes the scene” to find his victims. (It also includes a scuba diving chase scene which I’ve yet to discover any reference to in the Beat oeuvre.) The British contribution, Beat Girl (1960), was also sleaze-based, although more coffee bar centric and lacking any scuba scenes. It was just another moralistic tale, warning of the dangers of fast living and weird teenage kicks. Alas, the high pinnacle of these two masterpieces in bilge was not to be maintained. Since those heady days, the genre has repeatedly fallen flat on its face with badly scripted melodramas like Heart Beat (1980), or the incident led biopics Kill Your Darlings (2013) and Beat (2000), but, while being competent films, their Beat element is almost superfluous.
Some valiant efforts have been attempted. The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), does well to catch the cultural context which many of the other films fail to do, and On the Road (2012), did well to get across the feel of its source material even though some of the alterations were difficult to understand – why is Sal mourning the death of his father when it’s the break-up of his marriage in the novel?
Naked Lunch (1991), like the novel, stands alone and must be respected for its sheer audacity to exist at all but, again, its focus is not in capturing the energy of the creative milieu that made the Beats what they were; and therein lies the problem and what should be the solution to the problem. The actual act of writing is not cinematic – although Henry & June (1990) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1990) prove there are always soft porn options. It’s the interactions between these young men and women that could be, must be, film-worthy. So why don’t they film that?
On the Road (2012) captures some of this spark but does a better job of portraying the grind of the road which unfortunately dissipates the energy, conflict, and humour that must have been evident when the Beats were gathered. The “far out” premise of Pull My Daisy (1959) shows this to be true.
The British comedy film The Rebel (America knows it as Call me a Genius (1961)) may be one of the best non-Beat, Beat films ever made, as it doesn’t take the subject too seriously and yet manages to mock the art establishment and satirise European intellectualism, whilst capturing the stifling status quo that the Beats were kicking against.
So what do we want from a Beat movie? We need the colour and tone of Bird (1988); the social bite of Up the Junction (1968); the grime of Barfly (1987); the wit of Factotum (2005); and the exuberance of… dare I say Animal House (1978)? Perhaps not but you can see the problem.
In the end, perhaps we are asking or expecting too much from a commercial film industry. Perhaps our best hopes do lie with the YouTube generation? Think about selling your Beat movie proposal: “We want you to give us money to make a movie about a bunch of kids in the late 1940s and 50s who live together and write poetry and books and the movie needs to be funny, energetic, sexy, character-centred, contemplative, introverted and dialogue rich whilst lacking explosions, machines guns, and ethno-centrically vague but identifiable terrorists.” Really, who are we trying to kid?
It’s said a movie is ruined three times: when you write it, when you talk about it, and when you make it… so let me give you the opening scene to my movie and you can ruin the rest for yourself.
Black screen – music Mingus – opening scene viewed from above – daylight, summer field – girl with long hair opens copy of On the Road – camera beads in on page – flash montage of cultural icons – Lady Gaga, Obama, Bowie, Dylan, Nixon, Chi Guevara, Lennon, Kennedy, Monroe, James Dean, Elvis, Brando, Miles Davis etc. – the montage moves faster and faster until it fades into a crowded room where the Beats are laughing, smoking and reading their poetry.