On “Angelheaded Hipsters” Of The Past: The Beats On Film

Putting aside the idea of historical accuracy, BFJ describes why Howl, On the Road and Kill Your Darlings are must-see films for every modern young person.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” wrote Ginsberg in “Howl”, the true manifest of the group whose light was so bright that it doesn’t allow us to forget about Beatniks even today. In recent years a wave of adaptations has swept through cinemas. The most famous are Howl (2010) by eager to educate and never sleeping James Franco, On the Road (2012) – one of the major works of Beat literature, and Kill Your Darlings (2013) about the Beat generation birth. But that’s not all: there’s also Beat (2001) with the amazing Courtney Love, Big Sur (2013) about adult Kerouac, or the forthcoming Burroughs adaptation “Queer” by Steve Buscemi.

Fans of literature are mostly overstraining voices in debates about shot dominance over the contents, while uninformed audiences enjoy the atmosphere and pretty actors. Criticism and the prevailing mood of disappointment always have their reasons, but better a small fish than an empty dish. Journals, interviews, books and historical basis is just one side of a story. “You weren’t even there. It’s your truth. It’s fiction.” – Lucien Carr says on the screen, and he is right.

Lucien Carr in Kill your darlings, 2013 (www.kinopoisk.ru)

Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings

Allen Ginsberg- one of the most awarded poets and iconic figures of the twentieth century- is the essence of almost every film about the Beats. It starts in Kill Your Darlings based on the almost unknown story of the Beat protagonists first meetings. The story is told through Ginsberg’s eyes which are veiled by his love for Lucien Carr. People, all from “the broken places” or with broken souls, come together and soon will become “real writers”. The Beatniks battle through murder, forbidden love, an endless thirst for freedom and attempt to escape the constraints of their world.

Allen’s history is a great illustration of personality growth. A seventeen year old shy guy, son of finally mentally unstable mother and father, becomes the generation voice that can be seen in Howl – the film covering his poem, obscenity trial and interviews with Ginsberg. And there’s probably no better way to present one of the crucial literary works of that century. In Howl Ginsberg reads the poem, talks about creativity, freedom of all kinds, the process of writing, personal problems and life trials; in a word, he blurs the line between private life and work. And, by the way, what is the real literature and how to determine its value? In between, Allen keeps silence on questions about mother and afraid of father’s reaction, while in parallel  his poem and paintings come to life through animation. The film ultimately is based on the good-natured honesty and openness of Allen i.e. those virtues on which the poet focuses in the latter part of the poem. Ginsberg’s life was not easy but his sick mother, rejected feelings, social stigma, shyness and teenage complexes to various extents are not alien to any of our contemporaries. So maybe we should take him at his word, raise our holy and “supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul” and pay attention to his every metaphor.

Allen Ginsberg reading poem in Howl, 2010 (www.imbd.com)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

Besides the maintenance of Allen’s narration in Kill Your Darlings or portrayal of Jack Kerouac in On the Road, the rebel’s nature is actually an engine of the whole Beat generation. And Lucien Carr is a king of this play. Despite the easy perception of Lucien as “femme fatale” this personality is actually more than just a spoiled child. His intelligence, freethinking and energy of any kind are the key origin of the Beatniks. Driven by ‘Lu’ these early Beat group rebels and requires the destruction of obsolete rules. And it’s important that they know that they disrupt. The diaries of Ginsberg in 1944-1945 are full of dialogues with Carr on morality, art, creation and many more. In film, in addition to all, the acquaintance of Lucien and Allen is primarily Henry Miller quotes and Brahms music. What are the chances of hearing a classical composer passing by the dorm today? Or stumbling upon the demonstration of oratory in a university lobby? Intelligence is the main difference between generations of those hipsters and ours. We are also rebelling, but against what? Also procrastinating, but mostly cited as being spiritually impoverished.

The rebel’s line is continued by Dean Moriarty – energetic, erratic and incredibly attractive “cocksman and Adonis of Denver” as wrote Ginsberg in “Howl”. Every moment falling in love and driven by inner demons Dean is eager to be on the road, to move. This want led him to new women, cities, friends and alcohol. This want opened his soul to the world and the search for father. An endless extension of horizon, a process of knowing the life is the key for their travels but all this has the end. The question “You guys are going somewhere or just going?” is the shot across the bow. Starting from Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg) people have left Dean for whatever reason. Sal does it on the same place, on the crucial place for Beat generation – on the road.

Speaking of Beat generation main rebels, it’s logical to mention the fact that they were muses of their times. Carr pulled Ginsberg’s talent to the surface; Dean Moriarty (Based on Neal Cassady) brought adventures to Kerouac’s and many others lives; Burroughs wife had to die in order to make her husband a great writer. But being inspiration is mainly about being a key of tragedy – thanks to history giving thousands of examples. Muses of Beat generation have become things of the past while their friends were wandering through the world and becoming generation heroes. Even Billie (Big Sur), the female incarnation of blond angel Lucien Carr, has been left by her beloved one. The bitter end is represented by Big Sur. Hedonism, love, friendship and loneliness have not provided happiness. Where should be a wise man crossed many roads, had a rough time the frustrated one asking what was it all for is appeared. Most of the Beat generation had a similar decline. Most likely Allen Ginsberg is the one of those who was happy on deathbed; the lifeblood of sacred poetry has saved him.

The discussion on these films never is finished without mentioning the picture i.e. shot and music. Besides the beautiful recreated outfits of those times, some films presents a good mix of old and new. Kill Your Darlings mixes sounds like Brahms melodies and jazz of the fifties with modern compositions including music by TV on The Radio and Bloc Party. This is done in balance: from classics and historical creating the atmosphere and immersing spectators into the movie to the present tunes at the culmination moments. Consciously or not, such approach pushes auditory closer to the story and drives them to translate it on up-to-date life.

Howl, 2010 (main pic)

Animated sequence from Howl

Howl is another good example of bringing new technologies into historical film. Animation performs a separate reality of Ginsberg’s poem drawing images and interpreting meanings. Although the basis of Howl is truly facts, the result of creation is always a reframe i.e. some sort of fiction. And such second thoughts of characters (e.g. Marylou in On the Road lost her negative connotations) have the aim of situation imminence. One can endlessly talk that there’s nothing about Ginsberg in Daniel Radcliff or Kerouac in Jack Huston. Today’s heroes played the Beats are too young and puerile. But look at the photos of 17-years old Allen – he’ll never look like any of today’s guys of the same age. Faces, culture, historical background and circumstances are different and that will never return while the works of the Beats are ageless. Maybe the touch of modernity in these stories is what revives them.

Burroughs, Ginsberg, Carr and Kerouac in Kill your darlings, 2013 (www.kinopoisk.ru)

L-R: Ben Foster (William Burroughs) Daniel Radcliffe (Allen Ginsberg) Dane DeHaan (Lucien Carr) and Jack Houston (Jack Kerouac) in Kill Your Darlings

And, of course, there is nothing about the Beats without literature. Helping with the start of your own research BFJ has made a list of works that are related to the films discussed above:

– Allen Ginsberg “Howl”

– Allen Ginsberg “Plutonian Ode”

– Allen Ginsberg “The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice. First Journals and Poems 1937-1952”

– Arthur Rimbaud “A Season in Hell & Other Poems”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky “Crime and Punishment” – Jack Kerouac “Big Sur”

– Jack Kerouac “On the Road”

– Jack Kerouac “Vanity of Duluoz”

– Jack Kerouac “The Town and the City”

– Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks”

– Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”

– William Butler Yeats “A Vision”

– William Burroughs “Junkie. The Yage Letters. Queer”

In 1941 Ginsberg wrote in his diary “Either I’m a genius, I’m egocentric, or I’m slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two”.

He was just 15. For him and other Beatniks nothing came for free: the death of Burroughs wife, Kerouac’s alcoholism and many other broken lives. And even if these films are not plausible from a historical point of view, they are clearly enough to give the understanding that some important ingredients are missing today. And while the minds of Beat generation were “destroyed by madness”, we should do everything to avoid our post-adolescence being destroyed by vain procrastination.

But first, answer the question asked by Kerouac: “Who is “you”?”

Ekaterina Petrakova
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