Ray Carney curated the film and video program for the Whitney Museum of American Art's Beat Culture and the New America1950-1965 show. He has written extensively about Beat film and more recent American independent work. The following material represents only an brief excerpt from his work. To obtain the complete text of the following piece or learn more about his writing about independent film, click here.
An Overview of the Major Works of Beat Filmmaking
Click here for best printing of text
It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them . . . They are lonely; the spirit of their writing and conversation is lonely; they repel influences; they shun general society. . . . Society to be sure, does not like this very well. It saith: Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declares all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay insulting. Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators, but if anyone will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial, but joyous, susceptible, affectionate. They have even more than others a great wish to be loved. Like the young Mozart, they are ready to cry ten times a day, "But are you sure you love me?" . . . . And yet it seems as if this loneliness and not this love would prevail in their circumstances, because of the extravagant demand they make on human nature. Their quarrel with every man they meet is not with his kind but his degree. There is not enough of him. They prolong this privilege of childhood in this wise: of doing nothing, but making immense demands of all the gladiators in the lists of action and fame. They make us feel the strange disappointment which overcasts every human youth.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Transcendentalist"
What follows is a series of notes intended to be of use to scholars, teachers, and film programmers interested in films connected with the Beat movement and its cultural milieu. The master screening list to which these notes refer (pp. 212-215) is meant to be both extremely comprehensive and highly selective. On the one hand, the list includes a wide range of films of many different types and genres; on the other hand, a high degree of selectivity has been exercised in compiling it. Works which are clearly second-rate or derivative have not been included. Though a number of Hollywood films are represented, many other depictions of the Beat movement in popular culture, particularly those on television, have been judged not to merit serious attention. It is my belief that each of the works on this screening list potentially deserves inclusion in a Beat film festival, even as I recognize that probably no single screening series would be able to show all of these works.
The first challenge anyone seeking to make such a selection faces is the question of where to draw the boundaries. The definition of what is or is not Beat in film is not at all clear. Compounding the problem is the inherent looseness and vagueness of the Beat movement itself. Much of Beat culture was more of a negative stance than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by any particular shared purpose or program.
It would be a lot easier if it were simply a matter of finding movies with "beatniks" in them. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the word (which by sarcastically punning on the recently launched Russian Sputnik was apparently intended to cast doubt on their red-white-and-blue-blooded all-Americanness). And the mass media popularized the concept. Dobie Gillis, Life magazine, and Charles Kuralt and a host of other entertainers and journalists reduced Beatness to a set of superficial, silly externals that have stayed with us ever since: goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches, and "cool, man, cool" jargon. The only problem is that there never were any beatniks in this sense (except, perhaps, for the media-influenced imitators who came along late in the history of the movement). Beat culture was a state of mind, not a matter of how you dressed or talked or where you lived. In fact, Beat culture was far from monolithic. It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind.
The films and videos that have been selected for the screening list are an attempt to move beyond the cultural clichés and slogans, to look past the Central Casting costumes, props, and jargon that the mass media equated with Beatness in order to do justice to its spirit. One way to begin defining the Beat spirit is simply to say that it was culturally adversarial. The Beats attempted to stand outside of the mainstream culture of the period and to disassociate themselves from most of America's cultural achievements. They were profoundly out of sympathy with most of the values of post-War American society and its institutions, and aspired to position themselves somewhere, anywhere else. (Often it seemed that where else hardly mattered.) They aspired to be cultural escape artists.
Since so much of Beat culture was a reaction against mainstream, postwar American society, it seems desirable to begin by setting the stage and providing a cultural background. The first group of films summarizes the feel of the postwar years. Emile de Antonio's Point of Order!, made in 1964, looks back at the HUAC hearings of the late forties and early fifties. In a more humorous vein, Kevin Rafferty's Atomic Cafe and Obie Benz's Heavy Petting capture some of the emotional flavor of the cold war era. On the evidence of these works, American society was united in agreement about two threats to the common welfare: internationally, Soviet Communism and the H-Bomb; domestically, extramarital sex and the alleged decline of morals. It should come as no surprise that when the Beats surfaced in the national consciousness, they were linked with both terrors –suspected, first, of being Communists, and second, of being "perverts" or advocates of "free love" (contemporary code words for homosexuality and extramarital sex, respectively). Although the names of the devils change from year to year, de Antonio, Rafferty, and Benz remind us that Puritanism perennially rhymes with paranoia.
Greta Schiller, Robert Rosenberg, and John Scagliotti's Before Stonewall and Janet Forman's The Beat Generation: An American Dream trace responses to this atmosphere of fear and repression. Before Stonewall reminds us that the existence of a Bohemian cultural underground in America antedates the Beat movement by at least fifty years. In Forman's sociological overview of the Beat response to the Eisenhower era, one of the most interesting points is made by Diane DiPrima, who explains that the notorious "coolness" of the Beats was a symptom not of not caring (as depictions of beatniks in the media would have it) but of caring all too intensely. While the middle-class used alcohol, sex, and power as narcotics to dull their consciousness of the emotional frustration of their jobs, and accumulated material possessions in an attempt to fill the spiritual void in their lives, the Beats actually faced the truth of their society. Given such an emotionally exposed and vulnerable position, it was necessary to maintain one's "cool" as much as possible.
The next four films in the program illustrate different responses to this malaise from fiction filmmakers contemporaneous with the Beat movement. The Bachelor Party (directed by Delbert Mann from a Paddy Chayefsky script) is one of the subtlest presentations of middle-class male anxiety in all of Hollywood film. It is the highest praise to point out that in an era of obligatory "happy endings," the cracks the narrative reveals in mainstream ideals of love and marriage are far from being papered over by the film's sentimental conclusion. Strick, Meyers, and Maddow's The Savage Eye is a more tendentious and ultimately less satisfactory work. It is a nightmare depiction of the American dream gone awry–an anti-Hollywood saga of heartlessness and soullessness deliberately set in the camp of the enemy: the streets, shops, and offices of L.A.
It is against this background of wide-spread cultural anxiety and uncertainty that the performances of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause should be viewed. Brando and Dean were dangerous and exciting actors precisely because they tapped into pervasive undercurrents of dissatisfaction in fifties society. Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause is stunningly in tune with the Beat sensibility. Ray's film demonstrates that if the Beat movement is not confused with its external trappings, its spirit can be captured without even alluding to the Beats. Ray mounts a powerful critique of the social and emotional dysfunctionality of the American family, and, specifically, of the failure of the married-to-his-job father to provide a role model for his son to emulate. (The father as missing-person is one of the secret subtexts of many Beat works.) Ray documents the materialism and spiritual aridity of suburban life. In the planetarium scene, he breathtakingly communicates the dread and doom felt by the first generation to grow up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. And, on the positive side, in the performances of James Dean and Sal Mineo, he captures one of the most important emotional dimensions of Beat culture: its tenderness towards and identification with the weak and disenfranchised members of society.
The scene in Rebel Without a Cause that, to my mind, comes closest to summarizing the full complexity of the Beat situation is the extended sequence near the end in which James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo flee to the deserted mansion. Ray suspends his three figures at the same in-between imaginative and tonal place the Beats themselves occupied: between hope and despair, fear and idealism, flight and homecoming, comedy and tragedy, clumsiness and grace. The mansion becomes a special, sanctified playhouse within which Jim, Judy, and Plato live out imaginative possibilities inconceivable within their real families. They play with their old identities, improvise new ones, and try on a shifting series of pretended roles and relationships. (The adolescent awkwardness of their performances only makes them all the more endearing.) They turn life into an ebullient game. As they parody adult tones and voices in a cascade of comic impersonations, they demonstrate that they apparently can be anything–that the notion of a fixed social (or cinematic) identity is an arbitrary limitation on one's true imaginative multiplicity. They show us that personal identity doesn't have to be narrow and formulaic (as it is for the adults in the film), but can be experimental, shifting, and open-ended, and playful. They show us that social relations can be stimulating and creative. Their final impersonation is to play at being a family (with Jim and Judy as the parents and Plato as their son)–a family organized along entirely different lines from the families they grew up in: their relationships are not rigid, authoritarian, and hierarchical, but egalitarian, democratic, loving, and sensitively responsive to one another's needs.
It's a remarkable sequence, deeply revelatory about the essential feel of the Beat situation. The Beats were experimenting with new, flexible forms of selfhood and society in almost exactly the same way as Jim, Judy, and Plato are. (Compare Diane DiPrima's wonderful Dinners and Nightmares for a prose analogue to Ray's scene.) What makes the scene so complex and moving is that it captures both the hopefulness and the desperation, both the joy and the sadness of the situation.
Jim, Judy, and Plato are, after all, only playing house. They are only pretending to be a family. They are only experimenting with potentialities of selfhood and social relationship. Their achievement is only imaginative. In the onrush of the plot events, it will only last a few minutes. And yet, the scene also convinces us that the possibilities Jim, Judy, and Plato entertain–the new, playful, relaxed forms of personality and relationship they act out–are real. Their identities are larger and more fluid, and they do display more love than they have been able to show up to this point in the film. Ray's scene summarizes both the glory and the doom of the Beat dream of creating a society different from that of adult America.
Having written off mainstream American society as emotionally, morally, and socially bankrupt, for their heroes the Beats looked to those whose lives and work fell outside the mainstream. In On the Road Kerouac (thinly concealed behind the persona of Sal Paradise) writes of wishing that he could trade places with Denver ghetto dwellers:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a "white man" disillusioned. . . . I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensual gal; and dark faces of the men behind the rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in little rocking chairs.
It's an embarrassing, not to say disgraceful, passage–a vision so romanticized that it might be by Disney. Kerouac wishes away every reality of poverty and race in America. The only thing that can be said in his defense is that he and the Beats didn't invent the myth. Similar passages in praise of dusky, mysterious, Black sensuousness run throughout American literature from Harriet Beecher Stowe to William Faulkner to Norman Mailer.
If the Black experience was glamorized, the Black artist, and in particular the black musician, was idolized by the Beats. As Ed Bland's The Cry of Jazz illustrates, the black musician was felt to be in touch with a deeper, more authentic state of being. Celebrating Bird! The Triumph of Charlie Parker and The World According to John Coltrane make it clear that Bird and 'Trane were appreciated not merely for their technical virtuosity and musicianship, but as kinds of secular saints. They were in touch with spirits (and wrestled with demons) that white society had lost contact with.
Pressed to define Beatness, Kerouac once said that it meant "sensitive." In that sense of the word, the jazz musician was felt by the Beats to be a paragon of almost superhuman sensitivity. He was an antenna that picked up signals no one else could hear, a supremely delicate tuning fork that resonated to invisible cultural and emotional force fields. He heard dog-frequencies and made them audible to the rest of us.
Kerouac's own description of this process in On the Road is summarized in his half-comical characterization of George Shearing as being "all ears, opened like the ears of an elephant, listening to the American sounds and mastering them." We will see the cinematic equivalent of this "listening" and "mastering" process in many of the most important avant-garde films of the period. The crucial point with respect to the Beat artist (whether a poet, jazz performer, or filmmaker) is that to make oneself this sensitive–this receptive and alert–one must of necessity put oneself in an extremely exposed and vulnerable position. The artist must let down the walls that normally protect the self, and bravely open up to uncontrollable influences and unpredictable outcomes; must dare to become fluid, transparent, and permeable; and, above all, must give up the comfort of fixed positions and preformulated stances. They would only limit his sensitivity.
The performance of the jazz musician embodied an ideal to which all Beat art (and life) aspired. As a master of second-by-second responsiveness, the jazz performer gave himself over to the flowing energies of the moment. He lived in an eternal now, making himself and his performance up as he went along. Blueprints were out; improvisation was in. Planning and premeditation were the enemies of openness and spontaneity. Art (and life) for the jazz performer became open-ended acts of attention expressed in continuously revised and adjusted acts of mastery.
In this version of American existentialism, Lee Konitz's musical improvisations pointed the way toward Kerouac's verbal ones (typing his "spontaneous bop prosody" at 120 words per minute on an unfurling roll of teletype paper), and both had affiliations with Neal Cassidy's lived improvisations (picking up girls on buses, telling stories in bars, or hurtling cars through traffic). The supreme allegiance was to remaining faithful to moment-by-moment movements of feeling and awareness. Organization and structure only got in the way. Since life was only a series of impulses (or so the argument ran), the emphasis was on the truth of impulses over the truth of structures. If the result was, in many cases, appallingly disorganized lives and works, in others (like the finest passages in Ginsberg's, Kerouac's, and DiPrima's writing, Parker's and Coltrane's playing, and Bruce's stand-up routines), the speed and energy of the result were electrifying.
The Beats embraced a variety of Eastern religious practices in an effort to reestablish a relation to the spiritual side of everyday life. Zen Buddhism in particular appealed to them for several reasons: it was not premised on the existence of God to justify its beliefs and practices; and it esteemed nonrational, nonlogical states of mystical awareness (which tied in with the Beat interest in consciousness-altering drugs). At the same time, it was a religion that valued ordinary experience. Zen was a not at all a dress-up-and-go-to-church-on-Sunday religion, but had a Whitmanesque love of the prosaic, the mundane, the everyday. Its saints were not otherworldly, but all too worldly–many of them itinerant vagabonds who resembled Beat drifters and rail hoppers. (When it came to dharma bumming, the Beat movement invariably put more emphasis on the bumming than the dharma.) Finally, at least as inflected by its Chinese Sung and T'ang heritage, Zen evinced a great reverence for the natural world. (This proto-ecological aspect was especially appealing to West Coast writers like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen.)
Three factors were instrumental in raising awareness of Zen in America during the Beat period: the visits of a number of Japanese Zen Masters to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the fifties and early sixties (eventually resulting in the establishment of major Zen Centers in all three cities); the popularizations of D.T. Suzuki; and the presentation of a variety of pre-New Age ideas and beliefs by the transplanted British writer Alan Watts, in an influential series of public lectures, radio broadcasts, and books.
None of Watts' talks from the fifties and sixties were preserved on film, but a number of his lectures were filmed in the early 1970s, two of which are included in this series. Man in Nature and Work as Play give a fair impression of the ideas he presented during the Beat era. The dharma talk by John Daido Loori, Abbott of the Zen Mountain Center in Mount Tremper, New York, is again not contemporaneous with the Beat movement, but can stand as an illustration of many similar talks delivered by Zen monks visiting America during the Beat period.
The various documentaries require less commentary. The first group focuses on four major Beat artists –Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce–and each provides a slightly different perspective on the figure at hand. Bruce may seem like the odd-man-out in this group, but I would argue that his work is in fact deeply in the spirit of the Beat movement. (Indeed, I would argue that he is among the greatest of all of the Beat artists.) Bruce wages a war against all limiting, rigidifying, life-denying systems of morality and social organization (including but not limited to the system of understandings and relationships called bourgeois values and ideals). It is the same war that the greatest Beat art fights. Like other Beat artists, Bruce calls us to recognize central human qualities that middle-class concepts of virtue and vice only cover up. His work is represented by a film of an on-stage performance and a video of a television appearance. (His records are an even better source of his performance material.) For some reason, no documentary filmmaker has ever chosen to focus on Bruce's life, times, and friendships. (Fred Baker's 1972 Lenny Bruce Without Tears is too superficial and sensationalistic to warrant attention.) Another important Beat figure who has been inexplicably overlooked by documentary filmmakers is Lawrence Ferlinghetti (though he hovers in the background of several of the films focusing on other artists).
The next two groups of films are fairly self-explanatory. "Additional Documents from the Period" consists of works that document events contemporaneous with the Beat movement, while the films grouped under the heading "The Beat Goes On" document gatherings of various Beat figures at poetry readings, conferences, and other events in subsequent years, and bring the Beats into the recent past and present. The most poignant of these, to my mind, is Huncke and Louis, a work-in-progress by Laki Vazakis. It dives below the inveterate rhetorical posturing and posing of the Beat movement to provide a view of Beatness with the bloom off. Herbert Huncke sadly sums up the death of his youthful Beat dream with his parting words: "I'm not ever going to be positive about anything again." It's a salutary and bracing reality-check.
Raymond Saroff's cinematic record of the Happenings staged by Claes Oldenberg, Pat Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, and others in 1962 is one of the few cinematic documentations of these important artistic events. One of the fundamental goals of Beat art was to break down what were regarded as arbitrary artistic separations–not only between various forms of artistic expression (theater, dance, painting, and sculpture in this case), but between the expressions we call art and those we call life. The point was to take art off the walls of the museums and galleries and to allow it to reflect and to come into contact with life as it was experienced in the home and on the street. A related goal was to allow the formal roughness, mess, and disjunctions of ordinary life into the work. Rather than emanate from a realm of beauty over and above the clutter and noise of ordinary experience, art was to be lived in real spaces and bodies. It was de-Platonized, taken down off its pedestal of idealism. Oldenburg's Happenings deliberately included events normally excluded from the purview of art: washing your feet, eating supper, changing your clothes, going to bed. The comic tone of the Happenings (though you wouldn't know it from Saroff's film, contemporary audiences were reported to have laughed throughout them) is another way of taking art off its high horse. The Happenings brought art down to earth (like the bodies that keep sliding off the tables in one of the events). They brought it closer to Charlie Chaplin's baggy pants antics. The Happenings did to art what Zen did to religion: they removed its aura of specialness and sacredness. And, as in Zen's blending of the sacred and the profane, the process worked both ways. If art was made ordinary, the ordinary was made artistic. The most mundane events and objects were cherished as being, at least potentially, precious and beautiful. One of the fundamental agendas of the Beat movement was the effort to bring art's powers of renewal and transformation into daily life. (The annual Halloween parade in Greenwich Village is the most obvious manifestation of this attempt to live art, to productively blur its boundaries with life. Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures is a cinematic example of an attempt to do the same thing.)
Equally important, the Happening altered the relationship of viewers to the work. Viewers are not allowed to be passive consumers. Not only are they asked to contribute to the event (by bringing a radio and playing music in this instance), but they are forced to engage themselves actively in making sense of it (choosing where to look and what to pay attention to among multiple, simultaneous events). And wherever they do look, the effect is different from traditional museum art. A Happening doesn't lend itself to static analysis. It won't sit still enough to be a still life. It won't stop to be contemplated. Its meanings flow. Its meanings are never completed, never resolved, always in process.
The present-minded, Zen-like fluidity of the experience is one of the most important aspects of much Beat art. Whether one considers Dean Moriarty's driving in On the Road (and Kerouac's on-rushing syntactic presentation of it), the metaphoric tumble (to the point of sensory overload) of Stan VanDerBeek's collages, the dramatic mercuriality of the characters Taylor Mead played, the riffs of the jazz virtuosos the Beats admired, or the equally inspired verbal riffs Lenny Bruce improvised on stage–one of the points of the performance is to remain masterfully, meaningfully, and above all, rapidly in motion. There are no rest stops on this journey. There is nothing to hold on to. The artist as the creator of monuments of unaging intellect gives way to the artist as Gingerbread Man. Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch him.
Bruce Conner's brilliant and moving The White Rose documents another way to take art off the wall. The cinematic Happening he stages has more than superficial similarities with the performed Happenings Oldenburg and his associates stage. As presented by Conner, the work of art overlaps with work of the world (and also shares the world's sense of "work" as being a verb conflated with art's sense of it as a noun), which establishes a deep connection to Oldenburg. Yet The White Rose's depiction of the relationship of the world and the work, and of the relation of the work of art (noun) and the work of art (verb), is far more complex than Oldenburg's. The physical and spiritual costs exacted by the work of art (noun and verb) have seldom been more succinctly or more movingly expressed than in the juxtaposition of the dark angularity of the moving men's ropes, pulleys, tools, and pallets with the white-on-white curliness of Jay de Feo's rose.
Conner's film serves as a transition into the next major section of the program: works of film art that are Beat in sensibility. One of the defining differences between mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and avant-garde works is that Hollywood movies understand experience almost entirely in terms of externalized conflicts and struggles, while in avant-garde films the real drama is almost always inward. In Hollywood movies, characters confront a series of physical obstacles or personal opponents and respond to them with a course of practical actions. Avant-garde films understand that the turning points in life do not usually involve outward actions but inward acts of sensitivity and knowledge, imaginative forms of understanding. The avant-garde filmmaker knows that invisible, intangible, pervasive structures of feeling have much more effect on our destinies than events and objects do. (The mansion sequence in Rebel Without a Cause is one of very few scenes in a mainstream movie that presents a deeply inward drama. The house to which Jim, Judy, and Plato flee is haunted by ghosts that are much more insidious, and much harder to exorcise than real ghosts would be: the ghosts of all of the "adult" roles, tones, and manners these young adults have internalized.)
Christopher MacLaine's The End dramatizes a war between two opposed sets of feelings and tones. One aspect of the film is as dark and apocalyptic as its title. It is a record of obsession, despair, murder, and suicide. Yet the Baudelarian tones, Byronic posturings, and macabre events are so narratively undeveloped and unjustified (who are these people? why in the world should we care about them?), and presented in such an overwrought way that the effect is surreal and half-comical. The result of tonal dissonance is actually more unsettling than if the narrative were presented more normally.
As is also the case in Beat, MacLaine's extreme narrative stylizations, eccentric editing, and balletic blocking reveal a witty, graceful, dancelike sensibility. The star of The End is none of the self-absorbed young men, but MacLaine himself. The loss we would morn at the end is not the loss of them, but of him.
It is impossible to do more than hint at the intellectual originality (and emotional challenge) of Stan Brakhage's work in an overview of this sort. Suffice it to say that Brakhage has been selected for inclusion insofar as he attempts to cleanse perception–to escape from the cultural and artistic pollutants that we have breathed into our systems throughout our lives. He represents an artistic strain within the Beat movement that aspires to give us new eyes and ears, to free us from the cultural accretions and conventions, even of the most basic sort–like conventions of "realistic" representation and perspective that date back to the Renaissance. The result is a viewing experience like nothing else on film. Brakhage offers an Ur-vision, a vision of experience before it has been cognitively sorted, articulated, and structured into conventional forms of understanding. By the time he made Anticipation of the Night in 1958, he was also one of the few Beat artists who had moved completely beyond adolescent concerns, to explore fully adult issues and questions.
Beat art has frequently been diary-like, not only in its content (its intimate autobiographical revelations), but, more important, in its form. Like jazz performance, Beat art is essentially temporal in its understanding of experience and process-oriented in its forms of presentation. The emphasis is on process over destination and performance over product. One result of this process-orientation was the embrace of additive and linear forms of presentation. Beat artists attempted to remain true to the sequential nature of lived experience and the movements of consciousness by deliberately avoiding hierarchical, architectonic, totalizing, or essentializing presentations. Ginsberg's Kaddish and Kerouac's On the Road, in their different ways, go down the "Open Road" with Whitman in understanding experience as a fundamentally sequential and accumulative process. In this view, life is a shopping list, a Master Card statement, a diary, and art should attempt to do justice to that aspect of it. In Lost, Lost, Lost Jonas Mekas creates a film that attempts to be true to the time it takes to live a life.
Given the Beats' feelings about American culture, many Beat works communicate a sense of cultural displacement. Lost, Lost, Lost and Mekas' Guns of the Trees (most of which was filmed after the former but released 14 years earlier) are deeply affecting portraits of what it felt like in America in the fifties to be a "displaced person"–in all senses: linguistically, culturally, socially, imaginatively, and artistically. For a viewer with the patience to live through the experiences along with Mekas Lost, Lost, Lost is one of the most profoundly sad and moving works of the period. Both Lost, Lost, Lost and Guns of the Trees also demonstrate how for Mekas and his characters, as in the Beat movement more generally, the state of social marginality and imaginative alienation, however personally painful to experience, conferred some degree of freedom. (With respect to the attitudes towards the black experience already mentioned, one notes that Mekas is as guilty of romanticizing the "other" in Guns of the Trees as Kerouac was in On the Road.)
Frank Paine's and Shirley Clarke's short pieces capture another mood entirely. They are bebop visions, experiments in visual jazz–attempts to do with film what the jazz performer does with music. Paine's dazzling, propulsive, hilarious Motion Picture (which I came across only by accident and represents a genuine rediscovery of a previously "lost" work) puts the viewer on the road and thrillingly on the move with staccato editing to a jazz drum solo. Clarke was trained as a dancer and choreographer and began her filmmaking career by filming dance works. By the time she made Bridges-Go-Round and Skyscraper, she had discovered the dance of life. She is a choreographer of images, playing visual riffs on the New York skyline, riffs as inventive, ecstatic, and spiritually exultant as those of her personal artistic hero Ornette Coleman (about whom she made a film in 1985).
One of Clarke's strengths as a filmmaker was her tough-mindedness, her refusal to kowtow to the intellectual fad of the week. Her film of Jack Gelber's The Connection is remarkable for its utter lack of sentimentality about both the Beats and those who glamorized them. In Clarke's vision, the Beat experience is a drug-induced nightmare of frustration and boredom, and even an artistic interest in it is itself potentially an act of voyeurism and exploitation. (Her own film is a clear exception to this generalization.) Nonetheless, I find The Connection to be a rather weak work. I suspect that its initial notoriety resulted more from the debates over it in the newspapers than from its accomplishments as a work of art.
Clarke's The Cool World (not included on the screening list since it does not reflect a Beat sensibility) is another tough-minded work. Given all of the idealizing of the African-American experience by artists during the Beat era, its highly unromanticized view of life in the ghetto is all the more striking. Portrait of Jason is another swerve away from cinematic fashion: a reply to the Andy Warhol films in which a character charms the audience with his or her performative panache. Clarke's goal in both works is to let us look deep enough into her characters' eyes to be able to see the skull beneath the skin (to borrow one of her own visual metaphors in The Portrait of Jason).
The Portrait of Jason adds an important additional perspective to an understanding of the Beat movement. As Paul Goodman argued in Growing Up Absurd (which is probably the best study of the emotional dynamics of the movement), the visionary and the street hustler, the shaman and the con-man, the Beat and the hipster were never very far apart psychologically. To see through bourgeois systems of understanding was to empower oneself to move in either direction, and in fact, most Beats included both opposite tendencies within themselves. As evidence of the intimate relationship within the Beat movement of the saint and the scam artist, we not only have the fictional bond between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road, but the real-life symbiosis of Kerouac and Cassady. Like Neal Cassady (as he is devastatingly revealed in his letters to Kerouac or some of Carolyn Cassady's stories), Jason has seen what a game of three-card-monte most social interactions are, and he takes that insight as his license for hypocritically manipulating the rules, rigging the game, and ripping off everyone in sight. Jason dazzlingly figure-skates the surfaces, after having declared that there are nothing but surfaces. As Goodman points out, the hypocritical role-playing of the con-man (Neal Cassady/Jason Holiday/Aaron Paine) merges with the sweet quietism of the saint (Kerouac/the gentle young men in Chris MacLaine's work/the Taylor Mead characters in Ron Rice's or Vernon Zimmerman's films) in another way as well: "Role Playing protects a deep conceit of one's abstract powers: one 'could' if one wanted, but in fact is never tested." Like Bennie, the archetypal hipster in Cassavetes' Shadows (whom Jason resembles in other respects as well), Jason could do anything– if anything were worth doing. Jason explores the limits of hip self-delusion–the scary point where the mask becomes the face. Jason is not a time-out from Beatness, but the fulfillment of one of its most lethal and self-destructive imaginative possibilities.
Since they are dealt with at length in separate essays, I will pass over the next two major works on the list, Shadows and Pull My Daisy, and proceed to the films of Ron Rice and Vernon Zimmerman: The Flower Thief, The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, and Lemon Hearts. All three feature the best known Beat actor of the period, Taylor Mead, in the starring role. Though Mead's performances have often been compared with Chaplin's (Rice works in a number of references to City Lights and Zimmerman an extended allusion to Modern Times), his true silent film ancestor is not Charlie Chaplin but Harry Langdon. The distinction may seem trivial; but it is crucial to understanding the ways in which Mead's work connects with certain imaginative tendencies within the Beat movement. The Chaplin tramp is a comic rendition of mature adulthood; he is sexually, emotionally, and socially mature, and extremely resourceful and knowledgeable about the ways of the world. The characters Mead plays are not adults in any respect. They are eternal children, divine fools, pure-hearted simpletons detached from the world and innocent of its machinations. They illustrate what Kerouac might have had in mind when he defined Beatness as beatitude.
But Mead's characters also illustrate something less flattering about the Beat movement. They summarize a tendency within Beat culture to renounce the social responsibilities and emotional demands of adulthood and become a child again. There are lots of women and a good deal of nudity in Beat film, but representations of mature sexual or social relationships are rare. The characters Mead plays (as well as the male leads in Adventures of Jimmy, Pull My Daisy, and many other Beat works) display a boyish charm, but to notice that is to suggest why the women in these films all function, more or less, as glorified mommies, They are mainly there to make meals and clean up the messes the little boy or his friends make. (This is essentially the function of women in On the Road as well). It is significant that the closest The Queen of Sheba gets to a sex scene is when the Mead character either nurses at Winifred Bryan's breast or physically positions himself as if he were returning to or emerging from the womb. One of Ken Nordine's routines suggests that perhaps it wasn't entirely accidental that the Beats adopted the word "baby" as a slang term of romantic endearment. As Parker Tyler argued, Beat culture was infantile in many respects. In rejecting adult values, many Beats rejected adulthood itself. Like Peter Pan, they never wanted to grow up.
I might note, as a qualification, that all Beat culture did not embrace states of terminal arrested development. Clarke's Portrait of Jason, as I've already suggested, is quite skeptical about its title character's level of maturity. Cassavetes' Too Late Blues takes the choirboy asexuality of its central figure as a dramatic problem to be dealt with. The writing of Diane DiPrima, Herbert Huncke, and John Clellon Holmes also wants us to ask hard questions about the emotional maturity of the figures they present. Furthermore, in the sense in which I have defined the two paradigms, there are Chaplin figures–complex adults–in Beat works as well as Langdon figures. Lost, Lost, Lost is an example of a work in which the spirit of Chaplin is alive. But since Chaplin's achievement is itself often misunderstood, I should add that his spirit has nothing to do with pratfalls and comic clowning and everything to do with social displacement, idealistic longing, and romantic vision. If Mead is the Langdon of the Beat movement–its big baby, Mekas is its Chaplin–its great-souled, idealistic adult dreamer (though it may take the work of Chaplin or Mekas to demonstrate that an idealistic dreamer can also be an adult in every respect).
All three of Mead's films can be usefully grouped with the work of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith (and the Claes Oldenburg Happenings) in terms of their decision to subject the viewer to deliberately "sloppy" artistic experiences. There is a lot of faux primitivism on recent radio and television, but the work of Rice, Jacobs, and Smith is clearly different from the calculated awkwardnesses and mannered amateurishness of The Prairie Home Companion or The Late Show with David Letterman. Real messiness does not look at all like the MTV version.
Needless to say, the goal was not mess as an end in itself. These works wanted to jettison systems of processing and packaging in order to establish contact with states of purity and innocence. But their project raises more than a few questions. Can repressive systems of expression be escaped this way? Can buried impulses be liberated casually and accidentally? Doesn't it take a lot of work and knowledge to do this? The danger, of course, is that a work that rejects basic principles of organization and coherence will simply end up disorganized and incoherent. In a sermon at The Judson Memorial Church (which I am grateful to David Sterritt, a scholar on the period, for bringing to my attention), the Reverend Al Carmines argued that the Beat movement in general, and Rice's work in particular, was virtually sacramental:
[It] is not so much a prophetic thrust into a super-sophisticated future as it is a reminder of an elusive [sic] and uncompatable [sic] past. It finally is conservative in the most natural and ultimate sense. It is a call to remember and to see that the most intimate of daily doings and objects that surround us, and that we use unconsciously are profound and plenteous in meaning, richness, and joy. . . . [The Beats represent] an attempt to strip off the layers of accumulated impersonality–brittle cultivation that winds itself around us as mindlessly and unconsciously as a shell around a snail. Layers that keeps [sic] us just right–just proper temperature–for a just proper life."
Carmines' lapses of diction and loopy syntax might be said to do the same thing he attributes to Rice's sloppy photography: "to strip off the layers of accumulated impersonality." Or they might just be said to make a mess of things.
The argument can be made that Rice, Jacobs, Smith, and Carmines were the victims of an intellectual fallacy. There can be no artistic return to innocence, especially not by the road of casualness or sloppiness. The only way to break free from the accumulations of culture is through a delicate labor of knowledge and awareness. Freedom is attainable only by means of mastery. Anything short of mastery is only a continuation of the misery.
Bruce Conner and Stan VanDerBeek take the road not taken by Rice, Jacobs, and Smith: the path of knowledge, power, mastery. Their work tells us that the way out of limiting forms of experience is not by attempting to leap outside of them and forget them, and not by merely goofing on them (the way Jack Smith fools around with Maria Montez impersonations in Flaming Creatures), but by plunging deeply into them, studying them, learning their nuances, learning how to outmaneuver them. The maze of culture must be complexly negotiated if we want to escape it. Conner and VanDerBeek both attempt to employ a kind of jujitsu on inherited experience, by means of which its energy will be turned against itself.
Conner's subject is the consumer packaging of experience. He reveals it everywhere–from the obvious forms that go by the name of advertising, the movies, politics, the newspaper, and the evening news to the somewhat subtler forms that define beauty, artistic value, and sexual attractiveness. He not only shows us how such forms of cultural processing can rob experience of its specialness and mystery, but how a human remnant can miraculously resist absorption. The perceptual retardations and repetitions in works like Vivian, Breakaway, Report, and Marilyn Times Five move us into a richly contemplative relation to the sounds and images that encourages us to see beyond the surfaces. In Marilyn Times Five , for example, underneath Marilyn's stereotypical cheesecake poses we are able to hear a faint, touching, individual voice that resists being muffled by any amount of packaging. Conner raises Marilyn from her cultural grave. He restores her humanity.
Stan VanDerBeek lives in the same junkyard of images, but displays his mastery of them in a slightly different way. On the one hand, the speed of the experiences he presents borders on being perceptually overwhelming (thus affiliating him more with the Conner of A Movie than the Conner of the films that immediately follow); on the other hand, the poise, jauntiness, and wit of VanDerBeek's imagistic redeployments demonstrate how far he is from being buried under the cultural trash heap. Wheels No. 1 emits intermittent nostalgic noises about what may have been lost in the race down the interstate (Greek ideals of beauty, the intricate orderliness of Bach, the balance and harmony of 18th century architecture), but VanDerBeek's overall response is not "woe" or "whoa", but (as his title sequence tells us) "wheeee."
In Breathdeath, the metaphoric cascade is almost Shakespearean in its profligacy and suggestiveness. Images of dances/young people/beauty/crowds/ Picasso portraits/motion kaleidoscopically transmute into images of skulls/ X-rays/war/armies/death/mushroom clouds. However, the exuberance, inventiveness, and agility of VanDerBeek's ability to jump from one realm to the other and back again ultimately communicates not a feeling of doom and destruction, but of power and exhilaration. The strength of this mind is greater and more impressive than the threats it catalogues, no matter how horrible. We are utterly convinced that its nimbleness will always outrun the lead-footed agents of death.
Like the work of Bruce Conner, Marie Menken's Go, Go, Go is an exploration of the ways the mass-produced experiences of contemporary life declare war against the existence of unique personal spaces. Menken's film is deliberately hectic in its pace, external in its view, and dizzying in its scope. Yet it is telling that two fleeting moments of private, personal interiority emerge in the course of it: one when the man at the typewriter touches his brow, and another shortly afterward when two lovers cuddle on the beach. The fugitiveness of the moments makes them seem all the more precious. Menken shows us that personal consciousness withstands the ravages of modern civilization.
Menken's film also reminds us that one of the major artistic developments of the Beat period was the rise of Method acting. The Method represented a decision to turn away from what were felt to be irrelevant or superficial social forms of expression in order to get in touch with almost ineffable private depths of feeling. The Method actor nurtured and drew on feelings that resisted being translated into public forms of expression. Method actors were to established forms of dramatic expression what Charlie Parker or John Coltrane were to received forms of musical expression. Both forms of art turned inward during the Beat period, as if, in a world overrun with standardization and mechanization, the depths of personal consciousness defined one of the last sanctuaries.
The works of Harry Smith and Robert Breer gesture toward other free imaginative spaces. Their hand-painted animations assert the power of personal craftsmanship to stand outside the systems of mass production. Even more important, the puckish wit of Breer's work and the idiosyncrasy of Smith's private iconography remind us that the quirkiness of the individual imagination defies systems of mass production. Watching Smith's animation No. 10, for example, is a little like looking into one of those nineteenth-century cabinets of curiosities, or a Joseph Cornell box–which is to say it is like nothing ever produced by a factory. The experience is the opposite of generic.
Both filmmakers create viewing experiences that transport the viewer into a transcendental realm above and beyond daily experience. The title of one of Breer's early works too modestly calls this process of visionary purification "eyewash." It is actually something closer to "mindwash."
Smith and Breer empower viewers, asking them to become a highly alert, active, and imaginative participants in the process of meaning-making; Antony Balch's Towers Open Fire series (which includes Towers Open Fire, The Cut Ups, Bill and Tony, and William Buys a Parrot) moves in the opposite direction. Its strobe editing assaults and batters us into visual and acoustic submission. Its staccato sound and iterative imagery dulls our senses into a state of passivity. The rapidity and repetitiveness (and boringness) of Balch's images numb our intellects. (I would note that Bruce Conner's slower repetitions and more imaginative evocations in some of his work have the reverse effect. In Report and Marilyn Times Five, Conner's loops don't repel, but invite us to move meditatively into them, to contemplate their deeper meaning.) Balch's trilogy was created in collaboration with William Burroughs, and was meant to capture the visual effect of Burroughs' writing style on film. Though Balch's visual and acoustic shock tactics are entirely different from Burroughs' narrative shock tactics, the effect of the film and the writing is stunningly similar (in both senses of the adverb). Both artists usher us into a world whirling beyond personal comprehension or control.
The feel of the cinematic art that originated on the West Coast (chiefly from San Francisco) during this period is fundamentally different from that of the East Coast. While New York artists escaped into hand-crafted interior spaces (both physical and psychological–the drug experience, the Happening, the pad), West Coast artists moved outside. They could always escape the confinement of alien institutions by going to the ocean, to the desert, to farms and fields, or simply by going–anywhere. While Eastern film is static, Western film tends to be picaresque. It is an art of motion, space, time, and nature. (Winifred Bryan's magical boat ride in The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man is the closest New York film of the period gets to this escape into nature, though it is significant that Bryan's immobility during the scene communicates a feeling of entrapment and melancholy that cuts against the visual openness of the sky and the water around her. Even this scene of visual release delivers an East Coast message: you can go out but you can't escape yourself.)
Bruce Baillie's Mr. Hayashi might be thought of as a putative East Coast story transformed by a West Coast sensibility. The narrative, slight as it is, mounts a social critique of sorts, involving the difficulty the title character, a Japanese gardener, has finding work that pays adequately. But the beauty of Baillie's black-and-white photography, the misty lusciousness of the landscapes he chooses to photograph, and the powerful silence of Mr. Hayashi's figure within them make the viewer forget all about economics and ethnicity. The shots remind us of Sung scrolls of fields and mountain peaks, where the human figure is dwarfed in the middle distance. Rather than a study of unemployment, the film becomes a study of nested layers of stillness and serenity (first, the placidity of the photography; second, the brooding calm of the landscape; third, the meditativeness of Mr. Hayashi himself, walking with his head bowed in thought and uttering his thoughtful voice-over narration). The quiet inwardness of it all makes his employment situation seem relatively unimportant by comparison.
Baillie's To Parsifal, Mass for the Dakota Sioux, and Quixote could fittingly be played together as one film. They elaborate on the fundamental dynamic around which Mr. Hayashi is organized: the difference between the grandeur, nobility, and serenity of the natural world vs. the shortcomings of abstract social structures and economic arrangements. All three works express a visceral disgust with the so-called achievements of Western culture and a nostalgia for more primitive ways of being. As many Beat filmmakers did, Baillie identifies with and reserves a special tenderness for the weakest members of society, precisely because they have been largely untouched by these cultural achievements. (Lionel Rogosin's 1956 On the Bowery, which is not included on the screening list, displays a similar sympathy toward the socially and institutionally disenfranchised.) The visually cherished figures in Quixote are the forgotten and powerless of the earth: an old toothless Native American sitting in a diner; a young woman (whose willowy nakedness is superimposed on an image of a policeman with a Billy club); a wrinkled, bleeding, beat-up derelict; nonviolent civil rights protesters marching with locked arms down a city street; a variety of trapped, corralled, or frightened animals being led to the slaughter.
As this list of images suggests, especially the last one, Baillie's work is not known for its emotional subtlety or the absence of clichés. Nonetheless, it is powerful work. Baillie's strength is that he breaks his films free from our culture's pervasive myth of personal agency. The cultural malaise his imagistic superpositions and editorial successions define is beyond any individual's power to create or correct. Baillie imagines a Foucauldian universe that no one is really responsible for creating or capable of opposing. The impersonal systems of technology and history reproduce themselves beyond human desire or control. In this regard, Baillie differs from almost all of the other filmmakers on this list. His films deny us the comfort of believing in the power of individual consciousness as an alternative to or an escape from these forces. He imagines a world where not only are there no heroes, but where there can be no heroes.
Though it seems weird to group them together because of the difference in their subject matter, the work of Kenneth Anger isn't all that far from Baillie's in its sensibility. Heroism in Anger's work is so thoroughly a cultural artifact (as opposed to being a personal stance) that he might also be said to be a Foucauldian (indeed, he and Baillie are ahead of Foucault, whose major work was later). Anger shows that Postmodernism goes further back in American culture (or at least in the culture of Los Angeles) than many of the art history texts acknowledge. For a child of the movies, there is apparently nothing but voguing, role-playing, and style surfing. Anger's appreciation of the ways life and art interpenetrate has a superficial similarity to Jack Smith's relish of the carnivalesque, but the attitudes of the two filmmakers in this regard couldn't be more opposed. Smith sees costuming, role-playing, and impersonation as ways of expanding our identities and enriching our lives. Anger sees them as limiting us and impoverishing our experiences. For Anger, the movies and other forms of cultural processing represent dead ends for psychological development, emotional traps from which we are unable to escape.
Ruth Weiss's The Brink and John Korty's The Crazy Quilt, both Northern California works are therefore not nearly as much under the imaginative sway of the movies, are entirely different. They represent ebullient celebrations of the power of the individual imagination–the imagination of both the characters and their creators–to transform experience idiosyncratically. Weiss is a poet and Korty one of the now forgotten pioneers of the American independent film movement. To my mind, these two films actually accomplish what the films Taylor Mead appeared in attempted to do. (Zimmerman's Lemon Hearts was made in San Francisco only the year before Weiss's The Brink.) Like Mead, Weiss and Korty use playfulness to enlarge our sense of the possibilities of being. By leaving the straight and narrow of realistic narrative behind, they liberate eccentric, non-standardized impulses and show us how large and roomy our personalities can be. As was much the goal of Beat art, they free their characters and their viewers from the repressiveness of overly logical, overly determined, overly causal understandings of experience.
Both Weiss and Korty are fundamentally allegorical or symbolic artists. They create fairy tales. The allegory is a way of encouraging the viewer to enter into an especially contemplative or meditative relationship with the story. By encouraging us not to process events realistically, they hope to enhance our ability to understand them imaginatively. Their goal is to stimulate our imaginations to match the level of the characters'.
James Broughton's The Adventures of Jimmy is another Northern California fairy tale. It is also another addition to the list of "mama's boy" films. Jimmy goes looking for a wife, but comes home with a mother. In fact, with more than one (which only emphasizes the asexuality of his harem).
About the Hollywood movies, the less said the better. It's in the nature of Hollywood filmmaking (along with most radio, television, and print journalism) that it trades in hopelessly reductive clichés and stereotypes. The goal of popular culture is to keep audiences in the clear, and to clear experiences up, even if the experiences must be destroyed in the process. Hollywood translated the inchoate spiritual longings, free-floating anxieties and vague feelings of alienation that animated the Beat movement into a series of clichéd props, costumes, and Looney Toons cartoon characterizations. The Beats were treated as un-American malcontents, dangerous deviants, comical kooks, or psychopaths–in short, anything but taken seriously. John Byrum's Heart Beat (which was based on Carolyn Cassady's memoirs) is sometimes said to be better than this, but that is only because it substitutes a more popular, more recent set of clichés for the somewhat dated Commie/psycho/kook clichés. It turns the Beats into the Young and the Restless. Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg become the stars of a short-running soap opera that never made it into prime time.
The British films dealing with the Beat movement and "the angry young men" (a parallel artistic movement native to the United Kingdom which was linked with the Beat movement during the fifties) treat the subject slightly more seriously and intelligently. These films reflect a fairly different sensibility from American works, but are included to give a sense of how specific cultural and historical conditions affect the development and understanding of an artistic movement. For one thing, British society has always been much more class-conscious than American society, and many of the British films conflate Beat rebellion with working-class discontent. In British film, the Beat stance frequently was linked with practical political issues and sociological realities that Hollywood films to this day studiously avoid (and that the studios were all the more careful to steer clear of during the post-McCarthy, cold war era because of the dangers of being accused of sympathizing with Communism).
The final point to make is that, although every show must of necessity have certain boundary dates set around it, almost any artistic movement worth dealing with has antecedents which anticipate its spirit and successors which carry it into the present. The quote from Emerson's "The Transcendentalist" that heads this essay is meant to suggest that at least as early as 1841 much of the spirit (as well as many of the mannerisms) of the Beat movement could already be detected in American art and life. Thoreau's 1861 "Life Without Principle" is another work that strikingly anticipates Beat feelings and values. (For my money, Thoreau's essay is, in fact, the best summary of the Beat position ever written.) Emerson and Thoreau were Beats before the fact; or to put it the other way around, the Beats were only one of the most recent resurfacings of Emersonian Transcendentalism that have occurred every few decades or so in American culture. It also goes without saying that the Beat spirit lives on in more recent film just as it does in more recent literature and drama. The films of Gus Van Sant, Rick Schmidt, Jon Jost, and Caveh Zahedi come to mind as authentic continuations of the trajectory of the Beat impulse in our own day. Just as Ginsberg himself was following in footsteps of Whitman, many American filmmakers are even now still on the road with Kerouac. The beat goes on.
Ray Carney curated the film and video program for the Whitney Museum of American Art's Beat Culture and the New America1950-1965 show. He has written extensively about Beat film and more recent American independent work. The preceding material represents only an brief excerpt from his work. To obtain the complete text of the preceding piece or learn more about his writing about independent film, click here.
To read more about the Beat movement in film, Ray Carney recommends the Berkeley web site. Click here and here.