Why Do We Remember the Beat Generation?–Three Films

Why have three movies about Jack Kerouac and pals come out in the last couple of years?  Is a Beat Generation renaissance blooming?  Last year, in 2012, On the Road finally showed up.  It seemed like a long time in the making, especially for a 1957 novel that had so much cultural impact.  Within the next month, most people will have two more movies about the Beats to go see on the big screen, Kill Your Darlings (Oct 16), about a 1944 murder that has been written about so much that it’s become a Beat version of Rashomon, and a movie version of Kerouac’s book, Big Sur (opens Nov 1).

On the Road, the movie, set the stage and re-introduced all the main characters.  On the Road, the book, covers events from 1947-1950, and introduces us to fictionalized versions of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lu Anne Henderson Cassady, Carolyn Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Hunke, and many others who would show up in various novels and biographies of the Beats.

Many of these characters knew each other for years, and many of them had been involved in the 1944 murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr.  This murder figured in many later books by various Beat writers, and now a movie specifically about the mysterious stabbing has been made with Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, Dane DeHann as Lucien Carr, Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac, Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs, and Michael C. Hall as David Kammerer.  I’m not sure what modern movie goers will think of this ancient mystery, especially if they don’t know all the Beat players.

This paragraph from Wikipedia promises a lot for the film and portends that it’s a serious effort to understand the Beats.

The Telegraph granted the film a score of three out of five stars, stating that, "Unlike Walter Salles’s recent adaptation of On The Road, which embraced the Beat philosophy with a wide and credulous grin, Kill Your Darlings is inquisitive about the movement’s worth, and the genius of its characters is never assumed". Reviewing Kill Your Darlings after its showing at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, critic Damon Wise of The Guardian lauded the film for being "the real deal, a genuine attempt to source the beginning of America’s first true literary counterculture of the 20th century." Kill Your Darlings, wrote Wise, "creates a true sense of energy and passion, for once eschewing the clacking of typewriter keys to show artists actually talking, devising, and ultimately daring each other to create and innovate. And though it begins as a murder-mystery, Kill Your Darlings may be best described as an intellectual moral maze, a story perfectly of its time and yet one that still resonates today." Wise awarded the film four out of five stars. Justin Chang of Variety wrote, "A mysterious Beat Generation footnote is fleshed out with skilled performances, darkly poetic visuals and a vivid rendering of 1940s academia in "Kill Your Darlings." Directed with an assured sense of style that pushes against the narrow confines of its admittedly fascinating story, John Krokidas’ first feature feels adventurous yet somewhat hemmed-in as it imagines a vortex of jealousy, obsession and murder that engulfed Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac in the early days of their literary revolution."

I’m very excited to see this movie because I’ve read so much about these events, but how close can we get to the truth with a film made almost 70 years after the events?  Doesn’t the movie just become another Rashomon witness?  Does the movie have something real to say?  Are the Beats famous enough with modern young people to entice them to buy tickets?  Or have the Beats, a tiny literary subculture I’ve had a life-long fascination for, become Entertainment Weekly famous?

On the Road is always the start, the gateway drug to Beat addiction.  However, I always thought On the Road, The Dharma Bums and Big Sur make an elegant trilogy, so I’m wondering why no one made The Dharma Bums into a film first?  Big Sur is a strange novel, a self-portrait of self-destruction.  Big Sur was Kerouac’s way of signing off, of distancing himself from being crowned King of the Beats.  Why did they make it now?

Look at this first movie trailer:

This preview promises adventure, romance and sex, as if the story is just a continuation of On the Road.  That’s totally misleading for Big Sur, because that book is about the end of the road.  I’m worried they are just trying to create a Beat mania just about the false glamor and not about the real substance. 

Look at this preview instead:

This is closer to how I remember the book.  Kerouac spends much of his time alone, drinking and brooding, trying to think his way out of his slow Thunderbird suicide.

Big Sur, the book, came out in 1962, after Kerouac’s brief encounter with fame, and is somewhat the subject of the book.  It briefly reunites us with Allen Ginsberg, Neal and Carolyn Cassady from On the Road, and , Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, Philip Whalen and others we first met in The Dharma Bums, and introduces us to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Light Books, a famous Beat bookstore.  I once met Gary Snyder at one of his poetry readings, so this puts me two degrees of separation from all my Beat heroes – or anti-heroes.  I was also a fan of Alan Watts and read several of his books on Buddhism and Zen that were popular back in the 1960s and 1970s.  Someone needs to make a movie of the Six Gallery poetry reading like Kill Your Darlings, another major beat event, and then make a film version of The Dharma Bums, to give just the Kerouac slant.  We need the middle part of the story before we get to Big Sur or Satori in ParisKill Your Darlings should be considered a prequel to Road novels.

Just when I thought the Beats were going to be forgotten, movie makers and readers are rediscovering them.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Is The Beats movement a real literary movement with genuine insight, or was it just a bunch of wild people that us quiet folk like to remember?

JWH – 10/23/13

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