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Pulling Our Daisy: The Illusion of Spontaneity

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,[1] 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[2]

 

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.

Hello, gang.

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.

 


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Bill Morgan’s Walking Tour “Allen Ginsberg in the East Village”


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Many thanks to Bill Morgan, author and Allen Ginsberg bibliographer and archivist, and Grey Art Gallery, New York University, for the Saturday, April 6, 2013, 2:00 pm walking tour “Allen Ginsberg in the East Village.”
Gracious Bill Morgan led the tour and focused on the best known photographs of Allen Ginsberg, and the locations where the photos were taken. The group met at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park on a sunny, 50 degree spring day and headed east to always crowded and busy (especially on Saturday afternoons) St. Mark’s Place, where Carl Solomon lived and Gem Spa, the corner store where Allen purchased his daily The New York Times—the paper he loved to hate, and apparently, The Times reciprocated those feelings for many years.
Mr. Morgan provided ample anecdotes of Allen’s history of photography and his relationship with the photographer Robert Frank, who advised Allen that the best photos always show the subject’s hands. Allen was keenly interested in people and highly valued friendships, so his subjects were mainly of his friends. He liked photographing them in their natural urban settings, city streets, apartment interiors, and local all-night East Village eateries, such as the un-fancy Kiev.
Morgan brought with him copies of the famed photos that he passed along to the group: Jack Kerouac on the fire escape at 206 East 7th Street, howling Jack in front of the statue of Samuel S. Cox in Tompkins Square Park, Jack walking by St. Stanislaus Church, Vazak’s Bar,
and East Village apartments that Allen called home for most of his adult life. Allen lived at 437 East 12th Street for twenty years from 1975 until 1996, but was forced to move because of failing health. He could no longer climb stairs, and was taken to task for “selling out,” by buying an apartment—with funds obtained from archives sold to Stanford University—in an elevator building, his final residence at 405 13th Street. It was there that he took his last photo of Peter Orlovsky and Robert Frank, and that was about the end of the Beats in New York City.
Allen the bard enjoyed providing captions to the photos, and never used the same caption twice, even if there were thousands of photos of the same subject, such as the view from his window of the back courtyard on East 12th Street. It was a place where Allen had many visitors, world renowned poets and his cherished friend, Bob Dylan. There was no doorbell in the building, so visitors announced themselves by yelling up, and Allen responded by throwing a sock down that contained the key.
Before East Village gentrification, the neighborhoods were rough with high crime and a brisk drug trade. Allen was mugged and assaulted on East 10th Street. He was relieved of his money and watch, but his assailants left him with $10,000 worth of manuscripts intact. He was also able to sell the poem “Mugging” to The New York Times for $400 and was pleased with profits gained.
Bill Morgan was visibly moved when he spoke of the last days of Allen Ginsberg and his illness. Besides for all of Allen’s literary and artistic and worldly accomplishments, he is remembered for his generosity and kindness, an East Village saint, holy the neighbor.
View photos from the tour: http://www.flickr.com//photos/94773724@N03/show/
(All photographs courtesy of Robert Graham. Please visit Robert Graham [USA] robertgrahamsongs.com to hear “Fragments of a Search” a song for Allen Ginsberg.)

The Beat Hotel…World Premiere Dec. 8 at Cinematheque, Copenhagen

Beat Hotel Trailer

8th December 2011

Copenhagen

The world premiere of  Alan Govenar’s 2011 documentary, The Beat Hotel, will screen at 8:00PM December 8 at Cinematheque, Copenhagen,  as part of a month-long film series dedicated to ‘all things Beat’.  Click on the words in red above for “Beat Hotel Trailer”.  Here is a description of The Beat Hotel from the film’s website:

The Beat Hotel, a new film by Alan Govenar, goes deep into the legacy of the American Beats in Paris during the heady years between 1957 and 1963, when Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso fled the obscenity trials in the United States surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. They took refuge in a cheap no-name hotel they had heard about at 9, Rue Git le Coeur and were soon joined by William Burroughs, Ian Somerville, Brion Gysin, and others from England and elsewhere in Europe, seeking out the “freedom” that the Latin Quarter of Paris might provide.

The Beat Hotel, as it came to be called, was a sanctuary of creativity, but was also, as British photographer Harold Chapman recalls, “an entire community of complete oddballs, bizarre, strange people, poets, writers, artists, musicians, pimps, prostitutes, policemen, and everybody you could imagine.” And in this environment, Burroughs finished his controversial book Naked Lunch; Ian Somerville and Brion Gysin invented the Dream Machine; Corso wrote some of his greatest poems; and Harold Norse, in his own cut-up experiments, wrote the novella, aptly called The Beat Hotel.

The film tracks down Harold Chapman in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent England. Chapman’s photographs are iconic of a time and place when Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Corso, Burroughs, Gysin, Somerville and Norse were just beginning to establish themselves on the international scene. Chapman lived in the attic of the hotel, and according to Ginsberg “didn’t say a word for two years” because he wanted to be “invisible” and to document the scene as it actually happened.

In the film, Chapman’s photographs and stylized dramatic recreations of his stories meld with the recollections of Elliot Rudie, a Scottish artist, whose drawings of his time in the hotel offer a poignant and sometimes humorous counterpoint. The memories of Chapman and Rudie interweave with the insights of French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, author Barry Miles, Danish filmmaker Lars Movin, and the first hand accounts of Oliver Harris, Regina Weinrich, Patrick Amie, Eddie Woods, and 95 year old George Whitman, among others, to evoke a portrait of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and the oddities of the Beat Hotel that is at once unexpected and revealing.

Here’s a quick rundown of all films showing:

THE BEAT HOTEL   also 12/16   730pm
Alan Govenar, 2011 / 82 min.

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN 12/15   5pm    12/21, 7pm
Yony Leyser, 2010 / 87 min.

ONE FAST MOVE OR I’M GONE: KEROUAC’S BIG SUR   12/10 445pm,  12/18 7pm
Curt Worden, 2008 / 98 min.

FERLINGHETTI  12/13 730pm  12/28 815pm
Christopher Felver, 2009 / 80 min.

WORDS OF ADVICE + LOWELL CELEBRATES KEROUAC 12/14  730pm  17/18 730pm   12/27   715pm
Lars Movin & Steen Møller Rasmussen, 2007 & 1998 / 74 min. + 35 min.

THE SOURCE    12/9    730pm    12/29      615pm
Chuck Workman, 1999 / 88 min.

A SELECTION OF SHORT BEAT FILMS:

PULL MY DAISY (Robert Frank & Alfred Leslie, 1959 / 30 min.)      12/17   215pm  and    12/30  745pm
TOWERS OPEN FIRE (Antony Balch, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin & Ian Sommerville, 1963 / 10 min.)
WHOLLY COMMUNION (Peter Whitehead, 1965 / 33 min.)
THE DISCIPLINE OF D.E. (Gus Van Sant, 1982 / 13 min.)
THE JUNKY’S CHRISTMAS (Nick Donkin, 1993 /

Peter Orlovsky Obituary

On May 30th, 2010, Peter Orlovsky died at the age of 76. He is best known as the long-time partner (and muse) of Allen Ginsberg, but he was also a great poet in his own right.

Biography

My biography was born July 1933

The first sentence of Orlovsky’s biography in New American Poetry 1945-1960

Born into poverty, Orlovsky dropped out of high school to support his family by working in a mental hospital, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War in 1953 at age 19. After telling his commanding officer that, “An army with guns is an army against love,” he was sent to work at an army hospital in San Francisco.

At 21 Orlovsky met Allen Ginsberg. It’s part of Beat legend that Ginsberg fell in love with a painting of Orlovsky (who was then working as a model) just before meeting the man himself in the San Francisco studio of painter Robert LaVigne in December 1954.

The couple moved into a North Beach apartment together and announced that they were “married.” They spoke openly of their relationship, and were listed as “married” in Ginsberg’s Who’s Who entry in the years following his rise to fame.

They travelled around the world together – spending two years in India, learning about Eastern philosophies. Both men took great interest in Buddhism during their travels.

Peter Orlovsky became an important part of the Beat Generation, although he only began writing poetry at the provocation of Ginsberg while the two were in Paris. He appears in Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams and Desolation Angels as Simon Darlovsky, and in The Dharma Bums as George.

Later, he taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. His course was called, “Poetry for Dumb Students.”

As well as working as a model, teacher and a poet, Orlovsky made several movie appearances. Along with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Gregory Corso, he appeared in Couch (1964), which was directed by Andy Warhol. Me and My Brother (1969), directed by Robert Frank, concerned Orlovsky’s relationship with his brother Julius, who was schizophrenic. He appeared (uncredited) in Bob Dylan’s 1979 Renaldo and Clara. In 1990 he appeared in Frank’s C’est Vrai.

Although their relationship was not always monogamous (with Orlovsky displaying heterosexual leanings) they were inseparable at times, and stayed together on-and-off until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Poetry

Orlovsky’s poetry became known for its simple, earthy honesty. He spoke freely (and often enthusiastically) about bodily functions and most famously about assholes. He couldn’t spell, but through his misspellings and the unusual phrasings of his work comes a refreshing freedom and originality.

His “Frist Poem” was published in 1958 by Yugen literary journal. It begins:

A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified

Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills the air

Of his poetry, William Carlos Williams once exclaimed: “Nothing English about it – pure American.” That was something Williams hoped poetry would become – a natural, organic voice, free of rules and traditions. Orlovsky’s poetry celebrates that which is distinctly natural and does not attempt to grasp grandiose philosophies.

As Gregory Corso put it,

An agricultural romantic, the Shellean farmer astride his Pegasusian tractor re-poems the earth with trees of berry and roots of honey; whose dirtian hands scribe verses of soy, odes of harvest; whose hymns to redolent shovels of manure nourish the fields that so nourish us, both in body meal and the cosmetics of soul.

Perhaps he was best described by the poet Michael Horovitz (with whom he read on his trips to the United Kingdom) as “refreshingly unliterary.”

Bibliography:

Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 58 (1971)

Lepers Cry (1972),

Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (1978)

Straight Hearts’ Delight Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947-1980, co-authored with Ginsberg (1980)

James Franco on Allen Ginsberg

James Franco has an essay in the new Vanity Fair about what it’s like to play Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming movie, Howl.

The essay is called “Finding the Beat“… which happens to be the title of another upcoming Beat movie, which you can read more about here. Continue Reading…