New films tackle Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs
By STEVE CHAGOLLAN
May 29, 2009
If a handful of filmmakers get their way, they'll soon convince
audiences the real Birth of the Cool predated punk music, the Summer
of Love or even Elvis. Yes, the Beats are making a comeback in a
spate of movies that summon the spirits of Jack Kerouac, Allen
Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
These writers and other key figures of the Beat Generation play
prominent roles in three upcoming movies: "Howl," a narrative film
from documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of
Harvey Milk"); "Kill Your Darlings" from Christine Vachon's Killer
Films; and what could turn out to be the ultimate road movie: the
long-awaited adaptation of Kerouac's "On the Road," by Walter Salles
and Jose Rivera, the director and screenwriter behind "The Motorcycle Diaries."
While films about literary lions and counterculture icons have faced
uphill struggles in the past, the current projects fall outside the
bongos-and-berets school of beatnik exploitation seen in films of the
era like "The Beat Generation" and "The Subterraneans." Later efforts
like 1980's "Heart Beat" and David Cronenberg's 1991"Naked Lunch"
stand as alternately offbeat and wildly inventive footnotes in the
attempt to resurrect a literary revolution that inspired artists
ranging from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith.
The most recent crop of pics summon a period of postwar conformity
associated with Truman and Eisenhower, but the undercurrents of
rebellion against the military industrial complex, censorship and
repression of the time could be viewed as reflecting the current zeitgeist.
In this way, these films not only hope to attract older Baby Boomers
for whom the Beats were formative influences, but also younger
viewers who might warm to movies that recall the last great literary
revolution in America after the Lost Generation of the '20s, and
viewed by many as precursors to the hippie movement.
Christine Walker, a producer on "Howl," which stars James Franco as
Ginsberg, says the Beats were "romantic and sexy, led dramatic,
compelling lives and tackled sexual freedom and drug use and all
those issues that resonate throughout our culture today." Given their
history of gay-themed projects, Epstein and Friedman's take will
undoubtedly tackle Ginsberg's sexuality head on, which could extend
the project's niche appeal (Gus Van Sant is also exec producer).
To help lure desirable demos, the Beats are being depicted at the
height of their youthful appeal.
"Some people have a problem wrapping their minds around James Franco
playing(Ginsberg) until we show them pictures of a young (Ginsberg),
and then it becomes more plausible," Friedman says. A mixed-media
biopic that combines live action, animation and archival footage,
"Howl," which is in post and aiming for a late 2010 release, focuses
Ginsberg's formative years as a writer finding his voice, the
landmark 1955 public recital of his epic poem and the obscenity trial
that resulted, which the filmmakers describe as "the first battle cry
of the culture wars."
Epstein and Friedman cite their non-fiction background as a way of
capturing a pivotal moment in history with more than the usual
"We started out with documentary material: transcripts of the trial,
transcripts of interviews Ginsberg gave, of which he gave many, and
constructed history of the writing of the poem," says Friedman." "I
think our years of editing documentaries has given us a certain
facility with manipulating real-world material into dramatic form,"
"Darlings" touts even younger actors, with 25-year-old Jesse
Eisenberg signed on as Ginsberg, 27-year-old Chris Evans as Kerouac,
and 28-year-old Ben Wishaw as Lucien Carr, another key Beat figure
whose murder of spurned admirer David Kammerer forms the movie's
central drama. The episode was recounted in the book "And the Hippos
Were Boiled in Their Tanks," co-written by Burroughs and Kerouac back
in 1945, but just published last November, and also was depicted in
the straight-to-vid title, "Beat" (2000).
Wishaw stars in another ode to literary genius, as 19th century poet
John Keats, in Jane Campion's "Bright Star," which was well-received
in its Cannes debut.
"Darlings," with a full cast and crew in place but short of full
financing, is aiming for a late summer shoot; while "On the Road," in
the most optimistic of scenarios, could go before the cameras as
early as fall. Still, this road traces back to 1980, when Francis
Ford Coppola bought the rights.Coppola's American Zoetrope is still
producing, with financing from Pathe.
Regardless, Mike Zakin, Zoetrope VP of production and acquisitions,
is "excited about the pieces of the puzzle that we do have," and
assures that this is definitively Salles' next directing project.
In a way, Salles is also taking a nonfiction approach to his subject
by making a documentary about finding the movie in "On the Road," a
book that has confounded several screenwriters, including Michael
Herr, Barry Gifford and Russell Banks.
Like many iconic works of fiction, the challenge will be capturing
the rhapsodic quality of Kerouac's language, and lassoing an unwieldy
narrative into poignant cinematic drama. In this regard, Zakin
asserts that to those who've read Rivera's screenplay "it's pretty
clear that we've cracked that nut."
A sad, sprawling work filled with hardship and heartache, the book
"On the Road" is based on Kerouac's thinly veiled experiences in the
late '40s with cohorts Neal Cassady (Moriarty), Ginsberg (Carlo Marx)
and Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) as writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac) --
inspired by the adventures of Hemingway and Jack London --
criss-crossed the continent in a wild journey of self-discovery and
Anne Waldman, co-founder with Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of
Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colo., who was consulted by both
Epstein/Friedman and Salles, says, "We all have our own experiences
with 'On the Road.' I just hope the language is respected."
She describes Salles, who interviewed her for his documentary at the
Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder. Colo., which
she co-founded with Ginsberg, as "a very intelligent man -- he was a
philosophy student in France and has thoroughly digested the work and
the ancillary material and (followed) the real-life trail."
Waldman -- who also appears in Christopher Felver's recent
documentary "Ferlinghetti," about Bay Area poet Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Bookstore published "Howl" -- also
visited the "Howl" set. "What impressed me about Franco and his
rendering of Allen's speech was that he seemed to be deeply citing
it," she recalls. "He was somewhat scholarly about it."
Filmmaker Gustave Reininger, whose "Corso: The Last Beat," narrated
by Ethan Hawke, premieres at the Taormina Film Fest in June, says the
Beats' relevance continues to reverberate. "Students know of
(Ginsberg and Kerouac) but haven't read them," he says. "But when
they see ('Corso'), they realize, 'oh, this is why I wear jeans' or
'that's why this whole thing changed.' They see these guys as
archetypes and icons."
Elizabeth Redleaf, one of the producers of "Howl," points to the
film's political ramifications as being particularly salient in this
day and age. "After this point literature could actually open up and
people could write whatever they wanted," she says. "First Amendment
rights issues are part of our modern-day life. Censorship is rampant
now and this was a very brave thing that people in the 50s took care of."
Adds Epstein: "We're all hungry for voices of authenticity. And
because (the Beats) are authentic, their works have lasted through the ages."