Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the new crop of Beat movies that have surfaced during the past few years is that they obscure the fact that there was once an older crop of Beat movies. If your only exposure is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, Walter Salles’ On the Road, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, and Michael Polish’s Big Sur, you might assume that the Beats participated in an artistic movement reserved exclusively for the written word.
Yet Allen Ginsberg was front-and-center of experimental film projects like 1959’s Pull My Daisy (narrated by Kerouac) and 1966’s Chappaqua, while William S. Burroughs spent most of his career after the 1970s in independent films (alongside producing spoken word albums). Even Jack Kerouac, the most novelistic of the best-known Beats, showed his media literacy by recording improvisatory experiments in audio technology before he published “On the Road.”
The literary Beats not only inspired later independent filmmakers, musicians, and artists, but they participated in multimedia productions themselves, seeking to realize a revolutionary new aesthetic across a variety of platforms of expression, often concurrently with their most famous published work. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing only on these authors’ best-known works in adapting them to screen, but the resulting films do reinforce a rather common image of the Beats as forever-young literary outsiders, when they were in fact heavily involved in the social and artistic movements their work cultivated and helped inspire throughout their lives.
But this raises a question: Do these new films prove that the Beats have anything to say to us in our current moment, or are these films simply retreads of hip literary figures?
2010’s James Franco-starring Howl starkly illustrates the seemingly inherent limitations of adapting Beat writing to screen (or perhaps even adapting poetry to screen in general). Oscillating mostly between the 1957 obscenity trial and Franco’s reading of the poem set to animation, Howl exhibits the blurring between text and context that often occurs when remembering the Beats: Howl the poem is inextricable from the social and aesthetic milieu of the Beats themselves and its controversial reception. In perhaps a tacit admission of the “un-adaptability” of a great deal of Beat literature, Howl isn’t as much an attempt to bring Ginsberg’s poem to screen as it is a nonlinear historical exegesis of the poem and its impact.
Howl also exposes one particular conundrum of Beat writing, especially when we think of it exclusively as writing: this particular approach the written word is often best understood and appreciated when heard or read aloud. After all, Ginsberg is as well known for his recorded words as he is for his written ones. Thus, Franco’s recitation of Ginsberg’s work is no doubt the most compelling aspect of the film, and the animation gimmick is strikingly redundant if only because the words themselves are so painterly and visceral that any concrete rendering of them limits their illustrative possibilities for the mind’s eye.
On the Road
Francis Ford Coppola’s long-gestating production of On the Road revisits these conundrums by similarly highlighting the eminent aurality of Kerouac’s wordplay and further blurring the line between the novel and its context of writing and reception. Easily the most conservative and accessible of the most famous Beat works, the energy of On the Road’s narration( despite Sam Riley’s over-calculated performance) reminds you why you wrote “the only people for me are the mad ones” in your best friend’s yearbook folder.
But in terms of the overlap of text and context, On the Road emphasizes how the source material itself blurs this line, and how (reaching back to David Cronenberg’s inventive adaptation of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) it’s impossible to bring to screen Beat literature without also making the film about the process of writing the work in its first place. While On the Road covers events that took place during the mid-late 1940s, the book was released (and in many ways became about) the seeds of social unrest felt amongst suburbanized white audiences during the 1950s, a lack of satisfaction that would make itself known in the countercultural movements that would take shape a decade later.
Thus, when we reflect on Beat literature as representative of an “era,” it’s always a bit difficult surmising which era it is we’re actually referring to: the era that the authors in question first enlightened themselves on anything from Henry James to barbiturates during the mid-1940s, the era of the late 1950s in which these authors published (and had to publicly defend) their most canonical works, or the tumultuous era that followed, which unambiguously carried their marked influence.
Kill Your Darlings
These temporal disparities are central to Jordan Larsen’s critique of Kill Your Darlings for reinforcing an image of the Beats as perpetual adolescents. Larsen argues:
“In casting the authors as eternally and fundamentally adolescent, the recent revival tones down their behavior – both revolutionary and repulsive – as a sort of passing teenage phase, something that young people just sort of do. And in that way, the latest cultural reincarnation both nullifies and excuses the behavior of its leaders.”
While I certainly agree with Larsen’s critique as applied to Salles’ On the Road and to the occasionally too-convenient maneuvers Darlings makes as a coming-of-age tale of mad male geniuses (as embodied by Ben Foster, Burroughs has never seemed so anachronistically young), the Beats themselves are not totally innocent of this adolescent framing. By using their prose and poetry to reflect upon semiautobiographical encounters complete with literary analogues for both themselves and other members of their tribe, much of Beat literature (especially Kerouac’s) imbues a palpable degree of nostalgia and readies its own mythmaking.
As subjects of their own and each others’ works, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs (not to mention Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, and Lucien Carr) never seemed quite human, but rather existed as larger-than-life, self-caricaturing cultural figureheads. They are ever-potent symbols for an antiauthoritarian means of living, and as a result are as much alive today as they were when they were living, breathing individuals.
The cultural category of “teenager” did not exist during WWII the way it did in the postwar era of TV dinners, rock n’ roll, and James Dean. The people who became the Beats were seen by authorities as woefully misguided adolescents or criminally dangerous young adults – in other words, social delinquents whose behavior constituted a real threat. But their public literary identities came into being most forcefully over a decade later (specifically during the publications of “Howl,” “On the Road” and “Naked Lunch” from 1957–59), an era where “youth rebellion” could readily be turned into a commodity. There has always been a confusion regarding what the Beats meant to their time of living and to their time of publishing, bridged by the myths these writers created of themselves in their written work.
So if the imperfect but incredibly entertaining Kill Your Darlings can be accused of unapologetically romanticizing the earliest years of Ginsberg and company’s first encounters with the literary self, that’s partly due to the fact that these figures have been made known to us through the hazy lens of romance and nostalgia from the beginning. Sure, Allen Ginsberg was a real person, but he was also an icon whose identity was endlessly reproduced through printing presses, manufactured audio recordings, and the creative liberties of his contemporaries well before he became embodied by Daniel Radcliffe.
It’s this rupture between the myths of the Beats and their actual living selves that the adaptation of Big Sur tackles head-on. While it has received considerably little attention compared to Howl, On the Road, and Kill Your Darlings, Polish’s film is easily the most critically-oriented of the bunch, using the opportunity of a less canonical novel to portray Beat identity out of joint and lost in time. Once again, Kerouac’s words adapted to screen (and voiced by actor Jean-Marc Barr, a more-than-convincing aging Kerouac) are the star of the production. But the film makes several subtle maneuvers to bridge the gap between Beat fiction and Beat autobiography, deliberately approaching Big Sur itself as a firsthand account of the writing of Big Sur.
Rather than maintain the novel’s pseudonyms, Big Sur the film names its characters by the historical persons represented. Time here is also collapsed considerably, as Kerouac reflects on a life after the fame of On the Road rather than harking back to the glory years of his younger adventures. Only a half decade after publishing the exploits of his long, strange trips, the Kerouac of Sur barely resembles the character that led his most celebrated novel – he is older, having achieved hardly any wisdom with age with his need for constant change revealed as a narcissistic and insatiable hunger to quench unrelenting boredom, alcoholism, and distrust for other people.
Seeing Neal Cassady embodied by Josh Lucas rather than Garrett Hedlund erases any false equivalence between Beat philosophy and impermanent youth rebellion, showing that this way of life is not a passing phase but a commitment to a life without commitment that entails amazing highs and hellish nadirs. Big Sur is a film that tackles and explores the myths that the Beats created for themselves (and that we accepted) head on.
Larson argues that the “adolescent” Beat films (with Big Sur a notable exception) problematically resonate as distilled coming-of-age stories for a young audience claustrophobically burdened with student debt and rigid socioeconomic expectations, with any semblance of transgression subsumed into a neoliberal ideal. This could be the case, but it doesn’t really distinguish these films from other portrayals of young transgression from Control to The Bling Ring.
While these Beat films may be beholden to certain seemingly inherent limitations in adapting works and telling real-life stories, they are useful precisely because of the ways their behavior and work during their era (be it the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s) holds no equivalent today. These films portray characters who possess a sincere belief in personal expression and can navigate a life that refuses any expectations of contemporary existence. These Beats represent a hipsterism meant as an insurgent culture that broke the social mirror that was bestowed top-down, not an “alternative” consumer practice. Whether these films are good or bad, it is precisely because the lives of the Beats seem so out of sync with today – so hopelessly impossible and naïve – that we need a new Beat cinema.