I. THE BACKBEAT: BEHIND
THE BEAT MOVEMENT
THE SOCIAL AND INTELLECTUAL
BACKGROUND: THE FEEL OF THE FIFTIES
Point of Order!
(1964), Emile de Antonio. Film, black-and-white, sound; 97 minutes.
The decade of the fifties begins with the HUAC hearings. Paranoia
is rampant. A deep, thoughtful anatomy of the suppressed hysteria
of the era.
The Atomic Cafe
(1982), Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty. Film, black-and-white
and color, sound; 88 minutes. Comic compilation documentary of various
cold war propaganda films. A satire on American optimism and mindless
conformism in the face of impending nuclear destruction. Easy laughs
at others' expense. An easy target is anatomized in an obvious way.
No deep insights here. No understanding of the sources of the problem
or of the spiritual malaise that prompted the era's insanity.
(1989), Obie Benz. Film, color, sound; 75 minutes. Humorous documentary.
Interviews with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Judith Malina,
and others about their loves and relationships in the fifties. Enjoyable,
with occasional depths.
(The Making of a Gay & Lesbian Community) (1984), Greta
Schiller, Robert Rosenberg, and John Scagliotti, producers. Film,
color, sound; 87 minutes. Sexual repression and the development of
a Bohemian underground in New York and San Francisco.
The Beat Generation:
An American Dream (1987), Janet Forman. Film, color, sound;
87 minutes. A sociological overview of the Eisenhower years. Contains
archival film footage and more recent interviews with major Beat figures.
The shortcoming is that it treats the era as monolithic. Sociology
AMERICAN CIVILIZATION AND ITS
ANXIETIES AND FEARS:
The Bachelor Party
(1957), Delbert Mann. Film, black-and-white, sound; 93 minutes. Hollywood
examination of the cracks in the facade of the Organization Man. An
important contemporaneous depiction of the self-doubts of the middle-class
American male. (Compares with Cassavetes later Husbands.)
The Savage Eye
(1959), Joseph Strick, Ben Maddow, and Sidney Meyers. Film, black-and-white,
sound; 68 minutes. A relentlessly savage attack on the values of the
American middle-class: its conspicuous consumption, conformity, and
quest for style. Cold, self-satisfied, and sneering. Almost as bad
as the targets it attacks.
The Wild One
(1954), Laslo Benedek. Film, black-and-white, sound; 79 minutes. Starring
Marlon Brando, the patron saint of much of the youth movement of the
period. His mumbling and brow-furrowing became Beat trademarks. Fake
realism at its Hollywood best.
Rebel Without a Cause
(1954), Nicholas Ray. Film, color, sound; 111 minutes. The quintessential
coming-of-age crisis film. A performance by James Dean that helped
to shape Beat manners and mannerisms. (Nicholas Ray's son, Tony Ray,
is featured in John Cassavetes' Shadows which appears later
on the program.) Nicholas Ray manages to go places spiritually that
most Hollywood film is oblivious of.
CREATIVITY ON THE MARGINS:
THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE AND THE JAZZ LIFE
The Cry of Jazz
(1958), Ed Bland. Film, black-and-white, sound; 35 minutes. An early
definition of the distinctiveness of the black experience and its
link to the aesthetics of jazz. Characteristically Beat in its somewhat
romanticized view of the black musician.
The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1988), Gary Giddins and Kendrick
Simms. Video, black-and-white and color, sound; 59 minutes. Recent
interviews and documentary footage of Parker in performance, but more
biography than performance.
The World According
to John Coltrane (1991), Toby Byron and Robert Palmer. Video,
black-and-white and color, sound; 59 minutes. Extensive footage of
Coltrane in performance on New York television in the fifties. Provides
a deep insight into the fundamental spirituality of his music.
Jazz on a Summer's
Day (1960), Bert Stern. Film, color, sound; 85 minutes. Documentation
of the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. Performers include: Anita O'Day,
Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Jack Teagarden, and Louis Armstrong.
A major documentary of the period, but slanted toward Dixieland and
"hot" jazz and away from "cooler" or bebop work
that was more important to the Beats. The bright side of the moon:
joy, love, community.
RELIGION WITHOUT GOD–THE QUEST
FOR A NEW RELATION TO THE UNIVERSE:
Essential Alan Watts:
Man in Nature, Work as Play (1973), David Grieve and Henry
Jacobs. Video, color, sound; 58 minutes. Visual records of Watts'
radio broadcasts and public lectures from the fifties and sixties
are not available. This video contains two a series of filmed talks
from the early seventies. Connections with the Beat aesthetic and
the work of many West Coast Beat artists in particular are evident.
Principle, (1994), Nita Freidman and Abbott John Daido Loori.
Video, color, sound; 54 minutes. A lecture by Abbott John Daido Loori
on change, permanence, time, and redeeming the everyday work of life.
Not contemporary with the Beats, but captures the real meaning of
Buddhism much better than Watts pop psychology.
II. THE DOCUMENTARY RECORD
PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS
John Antonelli. Video, color, sound; 90 minutes. Interviews with Ginsberg,
Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, and others; music by Ellington, Mingus, Sims.
An upbeat, affirmative depiction of Kerouac's early years with a salutary
emphasis on the young Kerouac, before he was "Kerouac."
What Happened to
Kerouac? (1985), Lewis MacAdams and Richard Lerner. Film,
color, sound; 96 minutes. Interviews with Corso, Ginsberg, and others.
Focuses on the adult Kerouac. Includes a scene of an older, conservative,
alcoholic, beaten Kerouac arguing with Ed Sanders and William Buckley
on Firing Line. The end of the Beat line. Kerouac's appearance
on television on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show is also included.
Jack Kerouac's Road–A
Franco-American Odyssey (1987), Herménégilde Chiasson. Film,
color, sound; 55 minutes. An unusual view of Kerouac entirely from
the perspective of his French-Catholic background. An interesting
corrective to the view of Kerouac as being rootless and culturally
ungrounded. His spiritualism was not unrelated to that of an altar
boy. Kerouac speaks French (with English subtitles).
A Moveable Feast:
Profiles of Contemporary American Authors–Allen Ginsberg
(1991), Bruce Berger. Video, color, sound; 30 minutes. Interviews
with and readings by Ginsberg, and an account of his early years in
New York and friendship with Kerouac.
The Life & Times
of Allen Ginsberg (1993), Jerry Aronson. Film, black-and-white
and color, sound; 82 minutes. Both a biography of Ginsberg and a comprehensive
portrait of the period. A wealth of archival footage and photographs
that nicely contextualizes Ginsberg's life and work.
Burroughs: The Movie
(1983), Howard Brookner. Film, black-and-white and color, sound; 87
minutes. Rare footage of Burrough's appearance on Saturday Night
Live, interviews with Burroughs and others who speak about him.
Commissioner of Sewers (1986), Klaus Maeck. Film, black-and-white
and color, sound; 60 minutes. Interviews with Burroughs by Jurgen
Ploog during Burroughs' 1986 tour of Germany. Pretentious and thin.
(the Beat episode) (1959). Video, black-and-white, sound;
56 minutes. Features Hugh Heffner, Lenny Bruce, Cy Coleman, Charlie
Coleman, and others. Bruce conducts an extended (and hilarious) extempore
conversation with Heffner.
Lenny Bruce Performance
Film (1968), John Magnuson, producer. Video, black-and-white,
sound; 59 minutes. The only surviving visual record of a Bruce performance
on stage. Bruce improvises a jazz-like "riff" based on the
transcript on of his trial. His intellectual brilliance and agility
come through not-withstanding the static camera set-up.
ADDITIONAL DOCUMENTS FROM THE
(1966), Peter Whitehead. Film, black-and-white, sound; 33 minutes.
Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and others reading at the Royal Albert
Hall in 1965.
The Beats: An Existential
Comedy, Philomene Long. Video, sound; 58 minutes. A comic
compilation of television and film clips on the Beats, focusing on
the West Coast Beats.
The Anatomy of Cindy
Fink (1966), Richard Leacock, Patricia Jaffe, and Paul Leaf.
Film, color, sound; 12 minutes. Rarely seen documentary about the
life of a Greenwich Village dancer.
THE BEAT GOES ON (AFTER-EFFECTS,
Fried Shoes, Cooked
Diamonds: The Beats at Naropa (1978), Costanzo Allione. Video,
color, sound; 55 minutes. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, Anne Waldman,
Diane DiPrima and others at Naropa in the early 1970s.
This Song for Jack
(1983), Robert Frank. Film, black-and-white, sound; 30 minutes. Documents
the 1982 "On the Road, Jack Kerouac Conference" in Boulder,
Colorado. Frank creates a deliberate companion piece to his earlier
Pull My Daisy. This is, in effect, the same film twenty years
later. See the note on the earlier piece.
West Coast, Beat
and Beyond (1984), Chris Felver. Video, color, sound; 59 minutes.
Readings by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Laurence Ferlinghetti, and
others, on San Francisco's North Beach. Narrated by Gerald Nicosia.
Chris Felver is the great photographic historian of the movement.
Gang of Souls
(1989), Maria Beatty. Video, color, sound; 58 minutes. Recent footage
of Ginsberg, Burroughs, DiPrima, and others, and tributes to them
from a generation of contemporary artists.
Love Lion: Performance
with Words and Music by Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek (1991),
Sheldon Rochlin and Maxine Harris. Video, color, sound; 70 minutes.
On stage reading that documents the Beat attempt to combine music
and poetry in one performance.
Allan 'n' Allen's
Complaint (1982), Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota. Video,
color, sound; 30 minutes. Featuring Allen Ginsberg and Allen Kaprow.
Living with the Living
Theater (1989), Nam June Paik with Betsy Connors and Paul
Garrin. Video, color, sound; 28 1/2 minutes. Ginsberg reflecting on
the Beat movement.
Gregory Corso Reads
from the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (1992), James
Rasin and Jerry Poynton. Film, color, sound; 18 minutes. A work in
progress. Corso delivers an improvised "riff" somewhat rough
and flat in places, on American history.
Huncke and Louis
(1995), Laki Vazakis. Video, color, sound; 10 minutes. A work in progress.
A wonderful and disturbing portrait of Herbert Huncke and his companion
Louis Cartwright. Cuts beneath the primping and preening of the movement
to document the human cost, as Huncke's work itself does. Usefully
compared with The Connection, and superior to it, as a study
of self-destruction through drugs and life-style.
New Orleans, 1938
(1995), Jerry Poynton. Video, color, sound; 12 minutes. Actor Edgar
Oliver reads Herbert Huncke's story, "New Orleans 1938."
THE HAPPENING: TAKING ART OFF
THE WALLS AND BRINGING IT TO LIFE:
(1962), Raymond Saroff. Film, black-and-white, silent; 21 minutes.
Claes Oldenburg, Pat Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, and others at the Ray
Happenings: Two (1962),
Raymond Saroff. Film, black-and-white, silent; 22 1/2 minutes.
The White Rose
(1967), Bruce Connor. Film, black-and-white, sound; 7 minutes. The
removal of Jay DeFeo's massive sculptural piece from her apartment
in 1965. A very subtle, deep exploration of art's place in the world,
or lack of a place, by the greatest cinematic artist of the period.
III. THE BEAT SENSIBILITY IN
The End (1953).
Film, color, sound; 35 minutes. Set in San Francisco, a series of
surreal episodes deal with suicide and death and the atomic age. All
of the vices of the Beat movement, imperfectly understood.
Film, color, sound; 6 minutes. A boy and girl dance through the streets
of a city. Reveals MacLaine's fundamentally choreographic sensibility.
(1954). Film, black-and-white, sound; 7 minutes. Parker Tyler called
it the first authentically beat film (though the award might actually
go to Mac Laine's The End). Sexual combat and social anxiety
among a group of young people.
Anticipation of the
Night (1958). Film, black-and-white, silent; 40 minutes. The
quest for an innocent eye and a form of film that can capture the
complexity of lived experience before it has been simplified by the
Lost, Lost, Lost
(1949-1963/1976). Film, black-and-white and color, sound; 178 minutes.
An exploration of terminal marginality, lostness, searching, longing.
The first, chronologically, of Mekas' diary films, which capture the
movements of time, space, and mind on film.
Guns of the Trees
(1962). Film, black-and-white, sound; 75 minutes. Two couples–one
white, one black–living on the margins. Ties in with Beat anxieties
about the A-bomb and the point of work in American society. Narration
by Allen Ginsberg. Not nearly as interesting or complex as Lost,
Lost, Lost film, but more obviously Beat. Features Ben Carruthers,
who also stars in Cassavetes' Shadows.
(1956). Film, color, sound; 4 minutes. Accidentally re-discovered
after forty years of obscurity by the author. The energy and freedom
of traveling down the road in an automobile was one of the central
Beat metaphors. Paine's mastery of space and time is usefully contrasted
with Clarke's in her short films. While Paine lunges through space
and eats it up, Clarke balletically dances around it.
Bridges Go Round
(1958). Film, color, sound; 4 minutes.
(1959). Film, black-and-white and color, sound; 20 minutes.
A bebop sensibility. Clarke
animates the city and its objects and makes them dance to her tunes.
(1961). Film, black-and-white, sound; 103 minutes. From the Jack Gelber
play, acted by The Living Theater. Waiting for Godot as a drug-pusher
story. Because of some of its language, it as legally ruled obscene
and only released after a court battle. Dated and weak as a work of
art; interesting chiefly as a historical documentation of a work that
strangely captivated the audience.
Portrait of Jason
(1967). Film, black-and-white, sound; 105 minutes. Jason is the archetypal
hipster of the period, the psychopath Norman Mailer's essay "The
White Negro" describes, condemned to swing forever. A great and
profound investigation of performance and identity.
Shades and Drumbeats
(1964). Film, color, silent; 25 minutes. Ann all-nighter of drugs
and sex with a group of young people. Contrast with Shadows
as an evocation of the milieu.
Film, black-and-white, sound; 87 minutes. Mixed races, questions of
identity. Charlie Mingus and Shafi Hadi (a.k.a. Curtis Porter) perform
on the soundtrack. A half-loving, half-critical analysis of the Beat
stance, from a position half-inside, half-outside the movement. Brilliant
and insightful. Notwithstanding the final statement, most of the scenes
were completely scripted.
Too Late Blues
(1961). Film, black-and-white, sound; 103 minutes. Jazz milieu. A
hero with a Peter Pan complex. Cassavetes tells the story of an artist
too idealistic to function in contemporary capitalistic society. Is
the problem society or him?
Pull My Daisy
(1959), Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. Film, black-and-white, sound;
28 minutes. One of the best-known Beat films. Although for many years
mistakenly believed to be improvised, the film was carefully scripted,
laboriously rehearsed, and meticulously edited. Though it was treated
as a paen to freedom and spontaneitiy, the film is in fact self-indulgent,
smug, and sexist in its attitude towards women. More evidence of what
went wrong with the Beat movement than what was right about it. The
opposite of Shadows, Pull My Daisy is taken in by the
Beat ethos, unable to see its limitations, and unwilling to subject
it to scrutiny.
Me and My Brother
(1965-1968). Film, black-and-white and color, sound; 91 minutes. Peter
and Jules Orlovsky, Christopher Walken, Joe Chaikin, Allen Ginsberg.
Raises questions about the boundaries between art and life by forcing
the viewer to wonder about what in the film is acted and what is not.
Tedious, slack, and self-satisfied.
The Flower Thief
(1960). Film, black-and-white, sound; 75 minutes. Taylor Mead clowns
and improvises his version of Chaplin in City Lights.
The Queen of Sheba
Meets the Atom Man (1963). Film, black-and-white, sound; 109
minutes. Taylor Mead and Winifred Bryan, who has the most emotionally
powerful passage–a ferry ride out into New York harbor.
(1960). Film, black-and-white, sound; 26 minutes. Taylor Mead house-hunting
(and house-haunting) in San Francisco.
(1959-63) Film, black-and-white and color, sound with live radio;
30 minutes. Jack Smith camping it up in a work that hovers between
the comic and the tragic. Where does role-playing end and reality
Little Stabs at Happiness
(1959-63. Film, color, sound; 15 minutes. The dark side of the Beat
sensibility. Kerouac regarded "goofing"–clowning around–as
"holy," but Jacobs wanted to restore its blasphemous potential,
and does so in this film.
(1963). Film, black-and-white, sound; 45 minutes. A Sternbergian view
of life as a form of theater. Relates to the Beat interest in costume
and carnival, and the attempt to treat personal identity as a work
COMING TO GRIPS WITH THE TRASH-HEAP
OF CULTURE: FOUND FOOTAGE AND FOUND-OBJECT FILMS:
A Movie (1958).
Film, black-and-white, sound; 12 minutes.
(1961). Film, black-and-white, sound; 4 minutes.
Film, black-and-white, sound; 13 minutes.
Marilyn Times Five
(1968-73). Film, black-and-white, sound; 13 minutes.
Conner recycles the culture
of advertising, Hollywood, and the media to adapt it to his anti-establishment
Wheels No. 1
(1958). Film, black-and-white, sound; 5 minutes.
Wheels No. 2
(1959). Film, black-and-white, sound; 4 minutes.
(1959). Film, color, sound; 9 minutes.
(1964). Film, black-and-white, sound; 15 minutes.
Explorations of the American
passion for fashion, the lust for motion, and the Faustian push into space–documented
and satirized though found footage.
Go, Go, Go
(1962-64). Film, color, silent; 11 1/2 minutes. Making space amid
the hecticness and crush for privacy, consciousness, interiority.
WILLIAM BURROUGHS PROGRAM:
CAPTURING THE SHOCK SENSIBILITY ON FILM:
Towers Open Fire,
The Cut-Ups, Bill and Tony, William Buys a Parrot (1962-72).
Antony Balch. Film, black-and-white and color, sound; 35 minutes.
Written and narrated by William Burroughs. Inspired by Brion Gysin.
An attempt capture Burroughs' cut-up methods in the medium of film.
Not entirely successful.
(1991), David Cronenberg. Film, color, sound; 115 minutes. An attempt
to do in commercial film what Burroughs does on the page. This film
can be compared to Balch's Towers Open Fire as evidence
of the problems that arise in attempting to translate the Beat sensibility
into a mainstream form of expression.
A CLASH OF SENSIBILITIES: BEAT
COOL MEETS WARHOL COLD
Tarzan and Jane Regained,
Sort of . . . (1963). Film, black-and-white
and color, sound; 81 minutes. Wallace Berman and his son appear in
Film, black-and-white, silent; 54 minutes. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac,
and Gregory Corso appear.
ANIMATION: EAST COAST AND
Nos. 1-5, 7 and 10 (1939-57) Film, color, sound; 23 minutes.
The creation of a transcendental visual style.
Heaven and Earth
Magic Feature (1959-66). Film, black-and-white, sound; 66
Film, color, sound; 1 1/2 minutes.
Film, color, silent; 3 minutes.
Film, black-and-white, sound; 5 minutes.
Fist Flight (1964).
Film, color, sound; 9 minutes.
An attempt to engage the
viewer in a playful pursuit of ever-elusive meanings.
IV. VISIONARY PURIFICATIONS
AND WEST COAST INFLECTIONS
Film, color, sound; 7 minutes.
Film, color, sound; 10 minutes.
Meditative states translated
into the medium of film.
Film, color, sound; 4 minutes.
Film, color, sound; 3 minutes.
Film, color, sound; 4 minutes.
Film, color, sound; 8 minutes.
(1964). Film, color, sound; 6 minutes.
Triptych in Four
Parts (1958). Film, color, sound; 12 minutes.
Visions of a City
(1957/1979). Film, black-and-white tinted sepia; 8 minutes.
(1961). Film, black-and-white, sound; 3 minutes. Compare with Korty's
Crazy Quilt for an insight into the West Coast sensibility.
Bucolic, warm, and meditative.
Have You Thought
of Talking to the Director? (1962). Film, black-and-white,
sound; 15 minutes.
(1963). Film, black-and-white, sound; 16 minutes.
Mass for the Dakota
Sioux (1963-64). Film, black-and-white, sound; 20 1/2 minutes.
Film, black-and-white and color, sound; 45 minutes.
A religious sensibility. Oriental
terseness, love of nature, interest in purity and innocence, and distrust
of science, technology, and modern civilization define Baillie's work.
(1963). Film, color, sound; 29 minutes.
Kustom Kar Kommandos
(1956). Film, color, sound; 3 1/2 minutes.
A Los Angeles sensibility:
there is no escape from the relentless cultural processing of experience.
Culture has become the new nature.
(1961). Film, black-and-white, sound; 40 minutes. Stan Brakhage called
The Brink one of the most important San Francisco films of
the period. A playful love story about two lonely people. Photographed
by Paul Beattie, the painter.
The Crazy Quilt
(1966); Film, black-and-white, sound; 72 minutes. One of the American
indy movement's forgotten masterworks. Indebted to Citizen Kane
in its plot and some of its effects, but the opposite of
it in its sensibility: replaces Welles' Faustian impulses, his love
of power, glamour, and stardom, with a tender, self-effacing love
of nature and human nature.
(1967). Film, color, sound; 98 minutes. Along with Riverrun, another
of Korty's forgotten masterworks.
Independent features from the
San Francisco North Beach area. A celebration of extravagance, personal
eccentricity, and the transforming power of the individual imagination.
Beat transmuting into hippie in the late sixties.
Adventures of Jimmy
(1950). Film, black-and-white, sound; 11 minutes. Mama's boy looks
for a match.
V. THE BOUTIQUING OF BEATNESS:
HOLLYWOOD GOES BEAT
The Beat Generation
(1959), Charles Haas. Film, black-and-white, sound; 95 minutes. Louis
Armstrong makes an appearance. A rapist masquerades as a beatnik.
(1960), Ranald MacDougall. Film, color, sound; 89 minutes. Music by
Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, and Shelley Manne. A gentrification
of Kerouac's novel of the same title, with a race change (from black
to white) of the female lead.
Bucket of Blood
(1959), Roger Corman. Film, black-and-white, sound; 66 minutes. Follows
the mass media in treating Beats as deviants, weirdos, psychopaths.
A waiter in a coffeehouse murders people and passes himself off as
a Beat sculptor. The plot says it all.
Story (1961), Jack O'Connell. Film, black-and-white, sound;
95 minutes. The best of the Hollywood adaptations, which is not saying
that much. A love story about a struggling writer and his girlfriend,
set in a Beat milieu.
(1980), John Byrum. Film, color, sound; 105 minutes. Hollywood portraits
of Cassady, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others. Adaptation of Carolyn Cassady's
memoir of the period. Soap opera on the big screen.
VI. TRANSATLANTIC TRANSFORMATIONS:
ANGRY YOUNG MEN (AND WOMEN) IN THE UK
The Rebel Set (a.k.a.
Beatsville) (1959), Gene Fowler, Jr. Film, black-and-white,
sound; 72 minutes. Rebellious youths get involved in a robbery plot.
Beat Girl (a.k.a.
Wild for Kicks) (1962), Edmond T. Greville. Film, black-and-white,
sound; 92 minutes. A teenage girl rebels against her father by becoming
a beatnik and a criminal. Trite.
Saturday Night, Sunday
Morning (1960), Karel Reisz. Film, black-and-white, sound;
90 minutes. Starring Albert Finney. One of the best of the "angry
young men" films, about a Nottingham factory worker rebelling
against his working-class background and surroundings.
Look Back in Anger
(1989), David Jones. Video, color, sound; 114 minutes. Starring Kenneth
Branaugh. The most faithful and dramatically powerful film version
of Osborne's play and therefore preferable to the film of the same
title made during the period. Arguably the most sympathetic portrait
of the British "angry young man" on film.
curated the film and video program for the Whitney Museum of American
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
To read more about the Beat movement in film, Ray Carney recommends
the Berkeley web site. Click here and here.