An insight into The Beat Generation on film: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and more
The Beat Generation is a hard thing for a contemporary filmmaker to capture; it is too undefined and too dependent on the written word rather than on visual imagery to be easily conveyed on film; but most of all, it is too much a product of its time.
The literary movement, a culturally significant period of time which was pioneered by group of authors whose work explored themes of politics, societal change and more, was popularised throughout the 1950s.
With sexual liberation and experimentation with psychedelic drugs a core premise within the work, key figures such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and more pushed forward an alternative medium of creative expression with prolific effect.
While their work established a literary movement, in the years that followed contemporary creatives have attempted to retell the tales of the past through the medium of cinema. While it has proved an eternally difficult memory to capture, the period of time is too significant and intriguing a cultural event to leave unexplored.
Here are some noteworthy attempts.
The best Beat Generation films:
On The Road (2012)
“The only people for me are the mad ones.” — Jack Kerouac
On The Road may represent the Beat era to the modern reader more than any other work. This 2012 film is the first adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking 1957 novel – a surprising delay for a novel so popular and so widely discussed. Attempts to produce a film version began soon after the book’s publication, when Kerouac suggested Marlon Brando for the lead role. Several film studios made offers which fell through for one reason or another until Francis Ford Coppola purchased the rights over twenty years later. A screenwriter was chosen, a script written, and the initial casting discussions began, but somehow the film itself stalled each time. Only after thirty years had passed did Coppola choose Walter Salles as director, and the project was underway at last.
Kerouac’s novel is a strongly autobiographical account of a group of friends, mainly Beat writers and their associates, travelling across the United States, taking odd jobs, observing life and gaining inspiration for their writing. Salles not only retraced the route described by Kerouac as part of his preparation for directing the film but sought out and interviewed a few of the surviving members of Kerouac’s entourage in an effort to recreate Kerouac’s world as accurately as possible. Their anecdotes helped fill in blanks where Kerouac had been vague about what actually took place.
The characters are stand-ins for Kerouac himself and his circle of friends, supposedly with little more than the names changed, the events described real according to Kerouac’s recollection. Central character Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley) is Kerouac; Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) is mad poet and sidekick Neal Cassady; Moriarty’s wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) is Cassady’s teenaged bride LuAnne Henderson; Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) is Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl; and a character known as Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) is meant to be influential Beat writer and artist William S Burroughs (whose main work, Naked Lunch, was made into a properly eccentric film adaptation by David Cronenberg).
The lengthy delay in adapting On The Road to film may be understandable. It is obviously a challenge to produce an adequate film version of this novel, as Jack Kerouac’s writing is the main attraction throughout, not the plot. Without his distinctive viewpoint and poetic narrative, the storyline and characters lose a great deal. The film partly offsets this lack by having occasional passages from the novel inserted as voice-over narration, and by giving characters bits of Kerouac’s original text as dialogue.
The other difficulty in adapting On The Road in 2012 is presenting the unique Beat mentality, not only toward their art, but toward money, relationships, freedom, and life itself. The Beat poets believed in a life of freedom, experiencing every possible aspect of life and following their instincts, with little regard for social conventions. This approach took in not only more acceptable romantic adventures, such as working alongside migrant farm labourers in order to better bond with the working class, but also practices which are no longer seen as merely daring but foolishly reckless, and in many cases inconsiderate or unkind. This includes the Beats’ fascination with drug experimentation, ranging from cannabis to the then-popular Benzedrine and nitrous oxide, supposedly for the purpose of expanding consciousness and aiding creativity; their belief in ‘free love’ and sexual experimentation; and their willingness to freeload or otherwise take advantage of those who earned money by conventional means. The script carefully updates the story, attempting to make Sal, Dean, and their associates the delightfully rebellious, emotionally intense, deeply creative people Kerouac saw, rather than the aimless parasites the modern viewer might perceive.
One area which is managed with particular care is the place of the female characters. This is no doubt partly a question of attitudes changing over time, but Kerouac’s tendency to portray his female characters as entertaining but secondary beings, and of his central characters to be shown as admirable even as they carelessly disregard the women and other minor players in their lives, had to be cautiously rewritten for a modern audience. The travelling poets’ wives and lovers are still abandoned or exploited, as in the novel, but the film includes the women’s point of view and does not exonerate the men for their callousness. The female roles are also expanded, most particularly that of Marylou, Dean Moriarty’s uninhibited teenaged bride. The film brings Marylou to life as the bold, free-spirited Beat muse of Kerouac’s novel, but one with opinions and dreams of her own, as opposed to a mere camp follower. The charming portrayal of Dean and Marylou’s jazz “love dance,” expanded from a single line in the novel into a definitive moment, expresses the youthful exuberance and bold expressiveness of the Beat movement better than pages of dialogue might have done; while the poignant scene of Marylou’s sudden roadside abandonment by her husband, and her quietly stoic resolve to accept and survive her situation as best she can, not only captures her personality but clarifies in a few seconds that the poets’ personal freedom is not without casualties. In a further attempt to soft-pedal the content for modern sensibilities, the character of Old Bull Lee, whom the poets admire, takes them to task for their irresponsibility toward their loved ones.
The revisions do not really detract from Kerouac’s original story, but rather prevent generational differences from becoming a distraction. The film is not a substitute for the novel, but it does capture much of the feel and intention of Kerouac’s novel, and of the world view of the Beat poets.
Big Sur (2013)
“I feel guilty for being a member of the human race.” —Jack Kerouac
The actual plot of Big Sur, based on the 1962 novel by Jack Kerouac, is extremely minimal; it describes three visits by Kerouac to a seaside cottage owned by a friend and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, during a time when Kerouac is depressed and aimless, and struggling with alcoholism. (While the autobiographical novel, more a memoir than a work of fiction, uses character names – Kerouac becomes Jack Duluoz, fellow writer Neal Cassady is Cody Pomeray, and so forth – the film omits the pseudonyms and calls the characters by their real names.) Kerouac, now forty and having lost much of his youthful inspiration, is trying to write, using the cabin to escape the publicity derived from the surprising success of his last novel, On The Road. Director (and screenplay writer) Michael Polish allows the look of the 2013 film to tell some of the story, especially where dialogue is largely absent; footage from the California woods surrounding Kerouac is beautiful, in contrast to the claustrophobic scenes of Kerouac himself, focused on his typewriter.
In the course of his time in California, Kerouac reconnects with Neal Cassady and other Beat writers and friends. They talk over the past, and some regrets are shared; it is a nice reprise of youthful rebels sinking into middle age, and their weariness with their former disordered, self-consciously unconventional existence. There is still a conflict between their rejection of social convention and their need for stability. The gathering looks uncomfortably like a public Beat reunion organised by the media after the movement has become nostalgic. The film manages to convey the random, erratic intellectual life of mid-20th century Beat writers, if only by contrasting the youthful ecstasy of the 1950s artistic anarchy with the disappointment that came from being unable to sustain their creative rapture and relentless rebellion as youth waned. In much the same way, the carefree actions of the Beat bohemian life are looked back on with regret: the treatment of women as playthings, casually described in On The Road, is now viewed with some shame; the drunken parties and experimentation with drugs have caught up with Kerouac and his companions, as some have been lost to suicide, overdose, chronic unemployment, or mental instability, and Kerouac himself continues to battle a drinking problem.
Veteran actor Jean-Marc Barr brings Kerouac to life very effectively, while Josh Lucas is exuberant and larger than life as Kerouac’s version of mad, wandering poet Neal Cassady. Cassady remains charming and innocent, and among Kerouac’s friends, the most dedicated to sustaining the wildness and perceived freedom of his former life. He cheerfully offers to ‘share’ his mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth) with Kerouac, having never given up on their former optimism about the liberating effects of free love. As before, he neglects to obtain Billie’s consent first; Big Sur, unlike Kerouac’s earlier material, acknowledges the Beat poets’ tendency to treat women as furniture, and gives some thought to the struggles of the women in their lives, particularly Cassady’s wife and mistress.
The reunion with Neal Cassady is the catalyst for Kerouac’s downward spiral, as his drinking binges become more and more out of control, and his friends try to intervene and help him. His descent into agitation, paranoia, and doubt, and the dissolution of a relationship he’d had hopes for leaves him uncertain of his ability to love, relate to others, or recover and live a normal life. Relying on his writing skill, the one thing that has never failed him, he turns all this pain into beautiful words.
The film is not a dramatisation of Kerouac’s life during this time; it is more like a reading of lengthy passages from Big Sur, the novel, illustrated by footage recreating what Kerouac describes. This approach makes the film slower and less dramatic than it might have been, but it wisely allows that Kerouac’s writing is the real attraction, not the factual details of the story. The camera work gives many of the scenes the look of a candid home movie, with slightly imperfect lighting, choice of angle or focus making the footage feel a little like furtive glimpses of a private event, paralleling the novel’s feeling of providing a look into the private corners of the author’s mind. The film concludes with some of Kerouac’s best prose as, just recovered from alcohol withdrawal, he tries to convince himself that his former free, joyful state of mind can be recovered, however painfully clear it is to the audience that his peace of mind is temporary. The film ends on the novel’s final line: “There’s no need to say another word.”
Kill Your Darlings (2013)
“Be careful, you are not in Wonderland.”— Allen Ginsberg
The American Beat writers were known not only for their influence on literature, culture, and thought, but for their enduring friendships and the effect of their various relationships on their art and their personal lives. Kill Your Darlings deals with both factors more or less equally. It is the story, based on true events, of a murder that involved the two protagonists, poet Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), when they were university students, together with an account of the first meetings of several significant Beat figures and their influence on one another.
The story, told mainly from Allen Ginsberg’s point of view, opens with an unexplained visit of Ginsberg to a prison to visit Lucien Carr. There is some unspoken warning between them about revealing information. This mysterious conversation is explained in time, as the film then goes into a lengthy flashback. A young Allen Ginsberg is preparing to leave home to attend Columbia University; he is the son of a poet and a mentally ill mother. At university, the shy and withdrawn Ginsberg meets the charismatic, flamboyant, rowdy, and outspoken Lucien Carr. They become unlikely friends, and Carr acts as guide and mentor, introducing Ginsberg to new literature, new ideas, and interesting social circles. In the course of this social whirl, Ginsberg meets Jack Kerouac and the young William Burroughs, who will become a significant figure among the Beat writers; and is introduced to recreational drugs for the first time.
Jazz is the background to most scenes of Ginsberg’s personal and artistic development; jazz music was the soundtrack of the Beat experience, and represented every ideal they held in regard, as rock music did for the hippies of the 1960s. Carefully chosen jazz pieces are used effectively in multiple scenes, to highlight the writers’ mood, their camaraderie, their moments of creative breakthrough, even their periods of drug-induced euphoria. Energetic, high-speed jazz serves as the background for Ginsberg’s period of growth, much of it shown as a montage, during which he enjoys a surge of creativity and begins to expand his writing into formerly untried, experimental forms. At the same time, he also begins the first painful and tentative steps toward acknowledging his sexual orientation and struggles with the disappointment he knows his poet father will feel with his unconventional approach to writing.
The film’s title has multiple meanings as it relates to the storyline. It is a common writer’s proverb, referring to the author’s need to willingly give up even the most beautiful or beloved aspects of style or phrasing which don’t serve his art, something Allen Ginsberg was learning to do. It also refers to the many things he was forcing himself to break free from in the pursuit of poetry, from parental approval to respectability to his own familiar self-image. It also, more crudely, refers to the Columbia murder and all that led up to it. As Ginsberg goes through these multiple changes, the key event of the film, the killing of a university professor by Lucien Carr, takes place, bringing all these matters to a head in one way or another, and forcing Ginsberg to face or reconsider many of his assumptions, decide what to believe, and choose his loyalties, in a prologue to the better known facts of his life as a poet, social rebel, and public figure.
“What is obscenity? And to whom?”— Alan Ginsberg
Alan Ginsberg is one of the individuals who stands for the Beat generations and Beat writing, more than any other apart from Jack Kerouac. His masterpiece is Howl, a lengthy, ambitious, four-part poem published in 1956, which famously elevated the scruffy coffeehouse ‘beatniks’ of the ‘50s to “angel headed hipsters”. It was partly a tribute to Carl Solomon, a friend and eccentric fellow poet who was plagued by lifelong mental illness, and whom Ginsberg met during a brief stint in a psychiatric hospital. Soon after its publication, the publisher and distributor of the volume containing Howl, Beat patron Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was charged with disseminating obscene material. The film, Howl, is primarily the story of that 1957 obscenity trial.
The long-established directing team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman combines a documentary style and re-enactments of real events, usually in accurate detail, with fantasy sequences, some animated, including the animated sequences that depict passages from the poem. One of the most effective uses of animation shows the first words of the poem Howl being typewritten on a page; the text changes to musical notes, then, accompanied by the jazz music so strongly connected with Beat literature, changing again to form the images the words evoke.
Co-directors and screenwriters Epstein and Friedman researched Alan Ginsberg extensively, interviewing his friends and associates from 2005 until the film’s production five years later. Recognising the importance of Alan Ginsberg to the literary world, and of this trial to recent history, great care was taken to replicate the settings, including Ginsberg’s apartment, the courtroom, and the coffee-house where Ginsberg first read his poetry. Scenes of the trial itself are reproduced word for word from court transcripts. The trial reveals a great deal about the conflicting attitudes at play in America in the 1950s, toward free speech, artistic expression, art itself, sex, and power on many levels. In some ways, an individual’s reaction to the poem, Howl, was a litmus test of his position on the existing social and political spectrum.
The film is also a partial biography of Alan Ginsberg, dealing with the author’s many struggles: with his work’s legal issues, with his own sexual orientation, with his friends’ self-destruction (expressed in the poem’s first line, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’), with his solitude. In the film, Ginsberg describes meeting other significant Beat writers, including Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and their influence on his life and his writing. Re-enacted interviews with Ginsberg provide his own explanation of his poetry and his view of the importance of art.
A particularly important and enjoyable part of the film is the lifelike depiction of the first reading of Howl in a San Francisco coffee house in 1955, prior to its publication. Filmed in black and white to replicate footage from the time, the reading captures the earnest and joyfully rebellious attitude of the listeners, the enthusiasm of the Beat era audience for groundbreaking art in all forms. Shouts and laughs of delighted shock at the poem’s daring language, spontaneous cheers for apt, unusual, or provocative passages, are part of the performance. James Franco as Allen Ginsberg captures the cheerful defiance of the young poet, his transient but intense bond with the audience, and his love for the words he produces.
Heart Beat (1980)
“I don’t think we did anything wrong. We just did it first.” — Carolyn Cassady
This 1980 film by John Byrum is adapted from Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal, the memoirs of Carolyn Cassady, wife of Beat writer Neal Cassady. It is often a bit lacklustre in spite of an impressive cast – a young Nick Nolte as Neal Cassady, John Heard as Jack Kerouac, and Sissy Spacek as Carolyn – and the plot patchy at times, depending on the author’s voice-over comments to pull things together. It is still of interest, as it offers a look at the lives of such significant figures in the Beat movement, from the unique perspective of someone who was both an intimate and something of an outsider. The account of the great writers’ private lives is often more mundane than other portrayals, as the characters and their actions are not seen through the usual filter of poetic fiction. Carolyn Cassady herself became well known to Kerouac’s readers through that same filter: she became Camille in On The Road, and Evelyn in several of Kerouac’s other novels, and it is intriguing to see this relatively minor character come to life and speak for herself.
The film begins with a series of images representing conventional American life during the era of the Beats, accompanied by the voice of Carolyn Cassady talking about the attitudes of 1950s Americans, which she herself shared until she met the incorrigible Neal Cassady and his friend, Jack Kerouac. The two men were close friends when she met them, having bonded over writing; “Jack wrote out words like they were notes to a saxophone solo,” she comments. Neal Cassady, although driven to write, lacked the calm and the discipline, and served mainly as Kerouac’s inspiration. (Neal Cassady only produced a single, small volume of poetry in his life; the one film with him as central character, The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), is based not on published writings, but on a letter he once wrote to Jack Kerouac, what Kerouac called his “fast, mad, confessional” letters being the one form of writing he had the patience for.) The 22-year-old Carolyn found Neal Cassady appealing, although he was also irresponsible, reckless, amoral, and dangerously erratic, as well as in the final stages of his marriage, all of which created ethical problems for the conventional young woman Carolyn was at the time. From the first, however, she was drawn less to Neal Cassady than to the inseparable duo of Cassady and Kerouac and the energy their friendship seemed to create.
For a time, Carolyn was in occasional contact with the pair, keeping track of their travels and adventures, many of which are well known from On The Road, and which are outlined in the film. Carolyn had artistic dreams of her own: she attended design school, worked toward her Master’s degree, and hoped to one day do set designs for the stage. She did – but only after much time had passed and she was finally free to consider her own ambitions. Once she finally began a relationship with Neal Cassady, he required her full attention for many years.
When Carolyn became pregnant, she and Neal married and moved to a house in a more respectable neighbourhood, something Carolyn’s conventional upbringing demanded. Neal was a disaster as a husband and father: too restless, and too contemptuous of the trappings of middle-class family life. Only when Jack Kerouac, who had ‘shared’ Carolyn at times (just as Neal had shared his former wife with Jack on occasion), moved in and became something of an unofficial second husband, did their life become stable and happy. Neal and Jack seemed to have a steadying and energising effect on one another, and the three-partner arrangement made marriage and child-rearing manageable even for the turbulent Neal. Their life together became an odd mix of the counterculture and the conventional, which they made no effort to explain to themselves or each other. The clash of lifestyles and the bemusement of their conservative neighbours are played for humour.
Things changed when On The Road was finally published, ten years after its completion. Jack Kerouac became a celebrity, left Neal and Carolyn behind to do interviews and book signings, never to return, and the Cassady marriage broke down. The film does its best work showing the effects of fame and recognition on all parties. Jack unexpectedly developed a taste for notoriety and immersed himself in the life of the popular author. Neal Cassady, meanwhile, was annoyed by the book’s publicity and his place in it, by being recognized as ‘Dean Moriarty’ by fans. He is discouraged that former haunts, like the City Lights Bookstore, had become ‘beatnik’ tourist traps; he hates the pretentious artiness of the nearby coffee houses, their fashionably hip poetry readings, and above all hates being a mascot for this cultural movement which On The Road helped launch.
The film ends years later, with Neal Cassady, having spent a few years in prison for cannabis possession, joining a busload of travelling hippie artists, led by writer Ken Kesey, famously dubbed the Merry Pranksters, Cassady serving as their Beat-era mascot. Jack Kerouac is a successful but deeply disillusioned writer; and Carolyn, someone who is comfortable with the compromises she has made.