The Beat Generation is still alive and well, it seems. At least it’s what Chuck Workman’s second documentary feature (after a piece on Andy Warhol) tries to prove. The Beats were a group of outsiders led by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who more or less established the American counterculture in the 50s. Through their poetry and various happenings, they shook up the mainstream. The film tells us that they were the first to express this loudly contempt towards society, defending civil rights, race relations and queer acceptance. They were the source of the 60s protest movement, the hippies, the sexual revolution… Mind-expanding drugs, jazz and car trips to and around San Francisco, that was the ticket.
Chuck Workman isn’t really a name that rings a bell, but we’ve all seen his work. For 10 years or so, he’s been editing these nifty film clips compilations that they show at the beginning of the Oscars. He’s been a very well respected editor for decades; among other things, George Lucas had him put together the original “Star Wars” trailer. His talent for crafting dazzling collections of diverse images and sounds is obvious in “The Source”. During 80 minutes, Workman never stops bombarding us with clips from and any and everything which has something to do with the beats. There’s tons of archives material, stock footage, old and new interviews, home movies, as well as countless mockery and snickering at the Beats by the mainstream media. See Hitchcock in a beret with a goatee, beatniks popping up on The Flinstones and so on.
“The Source” positions the birth of cool in 1944, when Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac met at Columbia University. We get to see how they became legends, almost by accident. We learn that Kerouac wrote “On the Road” in only three weeks (!!!), after a 7 year escapade throughout America, and that Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch” without much direction, getting high and putting confused thoughts on paper. Well, if you’ve read the novel, that ain’t much of a surprise! The film is very interesting in the way it goes every which way but loose. I particularly enjoyed watching Neal Cassidy, the free-spirited and arguably insane road hawk who was a muse for many of the Beats; he was the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriary in “On the Road”. And what a thrill it is to see Jack “Ti-Jean” Kerouac back in Quebec, being interviewed in French and speaking with a purely Québécois accent! Call it shameless nationalism, but it’s nice to see that my beloved Quebec produced what might be the most influential American writer of the late 20th century. The film also has performances of selections of Beat literature by Hollywood actors. The casting is dead-on. Johnny Depp is hella cool as Kerouac, John Turturro has nice intensity as Ginsberg performing his famous “Howl”, and who better than Dennis Hopper in the right hat to pose as Burroughs! And then there’s Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Frisco acid guru Tim Leary, Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, and a bunch of clips from old Jack Nicholson flicks.
I liked a lot “The Source”, yet I can’t say that I fell in love with it. Workman’s dizzying style allows him to show many many sides of his subject, but it also makes it all pretty superficial. We never get to really understand who these guys were. Okay, we’re told Kerouac was a boozehound and died of it, that Ginsberg found some peace through Buddhism, and that Burroughs may or may not have killed his wife in Mexico, for example, but Workman doesn’t dig deeper. The three ideas I just mentioned are barely explored in the film, but I’m sure you could make an entire film on them. What exactly is this film saying? I think Workman wants us to believe that it’s the Beats who initiated all the cool shit we’ve enjoyed for the past ’60 years. I wasn’t there, I can’t say otherwise, but after watching Workman’s film, I’m not that convinced. Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg have been finally recognized as major writers, granted. Some college kids try out spoken word, right. Misfit teenagers everywhere discover sooner or later “On the Road” or “Naked Lunch” and it affects them deeply, for sure. One of my favorite movies of the year, the cold war era animated fable “The Iron Giant”, features a beatnik character named Dean who listens to be-bop and has a Kerouac poster on his wall, dig it.
But has the mainstream really embraced what the Beats stood for? As far as I know, poetry is still a misunderstood art, drugs are still maligned by the Man, and society promotes not individuality but massive, thoughtless conformity and manic consumerism. On the other hand, maybe Workman is just following the Beat spirit, improvising behind the editing table instead of following a restrictive narrative, and refusing to become political. I just wish it would have gone further, or at least argue for its thesis more convincingly. Still, “The Source” is a very entertaining piece, no doubt, and it’s a satisfying introduction to the Beat generation.