Bringing the Beat(nik) Back in American Culture in Film

The other day I was updating my Facebook status and I noticed an advertisement on the side of my screen for On The Road – The movie. I immediately clicked it and was pleased to see that someone had finally decided to turn beat icon Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a true classic of American and cultural literature, into a film.

As with any movie that deals with beatnik culture and the personalities or books associated with it, I was a bit nervous about watching this trailer.

Back when I was a student at New Jersey City University picking up a major in creative writing and a minor in everything else, I stumbled on the beat generation by accident. It was partly because of my good friend Dani Shanberg. I met Dean –– er, I mean Dani –– not long after I started a Poetry Club at NJCU for poets like me to come and read and listen to original bits of writing. I first heard the name Jack Kerouac from him and didn’t think anything of it. I then discovered Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” during a Modern Poetry class and, quite frankly, I thought the poem sucked, mainly because I just didn’t get it. A year or so later, I snagged a Penguin edition of On the Road from a friend who worked at The Book Room, a rustic used book store in Downtown Jersey City, and although reading the book was difficult, not to mention dry due to Kerouac’s intense amount of detail, I took to the tale of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and their life crossing the great American frontier just enough to pick up an audio book version with Matt Dillon acting out the parts, and I listened to all eleven CDs when my pal Alain and I launched out on our first road trip across the country.

Long-haired and lost in the Louisiana bayou, circa 2000.

Of course, the book took on new meaning after that enlightening and somewhat cliché experience, and it made me delve deeper into the beat mythos, where I discovered more works by these American gods of bop prosody. I ultimately learned to love Allen Ginsberg’s verse in Howl and Other Poems, as well as in his other collections like Kaddish and Other Poems and Reality Sandwiches. Shortly after that, I discovered the poetic stylings of the great Gregory Corso, and my personal favorite for reasons still unknown to me –– William S. Burroughs.

All of these books of prose or verse harken back to a different time in American history, and I’m not talking about the Leave It to Beaver variety with stacks of pancakes at the breakfast table for your 2.5 kids or “blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage.” I’m talking about the Beave’s antithesis –– the scores of underprivileged and highly educated word junkies that fattened the underbelly of American literature.

It seems beatnik culture is being reincarnated in this current Hipster Age, and perhaps there’s no better form for it to take than film. There have been a handful of movies that have explored the beat generation, from the lifestyle itself to adaptations of the more popular beat classics to downright farcical films about French beret-wearing finger snappers tripping light fantastics and dropping phrases like “cool, daddy-o” every chance they can. I owned a few of these films, naturally, but there are others I’d never heard of until writing this blog. Roger Corman’s 1995 horror comedy A Bucket of Blood, for instance, is about a sculptor who accidentally kill his landlady’s cat and hides the evidence in some plaster, and after being pressured to create more of the same, he goes from beatnik to murderer. Then there’s the film adaptation of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1960), which is about an interracial couple (taboo during the time it was written, adding more fuel to the fiery fact that the beats were rebels of the written word), as well as Heart Beat (1980) and The Source (1999).

Perhaps the most important beat-based film would have to be David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), based on Burroughs’ heroin trip of a novel and starring Peter Weller as Bill Lee. Having recently gotten through Burrough’s novel, I can say that the book and film are different. I think. But each is strangely original, blending together a nauseating world of aliens, talking cockroach Underwoods, and more sex and death (and sickly combinations of the two) than you’d ever expect in a novel, even for today’s standards.

A true "WTF?!" moment if I've ever seen one.

Aside from Naked Lunch, there is also Gary Walkow’s 2000 film Beat, starring Kiefer Sutherland as William S. Burroughs and Courtney Love as Burrough’s wife Joan, which ends with the accidental killing of Joan by Burroughs after a drunken game of William Tell goes awry. And for even further insight into Burroughs’ life, there’s Yony Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, a splendid documentary about the tormented writer’s life.

Most recently, beatnik culture has resurfaced from its comfortable subterranean depths with the indie film Howl, Rob Epstein’s biopic that examines the obscenity trail of Allen Ginsberg. I was disappointed with the film, mainly because of James Franco’s performance as Ginsberg and especially with the fact that the entire poem “Howl” is illustrated using cheap computer graphics.

The illustrated "Howl" by Eric Drooker.

So then, what’s my opinion on the trailer for On the Road? Let’s just say that Walter Salles is just the right person to direct a movie about a pair of road hitchhiking free spirits embodying the essence of an entire generation because he already did it in The Motorcycle Diaries. That said, when I did watch this long-awaited trailer, I was pleased for the most part, especially when I saw that Viggo Mortensen is playing Old Bull Lee. I’m not sure how I feel about the actors playing Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund), and most especially with Kristen Stewart in the role of Marylou. But who knows, perhaps this will be the film that inches her away from what’s proving to be the Twilight of her acting career.

And I’m happy to see that On the Road is only the beginning of a revival of media about the only real American culture ever to have existed, which has inspired everything from hippies to hipsters. Steve Buscemi is slated to direct Burroughs’ gender-shaking novel Queer in 2013, and who knows what’s to follow. I for one would love to see film adaptations of Burroughs’ first novel Junky, which kept me seated in “The Poet’s Chair” on the second floor of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco for well over a hundred pages before I finally caved in and bought a copy for the plane ride back to Jersey the next morning.

Remember this. Always.

Now, if only poems could be adapted into films. That would be a little slice of Nirvana.

*          *          *

So what’s YOUR favorite beatnik-inspired book that you’d like to see made into a movie?

2 thoughts on “Bringing the Beat(nik) Back in American Culture in Film

  1. Groovy post…a boost for the Beats, and a blast to read. Ok, so I’m no Jack, but the folks making the film aren’t either, and the trailer annoys me. I don’t want to be one of those “the book is better” people, but some books don’t need to be movies. Plus, I really can’t stand Kristen Stewart. Now, I read that Edward Norton is set to play the lead in an adaptation of Kerouac’s Tristessa, which I could get behind. We’ll see. Naked Lunch, the film, succeeded because it wasn’t a literal adaptation, and the deft hands of David Cronenberg fit the material. If only John Cassavetes were alive…he could make On the Road. Well done, JTT!

    1. A groovy reply, my friend! Thanks for the read and taking the time to add in some cents to the pot. First, I didn’t know they’re making a film of Tristessa, so that’s awesome! And Ed Norton? Double awesome! I agree with you with the film — I think it’s great they’re doing the film, though think some of the decisions thus far are somewhat off where casting is concerned. But one thing’s for sure — the production company’s going for the romanticized ideology behind beatnik culture and not the brutal, Burroughsian reality of it; the film may be good, but it would be true “beat” (but then again, seldom really is these days.) And yes, Cronenberg’s deft hands did indeed bring out the “naked” in Burroughs Naked Lunch.

      Ah, yes, Cassavetes… A true beatnik and a Greek, too 🙂

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