January 29, 2009
Michael Aushenker , Staff Writer
'Corso's a poet's Poet, a poet much superior to myself. Pure velvet
... whose wild fame has extended for decades around the world from
France to China.' ' Allen Ginsberg
Call him the Beat Generation's Zeppo. Or Gummo. Or maybe it's Shemp.
Nunzio 'Gregory' Corso did not become a college graduate's household
name like his fellow literary assassins and drinking buddies Jack
Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. But those in the
know knew who he was: the real deal.
'The Beat writers were reacting to the mechanistic world in which 16
million people were killed during World War II,' says Palisades
writer/director Gustave Reininger, whose new documentary, 'Corso: The
Last Beat,' chronicles the author's final years. 'They had a certain
worldview and it was celebrating spiritual values. They had amazing
core values. They were very dedicated to get the African-American
arts, lingo, and jazz into the mainstream, as well as Latino and
other minorities. They also became the voice of middle-class kids who
wanted to be heard.'
Several generations since the Beats shook up literary circles,
middle-class kids are still appreciating the avant-garde writers,
including actor Ethan Hawke, born in 1970 and a Corso reader since
his teens. The 'Training Day' star, a friend of the late poet,
appears in, as well as narrates, Reininger's movie, which is
currently seeking distribution.
Garrulous and mealy-mouthed in old age, the colorful Corso, as on
display in the 'Last Beat' film, reminds this reporter of an Al
'Grandpa Munster' Lewis. We see this firebrand cut a march to the sea
across Europe like a literary General Sherman. In Paris, he taunts a
P're Lachaise Cemetery guard near Jim Morrison's grave, brazenly
challenging the description 'poet' that appears on The Doors singer's
tombstone in favor of Oscar Wilde, buried several plots away. We
watch the man behind such powerful poems as 'Power' and 'The Whole
Mess' Almost' revive ghosts at old haunts such as Harry's Bar in
Venice, and Hotel Richou (a.k.a. 'The Beat Hotel') on Paris's Rue Git
de Coeur, where Corso had lured his famous friends (Burroughs wrote
'Naked Lunch' there). We can not believe what we're watching when
Corso visits Rome's Protestant Cemetery and burns the ashes of Allen
Ginsberg (well, a photo of him anyway) on Percy Shelly's headstone.
Later in 'Last Beat,' Hawke pays the poet a hospital visit and
recites Corso's 'Marriage,' which he had memorized at age 16.
Like Hawke and singer/songwriter Patti Smith, who also appears in the
film, Reininger, a Pacific Palisades resident of 22 years, is no
stranger to the entertainment industry. As a writer, he created
'Crime Story,' the 1980s NBC program that coat-tailed on 'Miami
Vice.' Although 'Crime Story' ran for only 17 episodes, it garnered
three Emmy nominations. Reininger also wrote a 'Miami Vice' episode
('Forgive Us Our Debts') in 1986. Throughout the '90s, Reininger
developed projects for TV and film with Michael Mann, Penny Marshall,
Paul Verhoeven and Dino DeLaurentiis. He also consulted on
'Homicide,' wrote various pilots for CBS and ABC that did not go to
series, and worked as a script doctor on features.
'I'm originally from Kentucky,' Reininger says. 'I started out in
international investment banking, lived in London and Paris, then
settled in New York.'
In 1987, Reininger and then-wife, Gale, moved out to California with
their 1-year-old son. Today, Haven, 23, is a Yale graduate. Daughter
Olivia, 17, attends the Putney School in Vermont after graduating
from Corpus Christi School and St. Matthew's, while Isabel, 14,
attends Corpus Christi. The Reiningers also had a daughter, Anthea,
who died from a tainted vaccine. She is buried at St. Matthew's.
Reininger is active in the Palisades. He is on the vestry at St.
Matthew's, and, for a decade, he served as assistant scoutmaster for
Boy Scouts Troop 223.
By the mid-1990s, Reininger began feeling the itch. He wanted to
direct and 'get out of this pigeonhole of being a writer of
cops-and-robbers shows,' he says.
The film that evolved into 'Corso' stemmed from Reininger's lifelong
fascination with the late-1950's Beat Generation.
'There was this explosion of creativity taking place in the '50s and
'60s,' he says. 'This [Beat youth movement] was the first time that
this happened in the history of the world.
'There's this resurgence of interest among young people today with
the icons of youth culture,' continues Reininger, who is almost
single-handedly spearheading the Corso revival. From January 15
through February 7, the University of Cincinnati has been hosting 'I
Gave Away The Sky: A Festival Celebrating Life and Legacy of Gregory
Corso,' which Reininger helped organize, with the participation of
Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the Art Institute of Cincinnati.
The exhibit includes the original manuscript of the Beat poet's
'Corso liked to paint portraits of poets,' Reininger says. 'Everyone
from Poe to Orpheus to the Greek god Hermes and Dickinson. He was a
very good painter. He was friends with Robert Motherwell, Jackson
Pollock and Larry Rivers.'
Ever since 'Sea Chanty,' his first poem at 15, Corso had built his
work, his personal mythology, on the premise that the mother he never
knew was long gone; a downbeat subtext that ran through all his
compositions'''Bomb,' 'Destiny,' 'How Not to Die.' The melancholy of
his mother, who had given him up for adoption at an early age when
she fled Corso's abusive father, fueled his poetry, which got him
through hard times, including life on New York's streets and prison
time for petty crimes. And then, halfway through 'Last Beat,'
filmmaker Reininger himself becomes the crucial player in resolving
the mystery surrounding Corso's missing mother.
What's remarkable about 'Corso: The Last Beat' is that the camera is
there as Corso's final years evolve from a requiem for days past to a
surprising reboot of his personal history, played out before the
viewer's eyes. The search for Corso's mother takes hold of the
documentary's narrative, as Reininger pushes and challenges the
iconoclast on film.
'We're sitting around, looking at the flood in Venice,' Reininger
recalls. 'I said to Gregory, 'You're doing those readings and what
you're doing is repeating yourself. It's not developing.' He said,
'[Expletive] you! You had a mother!'
'So I suggested that we could find her grave. Whoo! He didn't like
that. He said, 'You just want to see me cry at her grave on film!''
Reininger visited Corso's mother's place of birth, the Vatican, New
York Cardinal Joseph O'Connor, Governor Mario Cuomo: 'All dead ends,' he says.
Then came a chance encounter in Manhattan.
'I had just sold my apartment on 84th Street, and I met a little old
Italian lady,' says Reininger, who told her about his quest for
Corso's mother. 'She says, 'Do you know what I do? I'm a bounty
hunter for bank deposits.''
The woman found Corso's sister, Marie, who had incurred two parking
tickets. Reininger drove up to the Poconos to Marie's doorstep, and
Marie helped him find Corso's mother. As it turns out, she was still
very much around'' an uneducated former coffee shop waitress who had
been residing in Trenton, New Jersey, all along''a mere half-hour's
drive from her son''oblivious to beatnik culture. The inevitable
reunion forms 'Last Beat''s dramatic centerpiece.
Soon after, Corso died in 2001, when he was buried at the Protestant
Cemetery, next to his literary hero, Shelly. 'His life came full
circle,' says Reininger.
Filmed over nine years with a small crew, 'Corso''The Last Beat' is
the culmination of uncontrived cinematic miracles. Initial financing
for Reininger's film came from a foreign investor. Along the way, he
secured additional funding from several private investors and the
support of Benetton, which has the world's largest Beats library at
their corporate headquarters in Milan.
'I originally wanted to do a narrative feature about the Beats,'
Reininger says. That was until he ran the idea by Ginsberg, who
suggested that he make a documentary about Corso. Reininger enjoyed
filming Corso and Ginsberg together.
'They were completely fused,' Reininger remembers. 'They had a
friendship that was so intimate, it was indescribable because they
had gone through so much. They had met each other at a dyke bar, the
Pony Stable. Soon after, Gregory was watching a woman sunbathing
nude. Turns out it was Allen's girlfriend. One of Allen's rare forays
'I picked up Gregory at a very tender, poignant moment in his life
when his friend [Ginsberg] had died.'
Ginsberg passed away early in the shoot, in 1997, when Reininger
suddenly shifted his film's focus to Corso, the only surviving Beat,
as Corso renews his Beat association at a time when he was on the
cusp of burying his literary past.
Reininger opines why Corso may be the least known Beat: 'Allen was a
publicist, Kerouac's 'On The Road' was a novel that caught a
generation's attention, and Burroughs, bizarreness.' Couple that with
Corso's loathing of publicity or any 'scene.' And yet, even though,
chronologically, Corso was the baby of the Beats, to the other
writers, he was the most revered and profound, according to
Reininger: 'Kerouac got a football scholarship to Columbia,
Ginsberg's father taught at Columbia, Burroughs went to Harvard. They
saw Gregory as the real thing. Someone who came up from the working class.'
Philosophically, Reininger short-hands the Beats this way: 'Kerouac
introduced Buddhism into Christian circles, Ginsberg introduced
Buddhism to Jewish circles, and Corso stuck to basic Roman-Greco values.
'For a while,' the filmmaker admits, 'I thought he was one of the
greatest con artists I had ever met,' as their Euro-trip hi-jinks
included Corso translating hieroglyphics on the wall of the Louvre,
or contacting the Duke of Caniglia Nico from a Veneto gas station.
'Then I began to realize what a remarkable life this guy has had.'
As Reininger discovered, 'Gregory never had a choice. Poetry was his
only way in life.'