We Got the Beat?

The Source suggests that beatness is in the eye of the beholder

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that as an undergraduate I wrote my senior thesis on beat literature, analyzing different representations of Neal Cassady--Jack Kerouac's real-life counterpart to On the Road's Dean Moriarty, in all the fictional or poetic works in which he appeared. As I waded through pages and pages of beat ephemera, it soon became clear to me that, as the beat canon expanded, the line between art and life didn't just blur; it disappeared. The beats themselves set the stage for this, writing about themselves, their friends and lovers, and their cross-country excursions, sometimes under the cloak of fiction or poetry, other times not. Is Tom Wolfe a beat because he wrote about Cassady in his nonfiction work The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead wrote songs about Kerouac--so are they beat? The paper quickly became an unfocused hall of mirrors, marred by the fact that no one could or would distinguish between a primary text and a secondary one. Is an interview with Jack Kerouac just as authentic as reading one of his books? A photograph of Cassady--art or documentation? If I published my paper, who's to say that it wasn't beat?

The Source, unfortunately, serves to further muddy the waters. It's the latest documentary by Chuck Workman, director of the 1990 film Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol. Working with Japanese painter, sculptor, and laser artist Hiro Yamagata (who produced the film), Workman has created an expertly edited, loosely chronological montage about the lives of three major beat writers--Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs--and the impact these writers and their generation have had on the ensuing decades of American culture. He has also created what may be the pinnacle of beat kitschization: a shallow altar to the cult of authorship and mystique that surrounds a group of writers for reasons that have more to do with image and nostalgia than with any intelligent understanding of their art.

Don't misunderstand me: I ate it up. It's a great documentary, you know, formally speaking. It's very Nineties--lots of quick cuts to the usual Ginsberg photographs, the camera zooming in and out; sound bites of interviews with authors; quick segments of poets reading snippets of their works (you know, just enough to get the general drift--an entire poem might bore the viewer); voiceovers while we peruse shots of boyhood homes or newspaper clippings; shots of book jackets and even, occasionally, a quick camera scan of a typeset page of a poem or a paragraph of The Dharma Bums. And ostensibly making it relevant to today's viewers is the marquee-draw of Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg, and Dennis Hopper as Burroughs performing monologues from the work of the writers. I think Depp is even wearing Kerouac's leather jacket, which he bought for a pretty penny a few years back.

Superstars: Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in Chuck Workman's The Source
Superstars: Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in Chuck Workman's The Source

Cut into the biographical bits of the three beat subjects are brief readings and sound bites by other writers, such as Norman Mailer, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Amiri Baraka. Lawrence Ferlinghetti describes the famous reading at the 6 Gallery, where Ginsberg first read "Howl," and how, the next day, he sent a telegram to Ginsberg soliciting the manuscript for his small press, City Lights. Throughout The Source, there are segments of popular media representations and parodies of beatniks, and some of the parodies, like Steve Martin's Saturday Night Live poetry reading, are, if you didn't know it was Steve Martin, virtually indistinguishable from some of the authentic readings--which is a sad commentary on the quality of some of the more minor beat work.

The jittery style that The Source employs is old hat to viewers by now--and we love it. It informs us that what's going on is edgy, underground, alternative. And, when used well, in an artistic medium, montage, collage, juxtaposition, and so on, can aid in creating new ideas, in exposing prejudices, in opening doors to new modes of expression and communication. It can also be very manipulative. Placing two unrelated images side by side is one thing, similar to Burroughs's cut-and-paste method of slicing up pages and rearranging them at random, which can produce some horrifying combinations. But it's another, more dictatorial instinct that places them together with an intended meaning, giving the viewer the idea that they have come up with the connection themselves--like, say, the Burroughs Nike ads. It's done all the time in advertising, and is intended not to point outside the ad to the product, but to create a visual landscape by which the corporate branding of an alternative lifestyle can be bought and sold. Both Ginsberg and Kerouac wore khakis, you know.

Similarly, The Source is selling the beat lifestyle. Which is perfectly fine, in a way. Except that it does a great disservice to the literature it purports to laud. Yes, it's hard and maybe impossible to give a film viewer something onscreen that even resembles the reading experience. The Source, however, contains not even one plot summary of a novel, or an entire poem read from beginning to end. It's as if the film itself is hostile to the idea of presenting anything in its organic whole, as if there was a deliberate effort to exclude such a thing. The idea of these books lurks in the background in the film, but they really only serve an abstract role--as props to the establishment of these characters as outlaws, as madmen, as drunken junkies who just wanted to be who they wanted to be, if only Eisenhower and McCarthy would let them. It's the old wolfen narrative in Nineties sheep's clothing of man versus society, the triumph of the romantic hero over puritan conformity.

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