Janet Foreman and Regina Weinreich‘s 1987 documentary, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, is one of the earliest “Beat” documentaries, featuring the always-illuminating, always-transcendent, first-person, “talking-heads” footage (in this one, Ginsberg-Burroughs-Corso-Kerouac-Ferlinghetti, but also Carl Solomon, Herbert Huncke, Ray Bremser, Amiri Baraka, Robert Creeley, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Diane di Prima, Carolyn Cassady, Hettie Jones, Jan Kerouac…music by David Amram – all held together by informed commentary/ sympathetic commentary from the legendary Steve Allen)
Here is the movie in its entirety – (artificially divided) in 8 parts – (you’ll forgive, we hope, the Japanese sub-titles!) [2014 update – ok, ok, so the movie, in this, confessedly samizdat form, has been taken off You Tube. In the hope that it’ll sometime return, we retain these notes]
Part one, beginning with sound-bytes from the likes of Burroughs, Solomon, Ferlinghetti
Ginsberg, Bremser,Baraka, Di Prima, Corso, Huncke (Allen’s sound-byte is a pithy description of the Beats – “Classic and traditional, at the same time, frank, fresh, raw, odd” – The film first moves on to an initial use of vintage footage, stock footage (utilized throughout in the film) – David Amram – more vintage footage – Kerouac, (famously, on (the) Steve Allen tv show – Steve Allen, several decades later, watches himself on tv) – Carl Solomon remarks on Kerouac – Steve Allen (as he will, several times, throughout the film), introduces a segment and gives a little background, (this one on Huncke and Burroughs) – Allen: “There was this idea, in the ’50’s, that you had to fit in to something that was basically not comfortable to fit in, not human to fit in. You weren’t supposed to be gay (even if you were), you weren’t supposed to have some sort of space delicacy visions and look at the clouds and think that that’s important. The emotions that I felt, of grief and affection for my mother were, in a sense, forbidden social emotions, even though she was..because she was.. in a bug-house, and therefore outside the pale – and in those days they used to cut pieces of their brains out, remember – the pre-frontal lobotomy or tenectomy for the eyeball – so people were being treated as objects and experimented with, and that was something that I was supposed to not talk about, and not relate to other people about, and that it was a deep dark family skeleton secret, but actually, I loved my mother, and the social manners didn’t seem to fit in with the family tragedy. The family tragedy was much deeper than social manners, so in that sense I felt that I had a reservoir of private experience that was for real that made the usual social ways of conversing, and talking, and ignoring deep feeling, seem shallow to me” – Gregory Corso first appears (he’s an important contributer to the film) and reads “Sea Chanty” – Steve Allen introduces the next segment – Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Allen: “In those years, they also had the social notion that certain people were “fiends”, certain human beings, certain citizens, were in a category of “fiends”, namely the “dope fiend”. Now a “fiend” is an extreme word, it’s very extreme, it’s like Frankenstein, it’s like Dracula, it’s like the Thing-from-Mars, or something.” This first part concludes with a brief contribution from Robert Creeley, set against further stock contemporary footage.
Part two – begins with war propaganda footage and Allen’s voice-over (then image) – Allen:
“The atom-bomb had just blown up and the war had just been over where thousands.. millions of people were in concentration camps on the other side of the world, so there was.. so that meant we were entering a period where we could see the non-human and the non-human began threatening everybody’s psyche, you know, that they had us..that everybody had to..complete with the non-human” – more newsreel footage – Steve Allen’s narration continues – Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones are featured – more newsreel footage (suburban fashion). Allen:
“Thurston Schenfield, Battan Barton Osborne Schenfield, Clifford Doherty and Schenfeild, Empire State Corporation, something, [actually, Doherty, Clifford, Steers & Shenfield] which was marketing research, and what I was doing was making graphs of the statistics we got in on a survey of what is selling over the front counters of supermarkets in eighteen states, and so we were doing statistics on whether the sales correlated with the amount of money they spent on advertising on television and in the newspapers. And so I was measuring market research, brainwashing of American public, I was measuring how that goes about and putting it on charts, commercial brainwashing. I had an apartment in Nob Hill, and I had a suit (like I do now), and I was clean-shaven, and I had a girlfriend, and..er..I had taken some peyote, and looked out over the window onto the red glaring sky gulf of downtown San Francisco, looking down from Nob Hill. It reminded me that the center of our civilization was a kind of inhuman ambition, so the word “Moloch” sprung to mind, from the Bible, the God that children..it’s the God that children are sacrificed to..children are sacrificed to the war-god, Moloch, by their family, and I think there’s a line in the Bible, “Thou shalt not pass thy seed through the fire to Moloch” [Leviticus 18:21 – “Thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch..”] (There follows an audio recording of Allen reading from the Moloch section of “Howl” against archival footage) – “I think people in the ’50’s suffered an enormous sense of personal rejection and were all working their whole lives around trying to hide that, or make up for it.”Part Three – Steve Allen introduction again (the focus on institutionalization and madness) – Amiri Baraka on Carl Solomon – Carl Solomon – Gregory Corso – Diane di Prima – stock footage. Allen: “I had this weird dream in 1950 that my face had turned blue and, like, I was suffocating, you know, a skeleton, because I didn’t fit in, somehow I couldn’t make it, so I was forced, in a sense, to find my own world, to define my own world, make my own world, out of my own heart, relating to the hearts of other people I found open-hearted to me, and that was namely Kerouac and Burroughs, and later Peter (Orlovsky) and Gregory Corso, and what I was always looking for was somebody with a star on their forehead, some kind of sense of soul genius, or, somebody who waved goodbye to the stairway when they went down the stairway for the last time” – Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke ( again, against vintage (Times Square) footage) – comment from William Burroughs.
Part Four (note that it, as with previous section(s), is not quite in synch) – Steve Allen – Carolyn Cassady -Robert Creeley – Ray Bremser (We’ve already featured the Ray Bremser footage here) – Amiri Baraka – Diane Di Prima – extraordinary Thelonious Monk footage – Anne Waldman’s voice-over closes this section (the Beats and the American road).
Part Five – Robert Creeley reads his famous poem, “I Know A Man” – Ray Bremser – “on the road” footage – Timothy Leary – Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman (on Beat sexism) – Gregory Corso – Amiri Baraka – Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Allen (on the 1956 “Howl” reading): “We’d sent out a postcard saying “Dancing Girls, Poetry, One-and-Only-Time Apocalypse in this Eternity, Never-Will-Happen-Again…”, so everybody was coming out for a little wine and joy and poetry and exuberance is the.. was, I think, the tone. Exuberance and good humor, plus a feeling of power and a clarity and a straightness” – recording of Allen reading from “Howl” (over image of original typescript) – Allen (continues): “So, it wasn’t exactly apocalyptic or explosive, it was more great party joy, but total joy of a good party, and everybody applauding, applauding and approving things that were well-said, so it was more like an old 1890’s wedding, I’d say” – Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads his poem “21” (recalling the occasion).
Part Six – Steve Allen introduces a “new generation”, Clark Coolidge, Larry Fagin, Anne Waldman, Abbie Hoffman – At approximately four-and-a-quarter minutes in, footage of Allen performing live, with a jazz band, at Naropa – “Glenn Miller and I were heros when it was discovered that I was the most beautiful boy of my generation..” – Gregory Corso recalls (“Ginsberg and I, especially, hit it off well..”) – Ray Bremser and Robert Creeley (discuss Allen and nakedness) – Abbie Hoffman – more vintage footage –
Part Seven – Gregory Corso , Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka and William Burroughs (on the response by the media to the Beats). Allen: “The most subtle and interesting incident was in Chicago, 1959, where I gave a reading and read “Howl” and “Kaddish”, and a relatively square lady in the audience, during the question period, got up and said, “Mr Ginsberg, Why is there so much homosexual reference in your poetry?” – and I was a bit surprised, because I thought it was obvious,because I’m queer, so I said “Because I’m queer”, and she said, “Oh” – and sat down. So, apparently, she had some idea of poetry, that you’re supposed to do things to shock, you know, and you don’t even.. you take on roles, like being queer or something like that, in order to shock people, as some sort of aesthetic mumbo-jumbo, rather than being just straight-talking – So she understood it. But when I read that story in Life magazine, it was, not “Because I’m queer” (a very straight-forward answer, almost in surprise, inadvertently), but “Because, I’m queer, madam” – quote, unquote – “Because I’m queer, madam” (and they put in the “madam’). Now where did they get that “madam”? – out of their own imaginations and projections of.. as a put-down remark, rather than a very straight, frank, clear answer, a surprise answer, a surprised answer. They made it sound like some crazed bed-bug-ridden, scruffy, hairy, dirty, bare-foot, insulting beatnik! Well to me, when I read it, I thought, ugh, I wouldn’t like that person answering like that to me, in a situation like that..” – Larry Fagin (recalling the ’60’s – Allen Ginsberg’s face plastered on every wall) – Allen (again): “In fact, I went down, I remember, as a result of the media projection of the beatniks. I went down to Mexico once, in 1964, in a Volkswagen which I owned, with several thousand dollars in my pocket, and arrived at the border at Laredo, and was refused admittance by the Mexicans, who had already come to some agreement with the Americans, and they said, “You have to go back and shave your beard and take a bath!” – That was, literally, the official word of a government!”.
Amiri Baraka -“everything is political – Abbie Hoffman – William Burroughs – Timothy Leary – Chicago riots footage – Diane diPrima – Jan Kerouac (on her father) – classic Jack Kerouac footage, reading from On The Road, – Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Gregory Corso – footage of Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady at City Lights – Gregory Corso on Neal Cassady.
Part Eight (concluding part – features footage of Allen reading from “Kaddish”) –
starts with Hettie Jones – William Burroughs – Amiri Baraka – new generation of students’ aspirations – William Burroughs (reading) – Amiri Baraka – Gregory Corso reading (on the “third shot” – Larry Fagin – Amiri Baraka (reading) – Larry Fagin – and, starting at approximately five-and-three-quarter minutes in – Allen, reading from ‘Kaddish’ (concluding approximately eight-and-three-quarter minutes in) – Allen: “The only thing you can do is keep talking, and keep talking straight, and sooner or later some kind of human sincerity will penetrate through. It may take a whole generation of newsmen to grow up smoking pot, or making love with their eyes open, or going into different decades and different eras of permissiveness and intelligence and enlightenment and rock n roll and meditation, but, sooner or later, unless the world is overwhelmed with heavy metal, sound, sense of basic sincerity will emerge – ” – At nine-and-a-half minutes in, Allen reads his poem “Guru” (“It is the moon that disappears/It is the stars that hide not I/It is the city that vanishes, I stay/with my forgotten shoes,/ my invisible stocking/ It is the call of a bell.”) – Film closes with David Amram improvisations.
“American Dream”, by the way. Well, the Beats had a few ideas about that phrase – see here.