New documentary explores the ongoing influence of the Beats
By Nicole McEwan
The Source, Chuck Workman’s densely constructed odyssey through the best minds of the Beat Generation, opens with a mesmerizing image. The 1942 photo depicts three young men standing arm in arm on a cold winter’s day. On the left is Jack Kerouac, widely grinning and shamelessly staring straight into the camera. In the center is Allen Ginsberg, head tilted back, eyes averted, smug and shy simultaneously.
Beside him stands an impeccably clad William S. Burroughs, already staring down his nose at the world–a self-described “WASP washout” slumming around with restless vigor. The trio seem expert at living in the moment, caught in the midst of an impromptu party and ready to take on the world. Miraculously, they did–and then they wrote about it.
Before the Beats, America’s critical eye was pointed resolutely outward–enemies existed strictly beyond its borders and anyone who wasn’t blithely marching in step with the postwar machine was likely to be labeled a Communist. More than anything, the Beats’ writing held up a mirror forcing introspection on an unwilling nation.
“There was a schizophrenia between the subculture and popular culture,” explains Ginsberg in one scene, describing the vibrant black, gay, and jazz cultures that were flourishing in the ’40s and ’50s, far beneath the nation’s radar. Through a kaleidoscope of poetry, photographs, home movies, newsreels, TV kinescopes, and interviews, Workman credits the Beats’ philosophies as the kindling that set the counterculture on fire–eventually leading up to the civil rights and anti-war movements, the ERA, and even Stonewall.
Workman has made a career out of producing the divinely edited movie-clip sequences that are sometimes the unintentional highlight of the Academy Awards show. Here he puts those well-honed editing skills to fine use, fashioning a coherent portrait of his subjects from a multitude of sources. Using the creative arcs of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, the three most prominent Beats, as a framework, Workman weaves in bon mots, insights, and anecdotes from an impressive array of personalities, including writers Ken Kesey, Amiri Baraka, and Norman Mailer; lesser-known Beats like Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder; City Lights founder/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Dylan, and even Jerry Garcia–who describes Beats muse Neal Cassady as the first person the musician had ever met “who he, himself, was the art.”
To his credit, Workman tempers this mostly rosy tribute with scenes of bitterness (Corso decrying his lesser status than that of the more famous Kerouac) and decline (a drunken, bloated Kerouac getting the freak-show treatment on a ’60s-era TV gabfest). Along the way, a sense of wry amusement informs ironically positioned clips of the pop culture commodification of Beat yearnings, from Beat quotes on coffee mugs to a Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin donning the requisite beret, black turtleneck, and stoned demeanor.
Less successful are the dramatized interludes featuring actors Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Dennis Hopper as the Beat triumvirate reading portions of On the Road, Howl, and Naked Lunch. Workman’s previous (and equally accomplished) documentary Superstar celebrated the life and work of Andy Warhol–a painter who so well understood the potent allure of celebrity that he exploited it in his art. Here, Workman takes a page from Warhol’s book, using the three inarguably gifted actors as audience bait. Sadly, the trio often appears to be reading the words from a teleprompter–which seems oddly sacrilegious in this setting. Still the words work a certain magic–and Hopper, with his ferretlike countenance, is especially convincing as Burroughs.
A largely successful marriage of context and content, The Source‘s celebratory, elegiac tone captures the imagination like a great book–one that warrants a first and possibly a second perusal.
‘The Source’ screens Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 20 and 21, at 7 and 9 p.m. at Washington Square Cinema, 219 S. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma. For details, call 762-0006.
From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper.
© 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.
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