Beatnik Film Stars: The Beat Generation on Screen

The original Beats were obsessed with the power of the written word and had very little time for the moving image. However, its three main figureheads, authors Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allan Ginsberg, have inspired and influenced generations of filmmakers.

Their non-conformist lifestyles and groundbreaking approach to creativity has never been an easy thing to transpose onto the big screen. Many have tried and most have failed. Truth be told, no matter how amazing it’s framed and edited, watching someone type just isn’t very exciting for cinema audiences.

As far as I’m aware there is only one truly authentic Beat Generation film originating from the era that was fully sanctioned by the movement and involved several of its most prominent representatives. Directed by celebrated photographer Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy (1959) is a thirty-minute insight into the world of the genuine Beats.

Written and narrated by Jack Kerouac (taken from the third act of his play Beat Generation) it also features Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and weirdly enough Delphine Seyrig, future star of Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966) and Daughters of Darkness (1971). Robert Frank would go on to cast Ginsberg and Orlovsky in his seminal underground feature Me and My Brother (1969), whilst revisiting the legacy of the Beat movement in 1983 with another short entitled This Song For Jack.

Nothing too dramatic happens in Pull My Daisy. It’s set in an old New York apartment (although filmed on a sound stage) and mostly revolves around a railway worker, his wife who’s desperately trying to impress a local bishop, and their chaotic bohemian friends. It’s a playful, naturalistic and affectionate portrayal of the Beats that completely contradicts the sensationalized depictions of what the press and Hollywood were calling Beatniks (an amalgamation of the words Beat and Sputnik).

What we can now refer to as Beatsploitation Cinema has very little to do with the original creative community of scribes and artists that were closely associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. Beatsploitation films more or less proclaimed to be shocking exposés of the nocturnal coffee house scene and its deviant clientele, feeding into Middle America’s fear of an emerging counter culture that was nomadic, irresponsible and lived for kicks. The fabric of civilised society was fraying at the edges and these hep talking hoodlums were pulling the thread.

These were cautionary tales that warned of the dangers of living a carefree bohemian lifestyle. As far as Hollywood was concerned Beatniks were a sub culture of murderers, rapists and drug addicts with a fondness for coffee, Jazz, and bad poetry. The allure of caffeine, Be-Bop, and spontaneous prose was leading young America astray. But by conforming to a safe, secure and reasonably Middle-Class suburban existence it was less likely that you would end up in prison, addicted to drugs, or dead and buried in a ditch.

These films were predominately a ridiculous and misguided bastardization of the Beats ideology. They’re also far too entertaining to be completely dismissed. In all fairness its no wonder B-Movie producers were drawn to the coffee house scene for inspiration and perceived it as ripe and fertile territory for their warped crime dramas.

Especially when you consider the original Beats open and liberal attitudes to sexual relationships and recreational drug use, the scandal surrounding Lucien Carr’s involvement in the death of David Kammerer, and the fact that William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the head.

High School Confidential (1958) is one of the earliest examples Beatsploitation, with its pot-smoking, drug dealing delinquents, and an abundance of hilarious hipster slang. Highlights include the hip history of Columbus arriving in America and the recital of a Jazz poem entitled Tomorrows a Drag, Man. The Beat Generation (1959) features a script by Richard Matheson, a theme song by Louis Armstrong, an anti-abortion sub-plot, a serial rapist called The Aspirin Kid, Vampira reciting poetry, a song and dance number, and some seriously odd shifts in tone.

The Rebel Set (1959) sees a coffee house owning Beatnik organising a robbery that goes horribly wrong, The Bloody Brood (1959) stars a charismatic Peter Falk as a nihilist criminal killing for kicks with a deadly hamburger, and The Prime Time (1960) follows an innocent teen dragged into debauchery by a depraved cool cat artist known only as The Beard.

Roger Corman’s classic horror-comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959) is without doubt the best of the bunch. Inspired by Vincent Price shocker House of Wax (1953) and expertly transcending the confines of its extremely low budget, this superb black comedy is an excellent and ageless swipe at pseudo intellectual hipsters, desperate to perceive themselves as being interesting without actually doing anything particularly interesting.

Also worthy of attention is Curtis Harrington’s enjoyably odd and enchanting Night Tide (1961). A fresh faced and pre-psychosis Dennis Hopper plays a young sailor on shore leave that falls in love with a mysterious fairground employee he meets in a Jazz club who may or may not be a homicidal mermaid.

The initial Jazz club scenes feel incredibly authentic and Harrington avoids resorting to Beatnik caricatures, managing to invoke the allure of smoke filled basement bars and serendipitous nocturnal discoveries. He also does a great job of capturing the desolate gloom and dense haunting atmosphere of a misty, out of season coastal town with a certain amount of visual subtlety.

Very few films have captured Beat-era New York with such daring and sincere emotional honesty as John Cassavetes’ directorial debut Shadows (1959). A milestone of independent cinema it fearlessly breaks countless Hollywood taboos in both style and theme, and not to be reactionary and shocking, but to be honest and real, something that Hollywood in the fifties wasn’t exactly known for. It’s an evocative and distinctive movie that retains its strange power. There’s nothing else like it.

It’s a shame studio bosses didn’t have the balls to get Cassavetes to direct The Subterraneans (1960), Hollywood’s first big budget attempt at adapting an original Beat’s work. Based on Jack Kerouac’s short novel, the inter-racial relationship at the centre of the story is vetoed, changing the African American character of Mardou Fox into a white French woman. It’s so laughably sanitized it makes you wonder why they even bothered.

Not wanting to be left behind in the counter culture stakes British cinema during the early sixties made its own attempts at Beatsploitation, most of which were about as lurid and threatening as a Woolworth’s commercial. Apart from a superb opening sequence scored by John Barry, Beat Girl (1960) is particularly underwhelming.

Where as The Rebel (1961) brilliantly satirises the bohemian art world in all its deluded pretentiousness as Tony Hancock’s office clerk runs off to Paris to hang out with exotic continental Beatniks and become a genius. Guy Hamilton’s The Party’s Over (1963) is another strong contender with a stunning opening sequence of post party Chelsea Beats gloriously drifting across the Chelsea Bridge like jaded phantoms. Plus a charismatic Oliver Reed as an agitated bohemian who describes himself as a dead fly in the soup at the banquet of tycoons, with nuisance value, born to stick pins in pomposity. I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

William Burroughs was the first of the Beats to fully embrace the medium of film creating a number of experimental avant-garde shorts throughout the sixties (William Buys a Parrot, Towers Open Fire, 1963, The Cut Ups, 1966) with the abominable showman Antony Balch, famed British film distributor, director of Horror Hospital (1973) and the man who would eventually persuade Burroughs to narrate the 1968 re-release of Haxan: Withcraft Through The Ages (1922).

But the Beats would eventually give way to the hippies and other such teen tribes. No matter how precious and significant Wholly Communion (1965) thinks it is by capturing Beat poets reciting live at the Albert Hall, who really gives a shit when the rest of the world is setting fire to their guitars and dry humping jukeboxes?

By the late seventies there was a resurgence of interest in the Beat Generation, who were now looked upon as counter culture godheads. Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds (1979) tried to make sense of it all, and Burroughs: The Movie (1983) was shortly followed by Kerouac: The Movie (1984).

In 1980 John Byrum directed Heart Beat based on the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, starring Nick Nolte as Neal Cassady, John Heard as Kerouac, and Sissy Spacek as Carolyn in a complicated love triangle, the Beat Generation as soap opera.

What Happened to Kerouac? (1986) takes a comprehensive look at how a literary icon ended up a bloated drunk living at his mum’s house. Heavy Petting (1989) has Ginsberg and Burroughs bickering like an old married couple. Ralph Bakshi’s rare excursion into live action This Aint Be-Bop (1989) stars Harvey Keitel as an aging hipster wondering where it all went wrong for himself and the Beats.

In the Quantum Leap episode Rebel Without a Clue (1990) time travelling do-gooder Dr Sam Beckett enlists the help of Jack Kerouac in dissuading a waitress from joining a gang of Hell’s Angels and ruining her life, whilst Dean Stockwell gives an impassioned explanation as to what On The Road meant to him and his peers, and let’s face it he should know. The Beats had finally found prime time acceptance whether they wanted it or not.

David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William S. Burrough’s controversial Naked Lunch is by far one of the most creatively articulate and accomplished attempts at bringing the Beat Generation to the big screen; it’s also one of the most enjoyable.

From the Saul Bass inspired opening credits, the foreboding score performed by Ornette Coleman and conducted by Howard Shore, and a career best performance from Peter Weller, it’s a gooey, sticky and thoroughly weird homage to one of American literatures most warped and original minds. An engrossing, poignant and darkly surreal interpretation of Burroughs’ life and his work, although some of the special effects now look like a disgruntled Euro Disney employee has dropped Ketamine and taken out his frustration on one of the Animatronic attractions.

Another upstanding adaptation of Burroughs writing is the animated short The Junky’s Christmas, following Danny the car wiper’s desperate attempts to score on Christmas with unexpected and surprisingly seasonal results. Then there’s the ridiculously obscure Taking Tiger Mountain (1983). Based on Bladerunner: A Movie, William Burroughs’ script treatment of Physician and science fiction author Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner, it stars a very young Bill Paxton in a tale of militant feminist scientists from the future attempting to kill the Welsh Minister of Prostitution. Gus Van Sant’s amusing short The Discipline of D.E (1983) is also another worthwhile rendering of Burroughs’ writing from the early eighties.

Not nearly as interesting is The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), based an eight-page letter by Neal Cassady to Kerouac and starring Keanu Reeves. It really doesn’t add up to much with most of the cast looking embarrassed and awkward. Equally dreadful is Beat (2000) with a mumbling and misplaced Kiefer Sutherland as William Burroughs and a cringe worthy Courtney Love as his unfortunate wife Joan. It’s ludicrously bad and self-imploding with countless moments of unintentional humour, too many to list here.

James Franco does a spot on (if slightly too immaculate) impression of Ginsberg in Howl (2010) that documents the first performance of the seminal poem and the obscenity trial that resulted from its publication. It’s definitely coming from a good place, but unfortunately the extremely literal and already dated animation cheapens an otherwise good film.

When mainstream Hollywood finally got around to green lighting a big screen adaptation of Kerouac’s generation defining On The Road in 2012 it’s no surprise that they got it so completely wrong. Not only is On The Road seriously miscast it’s also extraordinarily tedious and an absolute chore to sit through.

Far superior in every way is the recent Kill Your Darlings (2013). A compelling and believable account of Ginsberg’s freshman year at Columbus University and his initial encounters with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Lucian Carr, an epochal year that would end with the brutal murder of David Kammerer.

Director John Krokidas has a firm grip on the material that rises above most dramatisations of The Beat Generation by simply being well made and convincing, and thankfully he doesn’t forget to be entertaining either. Within the dramatic and anxious lives of the disaffected and dissatisfied young beats, Krokidas leaves room for some memorable moments of perfectly pitched humour.

The only thing that ruins it is the distracting use of contemporary music that’s jarring, disorientating and a cheap and obvious ploy to pull in a younger audience. Nevertheless it’s a very likeable film and one of the best efforts at bringing the Beat Generation to the silver screen.

But the accolade of The Ultimate Beat Generation Film has to go to Chuck Workman’s absolutely excellent and invigorating American Masters documentary The Source (2000). Mixing archive footage and interviews with dramatised readings, The Source stars Johnny Depp as Jack Keroauc, Dennis Hopper as William Burroughs, and John Turturro as Allen Ginsberg.

The choice of actors is a stroke of genius, why on earth didn’t anyone think of this before? This is the cast that should have made On The Road. Depp substantiates that he was born to play Kerouac, and he does so effortlessly. Dennis Hopper perfectly radiates the intense weirdness that Burroughs cloaked in his fifties formal wear. As Ginsberg, John Turturro performs one of the most astoundingly powerful and raw interpretations of Howl you’re ever likely to experience. It’s more than obvious throughout the duration of The Source that these are people giving new life to something they have a deep admiration for, that community of social exiles desperate for change and for truth, those nocturnal, subterranean renegades of the written word who took the greatest risk of all, they dared to dream.