Selected Program Notes for the Beat Screening List
This screening list was prepared by Ray Carney for the show, "Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965" which was mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in November 1995 and subsequently toured to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. It represents an overview of a wide range of Beat culture on film.
This screening list was prepared by Ray Carney for the show, "Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965" which was mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in November 1995 and subsequently toured to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. It represents an overview of a wide range of Beat culture on film.
The first challenge a survey of Beat film faces is the question of where to draw the boundaries. The definition of what is or is not Beat in film is not at all clear. Compounding the problem is the inherent looseness and vagueness of the Beat movement itself. Much of Beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program.
It would be a lot easier if we were only looking for movies with "beatniks" in them. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the word (which by sarcastically punning on the recently launched Russian Sputnik was apparently intended to cast doubt on the beatnik's red-white-and-blue-blooded all-Americanness). And the mass media popularized the concept. Dobie Gillis, Life magazine, Charles Kuralt, and a host of other entertainers and journalists reduced Beatness to a set of superficial, silly externals that have stayed with us ever since: goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches, and "cool, man, cool" jargon. The only problem is that there never were any beatniks in this sense (except, perhaps, for the media-influenced imitators who came along late in the history of the movement). Beat culture was a state of mind, not a matter of how you dressed or talked or where you lived. In fact, Beat culture was far from monolithic. It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind.
The films and videos that have been selected for the screening list are an attempt to move beyond the cultural cliches and slogans, to look past the Central Casting costumes, props, and jargon that the mass media equated with Beatness, in order to do justice to its spirit. One way to begin defining the Beat spirit is simply to say that it was culturally adversarial. The Beats attempted to stand outside of the mainstream culture of the period and to disassociate themselves from most of America's cultural achievements. They were profoundly out of sympathy with most of the values of post-War American society and its institutions, and aspired to position themselves somewhere, anywhere else. (Often it seemed that where else hardly mattered.) They aspired to be cultural escape artists.
Since so much of Beat culture was a reaction against mainstream, post-war American society, it seems desirable to begin by setting the stage and providing a cultural background. The first group of films summarizes the feel of the post-war years. Emile de Antonio's Point of Order!, made in 1964, looks back at the HUAC hearings of the late forties and early fifties. In a more humorous vein, Kevin Rafferty's Atomic Cafe and Obie Benz's Heavy Petting capture some of the emotional flavor of the cold war era. On the evidence of these works, American society was united in agreement about two threats to the common welfare: internationally, Soviet Communism and the H-Bomb; domestically, extramarital sex and the alleged decline of morals. It should come as no surprise that when the Beats surfaced in the national consciousness, they were linked with both terrors-suspected, first, of being Communists, and second, of being "perverts" or advocates of "free love" (contemporary code words for homosexuality and extramarital sex, respectively). Although the names of the devils change from year to year, de Antonio, Rafferty, and Benz remind us of one constant: Puritanism perennially rhymes with paranoia.
Greta Schiller, Robert Rosenberg and John Scagliotti's Before Stonewall and Janet Forman's The Beat Generation trace responses to this atmosphere of fear and repression. Before Stonewall reminds us that the existence of a Bohemian cultural underground in America antedates the Beat movement by at least fifty years. In Forman's sociological overview of the Beat response to the Eisenhower era, one of the most interesting points is made by Diane DiPrima, who explains that the notorious "coolness" of the Beats was a symptom not of not caring (as depictions of beatniks in the media would have it) but of caring all too intensely. While the middle-class used alcohol, sex, and power as narcotics to dull their consciousness of the emotional frustration of their jobs, and accumulated material possessions in an attempt to fill the spiritual void in their lives, the Beats actually faced the truth of their society. Given such an emotionally exposed and vulnerable position, it was necessary to maintain one's "cool" as much as possible.
It is against this background of wide-spread cultural anxiety and uncertainty that the performances of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause should be viewed. Brando and Dean were dangerous and exciting actors precisely because they tapped into pervasive undercurrents of dissatisfaction in fifties society. Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause is stunningly in tune with the Beat sensibility. Ray's film demonstrates that if the Beat movement is not confused with its external trappings, its spirit can be captured without even alluding to the Beats. Ray mounts a powerful critique of the social and emotional dysfunctionality of the American family, and, specifically, of the failure of the married-to-his-job father to provide a role model for his son to emulate. (The father as missing-person is one of the secret subtexts of many Beat works.) Ray documents the materialism and spiritual aridity of suburban life. In the planetarium scene, he breathtakingly communicates the dread and doom felt by the first generation to grow up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. And, on the positive side, in the performances of James Dean and Sal Mineo, he captures one of the most important emotional dimensions of Beat culture: its tenderness toward and identification with the weak and disenfranchised members of society.
The scene in Rebel Without a Cause that, to my mind, comes closest to summarizing the full complexity of the Beat situation is the extended sequence near the end of the film in which James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo flee to the deserted mansion. Ray suspends his three figures at the same in-between imaginative and tonal place the Beats themselves occupied: between hope and despair, fear and idealism, flight and homecoming, comedy and tragedy, clumsiness and grace. The mansion becomes a special, sanctified playhouse within which Jim, Judy, and Plato live out imaginative possibilities inconceivable within their real families. They play with their old identities, improvise new ones, and try out a shifting series of pretended roles and relationships. (The adolescent awkwardness of their performances only makes them all the more endearing.) They turn life into an ebullient game. As they parody adult tones and voices in a cascade of comic impersonations, they demonstrate that they apparently can be anything-that the notion of a fixed social (or cinematic) identity is an arbitrary limitation on one's true imaginative multiplicity. They show us that personal identity doesn't have to be narrow and formulaic (as it is for the adults in the film), but can be experimental, shifting, open-ended, and playful. They show us that social relations can be stimulating and creative. Their final impersonation is to play at being a family (with Jim and Judy as the mother and father, and Plato as their son)-a family organized along entirely different lines from the families they grew up in: one in which relationships are not rigid, authoritarian, and hierarchical, but egalitarian, democratic, loving, and sensitively responsive to one another's needs.
It's a remarkable sequence, deeply revelatory about the essential feel of the Beat situation. The Beats were experimenting with new possibilities of selfhood and relationship in almost exactly the same way as Jim, Judy, and Plato. (Compare Diane DiPrima's wonderful Dinners and Nightmares for a prose analogue to Ray's scene.) What makes the scene so complex and moving is that it captures both the hopefulness and the desperation, both the comedy and the sadness of the situation.
Jim, Judy, and Plato are, after all, only playing house. They are only pretending to be a family. They are only experimenting with new possibilities of selfhood and social relationship. Their achievement is only imaginative. In the onrush of the plot events, it will last only a few minutes. And yet the scene also convinces us that the possibilities Jim, Judy, and Plato entertain-the new, playful, flexible forms of personality and relationship they act out-are real. Their identities are larger and more fluid, and they do display more love than they have been able to express in adult society up to this point in the film. Rebel's scene summarizes both the glory and the doom of the Beat dream of creating a society different from that of adult America.
Pressed to define Beatness, Kerouac once said that it meant "sensitive." In that sense of the word, the jazz musician was felt by the Beats to be a paragon of almost superhuman sensitivity. He was an antenna that picked up signals no one else could hear, a supremely delicate tuning fork that resonated to invisible cultural and emotional force fields. He heard dog-frequencies and made them audible to the rest of us.
Kerouac's own description of this process in On the Road is summarized in his half-comical characterization of George Shearing as being "all ears, opened like the ears of an elephant, listening to the American sounds and mastering them." We will see the cinematic equivalent of this "listening" and "mastering" process in many of the most important avant-garde films of the period. The crucial point with respect to the Beat artist (whether a poet, jazz performer, or filmmaker) is that to make oneself this sensitive-this receptive and alert-one must of necessity put oneself in an extremely exposed and vulnerable position. The artist must let down the walls that normally protect the self, and bravely open up to uncontrollable influences and unpredictable outcomes; must dare to become fluid, transparent, and permeable; and, above all, must give up the comfort of fixed positions and preformulated stances. They would only limit his sensitivity.
The performance of the jazz musician embodied an ideal to which all Beat art (and life) aspired. As a virtuoso of sensitivity and responsiveness, the jazz performer gave himself over to the flowing energies of the moment. He lived in an eternal now, making himself and his performance up as he went along. Blueprints were out; improvisation was in. Planning and premeditation were the enemies of openness and spontaneity. Art (and life) for the jazz performer became open-ended acts of attention expressed in continuously revised and adjusted acts of mastery.
In this version of American existentialism, Lee Konitz's musical improvisations pointed the way toward Kerouac's verbal ones (creating his "spontaneous bop prosody" at 120 words per minute on an unfurling roll of teletype paper), and both had affiliations with Neal Cassady's lived improvisations (picking up girls on buses, telling stories in bars, or hurtling cars through traffic). The supreme allegiance was to remaining faithful to moment by moment movements of feeling and awareness. Organization and structure only got in the way. Since life was only a series of impulses (or so the argument ran), the emphasis was on the truth of impulses over the truth of structures. If the result was, in many cases, appallingly disorganized lives and works, in others (like the finest passages in Ginsberg's, Kerouac's, and DiPrima's writing, Parker's and Coltrane's playing, and Bruce's stand-up routines), the speed and the energy of the result were electrifying.
The present-minded, Zen-like fluidity of the experience is one of the most important aspects of much Beat art. Whether one considers Dean Moriarty's driving in On the Road (and Kerouac's onrushing syntactic presentation of it), the metaphoric tumble (to the point of sensory overload) of Stan VanDerBeek's collages, the dramatic mercuriality of the characters Taylor Mead played, the riffs of the jazz virtuosos the Beats admired, or the equally inspired verbal riffs Lenny Bruce improvised on stage-one of the points of the performance is to remain masterfully, meaningfully, and, above all, rapidly in motion. There are no rest stops on this journey. There is nothing to hold on to. The artist as the creator of monuments of unaging intellect gives way to the artist as Gingerbread Man. Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch him.
Bruce Conner's brilliant and moving White Rose documents another way to take art off the wall. The cinematic Happening he stages has more than superficial similarities with the performed Happenings Oldenburg and his associates stage. As presented by Conner, the work of art overlaps with the work of the world (and also shares the world's sense of "work" as being a verb conflated with art's sense of it as a noun), which establishes a deep connection to Oldenburg. Yet White Rose's depiction of the relationship of the world and the work, and of the relation of the work of art (noun) and the work of art (verb), is far more complex than Oldenburg's. The physical and spiritual costs exacted by the work of art (noun and verb) have seldom been more succinctly or more movingly expressed than in the juxtaposition of the dark angularity of the moving men's ropes, pulleys, tools, and pallets with the white-on-white curliness of Jay de Feo's rose. In Conner's treatment, this is a cathedral rose window that reminds us as much of engineering as of soulfulness.
One of the defining differences between mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and avant-garde works is that Hollywood movies understand experience almost entirely in terms of externalized conflicts and struggles, while in avant-garde films the real drama is almost always inward. In Hollywood movies, characters confront a series of physical obstacles or personal opponents and respond to them with a course of practical actions. Avant-garde films understand that the turning points in life do not usually involve outward actions but inward acts of sensitivity and knowledge, not external forces but imaginative forms of understanding. The avant-garde filmmaker knows that invisible, intangible, pervasive structures of feeling have much more effect on our destinies than events and objects do. (The mansion sequence in Rebel Without a Cause is one of very few scenes in a mainstream movie that presents a deeply inward drama. The house to which Jim, Judy, and Plato flee is haunted by ghosts that are much more insidious, and much harder to exorcise than real ghosts would be: They are the ghosts of all the "adult" roles, tones, and manners these young adults have internalized.)
Beat art has frequently been diarylike, not only in its content (its intimate autobiographical revelations), but, more importantly, in its form. Like jazz performance, Beat art is essentially temporal in its understanding of experience and process-oriented in its forms of presentation. The emphasis is on process over destination and performance over product. One aspect of this process-orientation was the embrace of additive and linear forms of presentation. Beat artists attempted to remain true to the sequential nature of lived experience and the movements of consciousness by deliberately avoiding hierarchical, architectonic, totalizing, or essentializing presentations. Ginsberg's Kaddish and Kerouac's On the Road, in their different ways, go down the "Open Road" with Whitman in understanding experience as a fundamentally sequential and accumulative process. In this view, life is like a shopping list, a MasterCard statement, a diary, and art must do justice to that aspect of it. In Lost, Lost, Lost Jonas Mekas creates a film that attempts to be true to the time it takes to live a life.
Given the Beats' feelings about American culture, many Beat works communicate a sense of cultural displacement. Lost, Lost, Lost and Guns of the Trees (most of which was filmed after the former but released 14 years earlier) are deeply affecting portraits of what it felt like in America in the fifties to be a "displaced person"-in all senses: linguistically, culturally, socially, imaginatively, and artistically. For a viewer with the patience to live through the experiences along with Mekas, Lost, Lost, Lost is one of the most profoundly sad and moving works of the period. Both Lost, Lost, Lost and Guns of the Trees also demonstrate how for Mekas and his characters, as in the Beat movement more generally, the state of social marginality and imaginative alienation, however personally painful to experience, conferred some degree of freedom. (With respect to the attitudes toward the Black experience already mentioned, one notes that Mekas is as guilty of romanticizing the "other" in Guns of the Trees as Kerouac was in On the Road.)
Frank Pierce's and Shirley Clarke's short pieces capture another mood entirely. They are bebop visions, experiments in visual jazz: attempts to do with film what the jazz performer does with music. Pierce's dazzling, propulsive, hilarious Motion Picture puts the viewer on the road and thrillingly on the move with staccato editing to a jazz drum solo. Clarke was trained as a dancer and choreographer and began her filmmaking career by filming dance works. By the time she made Bridges Go Round and Skyscraper, she had discovered the dance of life. She is a choreographer of images, playing visual riffs on the New York skyline, riffs as inventive, ecstatic, and spiritually exultant as those of her personal artistic hero Ornette Coleman (about whom she made a film in 1985).
One of Clarke's strengths as a filmmaker is her tough-mindedness, her refusal to kowtow to the intellectual fad of the week. Her film of Jack Gelber's The Connection is remarkable for its utter lack of sentimentality about both the Beats and those who glamorized them on film. In Clarke's vision, the Beat experience is a drug-induced nightmare of frustration and boredom, and even an artistic interest in it is itself potentially an act of voyeurism and exploitation. (Her own film is a clear exception to this generalization.) Nonetheless, I find The Connection to be a rather weak work. I suspect that its initial notoriety resulted more from the debates over it in the newspapers than from its accomplishments as a work of art.
Clarke's The Cool World is another tough-minded work. Given all of the idealizing of the African American experience by artists during the Beat era, its highly unromanticized view of life in the ghetto is all the more striking. Clarke's Portrait of Jason is another swerve away from cinematic fashion: a reply to the Andy Warhol films in which a character charms the audience with his or her performative panache. Clarke's goal in both works is to let us look deep enough into her characters' eyes to be able to see the skull beneath the skin (to borrow one of her own visual metaphors in Portrait of Jason).
Portrait of Jason adds an important additional perspective to an understanding of the Beat movement. As Paul Goodman argued in Growing Up Absurd (which is probably the best study of the emotional dynamics of the Beat movement), the visionary and the street hustler, the shaman and the con-man, the Beat and the hipster were never very far apart psychologically. To see through bourgeois systems of understanding was to empower oneself to move in either direction, and in fact, most Beats included both opposite tendencies within themselves. As evidence of the intimate relationship within the Beat movement of the saint and the scam artist, we not only have the fictional bond between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road, but the real-life symbiosis of Kerouac and Cassady. Like Neal Cassady (as he is devastatingly revealed in his letters to Kerouac or some of Carolyn Cassady's stories), Jason has seen what a game of three-card monte most social interactions are, and takes that insight as his license for hypocritically manipulating the rules, rigging the game, and ripping off everyone in sight. Jason dazzlingly figure skates the surfaces, after having declared that there are nothing but surfaces. As Goodman points out, the hypocritical role playing of the con-man (Neal Cassady/Jason Holiday/Aaron Paine) merges with the sweet quietism of the saint (Kerouac/the gentle young men in Chris MacLaine's work/the Taylor Mead characters in Ron Rice's or Vernon Zimmerman's films) in another way as well: "Role Playing protects a deep conceit of one's abstract powers: one 'could' if one wanted, but in fact is never tested." Like Bennie, the archetypal hipster in John Cassavetes' Shadows (whom Jason resembles in other respects as well), Jason could do anything; if anything were worth doing. Jason explores the limits of hip self-delusion: the scary point where the mask becomes the face. Jason is not a time-out from Beatness, but the fulfillment of one of its most lethal and self-destructive imaginative possibilities.
Pull My Daisy was praised for years as a masterwork of free-form "blowing" before Alfred Leslie revealed in a November 28, 1968 Village Voice article that its scenes were as completely scripted, blocked, and rehearsed as those in a Hitchcock movie. The film was shot on a professionally lit and dressed set. The cast worked from a script, and shooting proceeded at the typical studio snail's pace of two minutes of text per day. All camera positions were locked and all movements planned in advance. As many takes and angles were shot, and as much footage exposed in proportion to its final length (3 hours for 28 minutes) as for a Hollywood feature of the period. Probably more. Even Kerouac's wonderfully shaggy-baggy narration was actually written out in advance, performed four times, and mixed from three separate takes. (Though, in defense of the man who made "first thought, best thought" a Beat mantra, it must be added that Kerouac is said to have objected when his narration was edited.)
John Cassavetes' Shadows comes a little closer to being a true improvisation, but only briefly-in an early, discarded version. The first version of Shadows (filmed in 1957) was indeed based on a dramatic improvisation the director and his actors had worked out in an acting class. But Cassavetes was so embarrassed by the filmed result that after screening it just three times late in 1958 he decided the only way to salvage it was to write a series of scenes to cut into it. The revised ninety-minute film retained less than thirty minutes of the original footage. Tipping the balance even further, the little that was retained from the first version was mainly transitional, establishing, or action footage (street and sidewalk shots of characters walking, shots of Central Park and a couple running up a hill, shots of characters racing for trains in Grand Central Station, a fight scene). Most of the important dramatic interactions between the characters were from the new scripted parts.
Shadows suggests a deep and intriguing link between the Beat sense of life and the occurrence of continuously shifting dramatic beats in a work of art. To hold oneself as tonally and psychologically open as Tony and Lelia do (both as characters and as actors) is to live the existential ideal of sensory awareness and present-mindedness that so many of the Beats embraced. Tony and Lelia act out an improvisatory vision of experience in which we bravely unmoor our identities from fixed definitions and cut our relationships loose from predictable destinations in order to abandon ourselves to the ever-changing possibilities of the moment. The slipperiness of their relationship, the tonal mercuriality of their interactions, the fugitiveness of each of their momentary emotional rest stops captures a stunningly open-ended vision of experience. Experience will not stand still to have its picture taken. Life will not be turned into a still life. In far more than a punning sense of the words, the shifts of beats reflect a quintessential Beat appreciation of life in process - of as process. They are the strict equivalent of the jazz performer's incessant, obsessive "changes." Meanings are written in water - continuously recomposed out of ongoing decompositions. The scene communicates the social equivalent of the propulsiveness of some of the driving scenes in Kerouac's On the Road: an experiential onwardness that is both exhilarating and more than a little scary to watch. In a sense, Cassavetes outdoes Kerouac. He puts his characters' lives on wheels-without needing to put them in a car.
The further effect of Lelia's and Tony's stammerings and miscues is the more general lesson that great Method acting always communicates: a sense of a fundamental gap between our social and verbal expressions of ourselves and a realm of buried feeling that can only be haltingly and imperfectly expressed by our words and actions. The Method actor sinks a mine shaft into subterranean emotional depths, and goes down to report how much more there is down there than can ever be brought up to the surface. In On the Waterfront, when Brando fumbles with Eva Marie Saint's glove in the playground scene or almost starts crying when he talks with Rod Steiger in the cab scene, one of the most important expressive effects of his acting is to convince us that his words and gestures are only the superficial signs of incredibly profound depths of unspoken thought and feeling. In short, Method acting opens a gap between imagination and social forms of expression. It is a form of linguistic skepticism.
This skepticism is one of the central tenets of Beat art and life. The cultivated inwardness of the hipster and the jazz performer points toward a realm of "pure being" (Kerouac's term) somewhere underneath and beyond verbal and social expression. It is the "beyond" and the "IT" so many of Kerouac's characters pursue and want to get in touch with. In the Beat aesthetic, this nonverbal, nonsocial interior is a place of purity and spirituality-perhaps the last remaining place exempt from society's predatory systematizations and mechanizations.
Method acting kept the lines of communication open between the interior and exterior realms, so that moving between them, although difficult, was still possible. The unfortunate tendency of much Beat art, however, was to erect a wall between the realms. Many Beat works, especially in film, introduced a reductive schism in which experience was parceled into two mutually exclusive categories: on the one side, private states of imagination and feeling (which were regarded as being pure and valuable); on the other, public forms of social interaction and expression (which were regarded as being flawed and limiting). The private realm was intense, energetic, fluid, playful, and stimulating; the public realm was rigid, mechanical, serious, and frustrating. As different as they are from one another, On the Road, Pull My Daisy, The Flower Thief, and Howl consistently dichotomize experience in this way. They imagine the individual either trapped inside established social forms and structures of interaction, or grandly (and nobly) alienated, existing beyond them in some state of pure awareness and being. The Beat vision almost always conceptualizes experience in terms of such dichotomous alternatives-whether the dichotomies are tragic in effect (Howl's angel-headed hipsters versus Moloch) or comic (Pull My Daisy's Peter versus the Bishop).
It's a tempting vision. It flatters the individual by making his struggle against society Byronic in its grandeur. But it's just a little too simple. This state of majestic alienation confers easy heroism on everyone. It reminds us that Beat culture was, after all, youth culture, and that it is in the nature of youth to see things in terms of contrasted absolutes, antitheses, and extremes. The either-or opposition of imagination and social expression leaves out the inevitable inbetweenness of adult experience, the middle ground where most of adult life is lived-which is really the most interesting place to be.
The middle ground is the place where the creative individual doesn't repudiate established social and institutional structures of expression, but remains at least partly within them, creatively challenged by and engaged with them, negotiating them. What makes Shadows so different from (and its characters' dramatic predicaments so much more complex than) most other Beat works is precisely that Cassavetes rejects the Beat schism. He denies his characters the luxury of a grand alienation from social forms of expression; he forces them to shape their destinies within forms of social interaction (however haltingly and imperfectly, as Lelia and Tony demonstrate). Just in case we don't get the point, Cassavetes does include one grandly alienated figure in Shadows. Bennie could have stepped right out of the pages of Howl or The Dharma Bums. Like many another Beatster, he has given up on social interaction and verbal expression in order to tend his private imaginative garden. But rather than want us to admire him, Cassavetes clearly wants us to see how doomed and self-destructive Bennie's obsessively cultivated alienation is.
To put it another way, Cassavetes doesn't allow his characters the comfort of blaming their problems on external relationships and systems of knowledge. The expressive systems that threaten the characters in Shadows are within themselves. The danger does not come from external economic, technological, political, or social systems, but from internal systems of understanding and feeling. We do not have the luxury of rebelling against or escaping these systems. In Pogo's words, in a cartoon contemporaneous with the Beat movement, we have met the enemy and it is us.
Bennie illustrates this as well. Throughout Shadows he blames his problems on society, while Cassavetes' view is that his real problem is himself. David clearly speaks for the filmmaker when he tells Bennie in the coffee shop scene that he is trapped in an emotional and behavioral "pattern." In Cassavetes' opinion, the real threats to our identities are within ourselves-especially the tendency of our emotions and intellects to congeal into a static position. We emotionally mechanize and regiment ourselves; it doesn't take capitalism or middle-class values to do it to us. (Tony and Lelia also demonstrate that sort of self-destructive patterning.)
In fact, Bennie's "pattern" is his Beatness-his characteristically Beat attempt to avoid patterns. Cassavetes uses Bennie to demonstrate that strategies of freedom can themselves turn into forms of entrapment. To the extent that Beatness is reduced to a set of prefabricated mannerisms, poses, and styles, Beatness itself becomes only a new form of emotional and psychological imprisonment. That is to say, in Cassavetes' view, even our attempts to escape from patterns are themselves continuously congealing into new and confining patterns. In this respect, Shadows offers a lesson that many Beat artists and works could have profited from. Cassavetes shows us the extent to which our attempts to be original can themselves be derivative. He demonstrates that "freedom" can become a canned role; that our quest for independence can become enslavement to an imprisoning style.
For Cassavetes, there is no possibility of breaking free absolutely or permanently. A transcendental stance is simply unavailable. Even at our best, we walk a perilous razor-edge where, on the one hand, we decompose the ever-encroaching patterns that beset us, even as, on the other, our decompositions are continuously recomposing into new patterns. Freedom must constantly be re-asserted and re-achieved to be maintained. Freedom is not a state to be attained once and for all, but a condition of eternal vigilance. To relax even for a second is to lose it. To settle down into any fixed role or stance (even one of Beatness) is to give yourself away.
That is to say, freedom is a complexly achieved state that involves staying within the social systems that threaten us. Unlike Howl or On the Road, in Shadows there is no outside to society. There is no place to escape to, no possibility of withdrawing inward, and no state of "pure being" to liberate. There is no "IT" and no "beyond." That is why all of the major scenes in the film involve intricate social interactions between two or more characters. There is no realm outside the social. All of life is mediated and compromised.
Though Mead's performances in The Flower Thief, The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, and Lemon Hearts have often been compared with Chaplin's (Rice works in a number of references to City Lights and Zimmerman has an extended allusion to Modern Times), his true silent film ancestor is not Charlie Chaplin but Harry Langdon. The distinction may seem trivial; but it is crucial to understanding the ways in which Mead's work connects with certain imaginative tendencies within the Beat movement. The Chaplin tramp is a comic rendition of mature adulthood; he is sexually, emotionally, and socially mature, and extremely resourceful and knowledgeable about the ways of the world. The characters Mead plays are not adults in any respect. They are eternal children, divine fools, pure-hearted simpletons detached from the world and innocent of its machinations. They illustrate what Kerouac might have had in mind when he defined Beatness as beatitude.
But Mead's characters also illustrate something less flattering about the Beat movement. They summarize a tendency within Beat culture to renounce the social responsibilities and emotional demands of adulthood and become a child again. There are lots of women and a good deal of nudity in Beat film, but representations of mature sexual or social relationships are rare. The characters Mead plays (as well as the male leads in The Adventures of Jimmy, Pull My Daisy, and many other Beat works) display a boyish charm, but to notice that is to suggest why the women in these films all function, more or less, as glorified mommies. They are mainly there to make meals and clean up the messes the little boy or his friends make. (This is basically the function of women in On the Road as well.) It is significant that the closest The Queen of Sheba gets to a sex scene is when the Mead character either nurses at Winifred Bryan's breast or physically positions himself as if he were returning to or emerging from the womb. One of Ken Nordine's routines suggests that perhaps it wasn't entirely accidental that the Beats adopted the word "baby" as a slang term of romantic endearment. As Parker Tyler argued, Beat culture was infantile in many respects. In rejecting adult values, many Beats rejected adulthood itself. Like Peter Pan, they never wanted to grow up.
I might note, as a qualification, that all Beat culture did not embrace states of terminal arrested development. Clarke's Portrait of Jason, as I've already suggested, is quite skeptical about its title character's level of maturity. It understands that role-playing can be a secret abdication of selfhood, that in spreading ourselves too thin, we can give ourselves away. Cassavetes' Too Late Blues takes the choirboy asexuality of its central figure as a dramatic problem to be dealt with. The writing of Diane DiPrima, ">Herbert Huncke, and ">John Clellan Holmes also wants us to ask hard questions about the emotional maturity of the figures they present. Furthermore, in the sense in which I have defined the two paradigms, there are Chaplin figures-complex adults-in Beat films as well as Langdon figures. Lost, Lost, Lost is an example of a work in which the spirit of Chaplin is alive. But since Chaplin's achievement is itself often misunderstood, I should add that his spirit has nothing to do with pratfalls and comic clowning and everything to do with social displacement, idealistic longing, and romantic vision. If Mead is the Langdon of the Beat movement-its big baby, Mekas is its Chaplin-its great-souled, idealistic adult dreamer (though it may take the work of Chaplin or Mekas to demonstrate that an idealistic dreamer can also be an adult in every respect).
All three of Mead's films can be usefully grouped with the work of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith (and the Claes Oldenburg Happenings) in terms of their decision to subject the viewer to deliberately "sloppy" artistic experiences. There is a lot of faux primitivism on recent radio and television, but the work of Rice, Jacobs, and Smith is clearly different from the calculated awkwardnesses and mannered amateurishness of "The Prairie Home Companion" or "The Late Show with David Letterman." Real messiness does not look at all like the MTV version.
Bruce Conner and Stan VanDerBeek take the road not taken by Rice, Jacobs, and Smith: the path of knowledge, power, mastery. Their work tells us that the way out of limiting forms of experience is not by attempting to leap outside of them and forget them, and not by merely goofing on them (the way Jack Smith fools around with Maria Montez impersonations in Flaming Creatures), but by plunging deeply into them, studying them, learning their nuances, learning how to outmaneuver them. The maze of culture must be complexly negotiated if we want to escape it. Conner and VanDerBeek both attempt to employ a kind of jujitsu on inherited experience, by means of which its energy will be turned against itself.
Conner's subject is the consumer packaging of experience. He reveals it everywhere-from the obvious forms that go by the name of advertising, the movies, politics, the newspaper, and the evening news to the somewhat subtler and less visible forms that define beauty, artistic value and sexual attractiveness. He not only shows us how such forms of cultural processing can rob experience of its specialness and mystery, but how a human remnant can miraculously resist absorption. The perceptual retardations and repetitions in works like Vivian, Breakaway, Report and Marilyn Times Five move us into a richly contemplative relation to the sounds and images that encourages us to see beyond the surfaces. In Marilyn Times Five, for example, underneath Marilyn's stereotypical cheesecake poses we are able to hear a faint, touching, individual voice that resists being muffled by any amount of packaging. Conner raises Marilyn from her cultural grave. He restores her humanity.
Stan VanDerBeek lives in the same junkyard of images, but displays his mastery of them in a slightly different way. On the one hand, the speed of the experiences he presents borders on being perceptually overwhelming (thus affiliating him more with the Conner of A Movie than the Conner of the films that immediately follow); on the other hand, the poise, jauntiness, and wit of VanDerBeek's imagistic redeployments demonstrate how far he is from being buried under the cultural trash heap. Wheels #1 emits intermittent nostalgic noises about what may have been lost in the race down the interstate (Greek ideals of beauty, the intricate orderliness of Bach, the balance and harmony of 18th century architecture), but VanDerBeek's overall response is not "woe" or "whoa," but (as his title sequence tells us) "wheeee."
In Breathdeath, the metaphoric cascade is almost Shakespearean in its profligacy and suggestiveness. Images of dances/young people/beauty/crowds/Picasso portraits/motion kaleidoscopically transmute into images of skulls/X-rays/war/armies/ death/mushroom clouds. However, the exuberance, inventiveness, and agility of VanDerBeek's capacity to move from one realm to the other and back again ultimately communicates not a feeling of doom and destruction, but of power and exhilaration. The strength of this mind is greater and more impressive than the threats it catalogues, no matter how horrible. We are utterly convinced that its nimbleness will always outrun the lead-footed agents of death.
The feel of the cinematic art that originated on the West Coast (chiefly from San Francisco) during this period is fundamentally different from that of the East Coast. While New York artists escaped into handcrafted interior spaces (both physical and psychological: the drug experience, the Happening, the pad), West Coast artists moved outside. They could always escape the confinement of alien institutions by going to the ocean, to the desert, to farms and fields, or simply by going-anywhere. While Eastern film is static, Western film tends to be picaresque. It is an art of motion, space, time, and nature. (Winifred Bryan's magical boat ride in The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man is the closest New York film of the period gets to this escape into nature, though it is significant that Bryan's immobility during the scene communicates a feeling of entrapment and melancholy that cuts against the visual openness of the sky and the water around her. Even this scene of visual release delivers an East Coast message: you can go out but you can't escape yourself.)
Bruce Baillie's Mr. Hayashi might be thought of as a putative East Coast story transformed by a West Coast sensibility. The narrative, slight as it is, mounts a social critique of sorts, involving the difficulty the title character, a Japanese gardener, has finding work that pays adequately. But the beauty of Baillie's black and white photography, the misty lusciousness of the landscapes he chooses to photograph, and the powerful silence of Mr. Hayashi's figure within them make the viewer forget all about economics and ethnicity. The shots remind us of Sung scrolls of fields and mountain peaks where the human figure is dwarfed in the middle distance. Rather than a study of unemployment, the film becomes a study of nested layers of stillness and serenity (first, the placidity of the photography; second, the brooding calm of the landscape; third, the meditativeness of Mr. Hayashi himself, walking with his head bowed in thought and uttering his thoughtful voice-over narration). The quiet inwardness of it all makes his employment situation seem relatively unimportant by comparison.
Though it may seem weird to group them together because of the difference in their subject matter, the work of Kenneth Anger isn't all that far from Baillie's in its sensibility. Heroism in Anger's work is so thoroughly a cultural artifact (as opposed to being a personal stance) that he might also be said to be a Foucauldian (indeed, he and Baillie are ahead of Foucault, whose major work was later). Anger shows that post-modernism goes further back in American culture (or at least in the culture of Los Angeles) than many of the art history texts acknowledge. For a child of the movies, there is apparently nothing but voguing, role-playing, and style-surfing. Anger's appreciation of the ways life and art interpenetrate has a superficial similarity to Jack Smith's relish of the carnivalesque, but the attitudes of the two filmmakers in this regard couldn't be more opposed. Smith sees costuming, role-playing, and impersonation as ways of expanding our identities and enriching our lives. Anger sees them as limiting us and impoverishing our experiences. For Anger, the movies and other forms of cultural processing represent dead ends for psychological development, emotional traps from which we are unable to escape.
Ruth Weiss's The Brink and John Korty's Crazy Quilt, both Northern California works, are entirely different. They represent ebullient celebrations of the power of the individual imagination-the imagination of both the characters and their creators-to transform experience idiosyncratically. Weiss is a poet and Korty one of the now forgotten pioneers of the American independent film movement. To my mind, these two films actually accomplish what the films Taylor Mead appeared in attempted to do. (Zimmerman's Lemon Hearts was made in the same city only the year before Weiss's The Brink.) Like Mead, Weiss and Korty use playfulness to enlarge our sense of the possibilities of being. By leaving the straight and narrow of realistic narrative behind, they liberate eccentric, nonstandardized impulses and show us how large and roomy our personalities can be. As was the goal of much Beat art, they free both their characters and their viewers from the repressiveness of overly logical, overly determined, overly causal understandings of experience.
Both Weiss and Korty are fundamentally allegorical or symbolic artists. They create fairy tales. The allegory is a way of encouraging the viewer to enter into an especially contemplative or meditative relationship with the story. By encouraging us not to process events realistically, they hope to enhance our ability to understand them imaginatively. Their goal is to stimulate our imaginations to match the level of the characters'.
James Broughton's Adventures of Jimmy is another Northern California fairy tale. It is also another addition to the list of "mama's boy" films. Jimmy goes looking for a wife, but comes home with a mother. In fact, with more than one (which only emphasizes the asexuality of his harem).
About the Hollywood movies, the less said the better. It's in the nature of Hollywood filmmaking (along with most radio, television, and print journalism) that it trades in hopelessly reductive cliches and stereotypes. The goal of popular culture is to keep audiences in the clear, and to clear experiences up, even if the experiences must be destroyed in the process. Hollywood translated the inchoate spiritual longings, free-floating anxieties, and vague feelings of alienation that animated the Beat movement into a series of cliched props, costumes and Looney Toons cartoon characterizations. The Beats were treated as un-American malcontents, dangerous deviants, comical kooks, or psychopaths-in short, anything but taken seriously. John Byrum's Heart Beat (which was based on Carolyn Cassady's memoirs) is sometimes said to be better than this, but that is only because it substitutes a more popular, more recent set of clichés in place of the somewhat dated Commie/psycho/kook cliches. It turns the Beats into The Young and the Restless. Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg become the stars of a short-running soap opera that never made it to prime time.
"The Beat Movement in Film: A Comprehensive Screening List" and "Notes on Beat Film" is excerpted from Ray Carney, "Escape Velocity: Notes on Beat Film" and Ray Carney, "No Exit: John Cassavetes' Shadows" which appeared in Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965, edited by Lisa Phillips (New York: Whitney Museum of Art and Paris: Flammarion, 1995), pp. 190-213 and 235-243. All contents are copyrighted and reprinted with permission of the Whitney Museum of American Art. All rights are reserved.
Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University and teaches courses on the relation of various forms of American artistic expression. His most recent books are The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press) and American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Wesleyan University Press). He curated the film and video component of the Whitney Museum's "Beat Culture" show and is generally regarded as one of the leading authorities on Beat film and the American independent film movement in general.
Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University and teaches courses on the relation of various forms of American artistic expression. His most recent books are The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press) and American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Wesleyan University Press). He curated the film and video component of the Whitney Museum's "Beat Culture" show and is one of the leading authorities on Beat film and the American independent film movement in general.
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