Gustave Reininger's documentary is a personal look at a revered poet
By Jason Gargano
Gregory Corso was a motherless Greenwich Village street kid who
transcended his troubled childhood including a transformative
three-year prison stint at age 17 to become a revered Beat
Gustave Reininger's documentary, Corso: The Last Beat, confirms the
poet's immense impact on his fellow Beat writers the inner circle
of which included William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack
Kerouac and is an incisive, highly personal look at Corso's
tireless search for truth. Narrated by actor/author Ethan Hawke,
Reininger's verite-style film follows Corso as he embarks on an
exploration of his creative muse following the death of Ginsberg, a
lifelong friend who would be among the first to champion Corso as a
poet of singular talents.
A Greater Cincinnati native best known as the creator of the
acclaimed television drama Crime Story, Reininger recently answered
some questions about his documentary, which gets an advance screening
Feb. 6 as part of the University of Cincinnati's multimedia festival
celebrating Corso's life and legacy.
[See Matt Hart's tribute to Corso here.]
[See Matt Morris' story about the Corso Festival at the University of
CityBeat: Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in
Cincinnati? Did you have a background in the arts?
Gustave Reininger: I grew up in Lakeside Park, an idyllic
middle-class neighborhood in Northern Kentucky. The postwar
Eisenhower boom was on. Middle-class conformity was the cliché, but
everyone seemed to have been fused by the fear and trauma of World
War II and the Korean War. I went to high school at St. Xavier in
Cincinnati. My dad was a manufacturer who had eight children. My
grandfather, Larry Vincent, hosted one of the first television shows
on WLW. He was a pianist and songwriter and entertainer who the
Crosleys WLW had hired away from CBS. He also was the Master of
Ceremonies and produced the first-class entertainment at the Beverly
Hills Supper Club and Casino in Newport. He was my pre-school in a
way. He would take me out to breakfast at noon with national
entertainers who were at this club: Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, Tony
Bennet. And when I went to watch him do live television it was
astonishing. Plus there was a vibrant talent development in
Cincinnati: Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and Nick Clooney, they were
all incubated in the WLW talent development. And my grandfather was
part of that.
CB: Were you always interested in the Beat writers?
GR: It's bizarre, but the Trappist monk Thomas Merton was the way I
learned of the Beats. He was a literary and spiritual titan, an
Englishman who lived in a monastery in Kentucky. As a child, he
visited my grade school, and he had a lasting impact. He was also a
poet. He published a poem along with Corso and Ginsberg in New
Directions, the vanguard magazine. I wrote Merton and he wrote back a
nice letter about the new writing that embraced the broad American
experience of African Americans, and Latinos, all influences he'd
experienced as a student at Columbia University in New York.
CB: How did you come to know Corso, and how did you come to direct this film?
GR: I suggested to Allen Ginsberg that there needed to be a feature
film about the nucleus of the Beats him, Kerouac and Burroughs. And
he shot back, "And Gregory Corso, he's vastly underappreciated,
unheralded." A friend, Peter Kirby, happened to be doing a vanity
video of Corso. I tagged along on a shoot and conceived a much bigger
film. Ginsberg then introduced me to Corso, who did not like the idea
of a film about him. But he interviewed me in his curmudgeonly bark:
"What's the first book?" "Gilgamesh but it's written on tablets," I
said. Corso liked my answer. "Who's Gilgamesh's best friend?"
"Enkidu." Corso smiled. "What happens to their friendship?" "A girl
gets between them and screws it up." Corso laughed hysterically and
said maybe I could do a film about him.
CB: The film is a nice balance between Corso's and the Beat writers'
past and his current search for the origins of his muse. What was
your strategy in balancing the present and the past which could
have easily turned into a parade of talking heads discussing how it
was back in the day in the film's narrative?
GR: First, I made the film for a younger generation that may not know
so much about the Beats, much less Corso. So I needed to do a quick
exposition of who the Beats were, hence the historical material.
Corso in person was fascinating, funny and sometimes overwhelming. I
knew I could "hang" a film on him in verite style, but he was
unpredictable and I had no idea what I'd get. I was determined not to
have "talking heads" like (Martin) Scorsese's Dylan doc No Direction
Home, where it's mostly historical footage and talking-head
interviews, including Dylan himself.
So that meant committing to following him and putting him in
emotionally charged environments going "on the road" and out of his
comfort zone in hopes he'd self-disclose. So I took him back to
Europe where the "inner circle" of the Beats had emerged as young
artists. And he came alive again. He wanted me to know everything.
Then taking him back to prison, to his cell, that was a big opening.
And meeting for the first time his mother who abandoned him. The
point is that I had to find a narrative in the verite.
CB: The film has a kind of Don't Look Back feel. Was that an
intentional aesthetic choice or was it more of an organic process?
GR: Obviously, (D.A.) Pennebaker's portrait of Bob Dylan in Don't
Look Back was a strong influence. But it's unpredictable and is just
a snap shot, not a narrative. But you get an intense sense of who
Dylan might be, or who he wanted you to think he was. And so, too,
with Corso. He had these mythologies I thought were rich and might
reveal themselves. Like being abandoned by his mother.
CB: Despite living longer and being just as talented, Corso is
probably the least well known of the big Beat writers with Burroughs,
Kerouac and Ginsberg. Why?
GR: He was the youngest of the inner circle of the Beats, so he lived
later. But he's less celebrated much because he was adverse to
publicity. He just wanted to be a poet and explore truth. He was an
introvert. He'd been abandoned by his mother, lived in foster homes
and in the streets of Little Italy. He read his way through prison.
Ginsberg knew the value of publicity and engineered it; Kerouac's On
the Road caught his entire generation's attention; and Burroughs was
bizarre. Couple that with Corso's loathing of publicity or any
"scene." And yet to the other writers he was the most revered and
profound. They saw Gregory as the real thing. Both "beat," as in worn
down, and "beat," as in angelic or beatitude. Kerouac got a football
scholarship to Columbia; Ginsberg's father taught at Columbia;
Burroughs went to Harvard. Gregory read his way through prison.
CB: I was somewhat surprised by the intensely personal nature of the
film. Why do you think Corso gave you so much access to his personal
life, especially the reunion with his mother and the scenes of him on
GR: It's a personal film because I began to see that something
profound was happening to Corso after Ginsberg died. He was going
through a self-examination, a personal re-appraisal. He had never
done an autobiography and had defeated several biographers. He hated
all the Beat mythology yet played it to his advantage. I think he
wanted to use the film to reveal the person behind he myths, the
poet. So I structured the experiences, like going back to the Beat
Hotel in Europe, revisiting prison and finding his mother which
took a year and they were adventures for him. After a while, he
began to trust the experience. In retrospect what I captured was a
man facing his own mortality with pluck and aplomb and with the
courage to look back at the same time. Neither of us knew where the
film was going as it unfolded. We both were surprised at the richness
of experience in the last years of his life.
CB: One of things that came to mind while watching the film is that
Corso was not just the last Beat but also the last poet with a
certain type of cultural relevance. Writers of all stripes just don't
have the same impact they once did.
GR: Writers don't have the same impact because reading isn't as
important to many as it once was. We have enormous technological
distractions which enhance the fundamental experience of listening
and watching. The Beats made poetry culturally relevant. They got it
out of universities and put it in the streets, where they drew their
influences. Ginsberg and Corso, who traveled together doing readings,
wrote of African Americans, Latinos, Jazz, Bebop, India. They were
the first popular voices on the environment, on dignity for gays and
lesbians, on the arms race, on the bomb. They were social activists,
and they had a profound impact on American spirituality.
CB: How did your view of Corso change over the course of filming?
GR: I knew he was a great poet at the onset. But when we hit the road
for a while I thought Corso was one of the greatest con artists I had
ever met. He boasted of great accomplishments, like reading Egyptian
Hieroglypics, and when I took him to the Louvre he translated
Egyptian tomb writings. I was astonished. I started to realize what a
remarkable life Corso had lived. And I discovered that Gregory never
had a choice: Poetry was his only way in life.
CORSO: THE LAST BEAT screens 5:30 p.m. Friday in room 4400 of UC's
DAAP building. Reininger will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.
THE HARDEST NIGHT is a reading honoring the poetics of Gregory Corso
at 7-9 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Reed Gallery at UC's DAAP building.