A long time coming, ‘On The Road’ the movie has flashed through the cinema screens and is due out on DVD at the end of this month. Caught one screening but as yet not able to study in detail. So first impressions: much better than I expected. I liked the main players – Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). They have style and guts and are the best portrayals of these two beat characters to date. In many ways the film is a companion piece to ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, director Walter Salles’ previous film on Che Guevara. As in that film you have two main male characters off on the adventure of a lifetime. There’s lots of road travel and stunning landscapes. One character is quite bookish, the other is obsessed with girls (and guys). There’s loads of cafes, restaurants and bars shot lovingly in warm tones and the movie is full of great cars and period details. If I knew nothing about The Beats i don’t know how much I would grasp. Vigo Mortenson turns up as William Burroughs but who he you might wonder if you didn’t know. As you are probably aware, the version of On The Road that was first published was heavily censored. It is only in recent years that the full uncut scroll version of the book has been generally available. The film seems to stem from that as there is lots of sex and drugs in this. Its a long ride (perhaps overlong) with a lot to take in. The film is beautifully shot but perhaps it has too much of a rosy glow and not enough stark grittiness. Look forward to a second viewing. See more here on the film’s website.
There is a good Wikipedia entry on the long history of attempts to make this movie. I was unaware that Kerouac wrote a letter to Brando suggesting he play Dean Moriarty with Kerouac playing himself. Now that would have been a stunner. I knew Coppola had held the rights since 1979 but didn’t know he had Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt initially lined up for it. Apparently, as preparation for the film, Salles made a documentary Searching for On the Road, in which he took the same road trip as the lead character in the novel and talked to Beat poets who knew Kerouac. That would be great to see. The movie got mixed reviews although most were unanimous in praising Hedlund’s full-on performance.
As chance would have it, just received a rental of ‘Gang of Souls: A Generation of Beat Poets’, directed in 1989 by Maria Beatty. The whole film consists simply of interviews and readings by the following: William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Anne Waldman, John Giorno, Richard Hell, Marianne Faithfull,Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins and Jim Carroll
The filming is largely very unflattering to the individuals concerned. The lighting is harsh and many of the participants do not look at their best. The editing is very basic. But the film is still of real interest. Its rare to see Corso, Di Prima and Ed Sanders and Jim Carroll (of ‘The Basketball Diaries’ fame). Richard Hell looks and sounds great but Lydia Lunch, Anne Waldman and John Giorno just make me wince. Its stretching the term Beat Poets to include Marianne Faithfull but what the hell.
Left: Sketch for Presspop figurine, designed by Archer Prewitt, sculpted by Kei Hinotani.
A new biography of Allen Ginsberg by Steve Finbow has recently been published by Reaktion Books in their series ‘Critical Lives’. [see Previous Post review of Charles Bukowski bio in the same series]
Finbow, who is apparently an ‘Extraordinary Senior Lecturer’ at North-West University in South Africa, has fashioned a fast-paced highly condensed chronological narrative of Ginsberg’s Life and Works in some 200pp.
An achievement in itself given the vast ocean of material that Ginsberg himself produced – not only his poems but also his journals, correspondence, photos etc – documenting himself and his colleagues in intense detail. Add to that another oceanic outpouring of writings about GInsberg which includes several extensive biographies by Barry Miles, Michael Schumacher and Bill Morgan that Finbow fulsomely acknowledges.
Its an exhausting read. Ginsberg was a restless spirit, constantly working and travelling the globe, lecturing and weaving a vast network of contacts. Finbow does an efficient job of documentation with a list of referenced sources and an extensive bibliography and the book serves a useful role of providing a introductory overview of his extraordinary life. From the books intro:
‘Ed Sanders writes that it ‘might be interesting to do a Total Biography of Ginsberg….perhaps a day-to-day bio, maybe 25,000 pages long’….in the belief that sometimes ‘an eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture’ [a quote from Don DeLillo], I offer you one a quarter of that size in the hope of re-animating, for a time, a complicated, passionate and ebullient life.’
The book is a useful complement to two others:
‘Screaming With Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg by Graham Caveney [Broadway Books/New York. 1999] provides a shorter skate through AG’s achievements and adventures accompanied by a wealth of great images.
‘The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg: A Narrative Poem’ by Edward Sanders [ The Overlook Press. Woodstock. 2000] is what it says – a remarkable book-length documentary poem. I love this book.
Whilst researching the above, came across this copy of The ‘Naked Lens: An Illustrated History of Beat Cinema’ by Jack Sargeant [Creation Books. 1997] A revised edition (2009) is now available from Soft Skull Press. Its a true cult classic containing much undocumented material and original interviews.
The book was launched with a showcase of Beat movies, selected by Jack, as part of a brilliant Lewes Live Literature event ‘The Savage God’, organised by Mark Hewitt, which ran from June 26th to July 10th 1999. I was asked to give an introductory talk on Sunday July 4th appropriately. Jack was present and, as I recall, talked about each film before it was shown.
The programme which ran through afternoon and evening featured the Robert Frank film ‘Pull My Daisy’, a Ginsberg documentary, Peter Whitehead’s famous ‘Wholly Communion’ about the 1965 Albert Hall poetry event, two of the legendary short films of Anthony Balch featuring William Burroughs, and the cult movie ‘Chappaqua’ by Conrad Rooks which was fascinating.
News of what sounds like a really great documentary on Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Entitled Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder’, directed by Christopher Felver. Read article here and see trailer here. Thanks to BIGFUG for the tip-off.
A complete list of all Previous Posts on Beat Culture, including my original interviews with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg can be found summarised here.