Chuck Workman’s, kaleidoscopic, lovingly-made, 1999 documentary, “The Source – The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation”, (the title comes from a throw-away remark by William Burroughs, at the very end of the film) somehow slipped our focus and our annotation, so here, belatedly, it is, (chopped into 7 parts for the purposes of You Tube, but none the worse, we think, for its dismembering – ok, Helen Adam, caught between 5 and 6, gets short shrift, but otherwise.. Workman’s episodic collage technique (he is perhaps best known for his compilation film-clips that were traditionally aired at the Academy Awards) is curiously fitting.
For a brief interview with the filmmaker, for Indiewire, see here. For Janet Maslin’s review of the film in the New York Times see here (and here‘s another Times review). Here’s also a review by Robert Hunt for Riverfront Times, and Gary Morris in Bright Lights Film Journal.
Alongside the usual “gang of souls” (and multiple film-clips), there’s the slightly controversial inclusion of actors “playing” characters – John Turturro is Allen, Dennis Hopper is Burroughs, and Johnny Depp, famously, takes on (reads sections of) Jack Kerouac.
Allen begins the film (the first shots have him browsing through his Twelve Trees book) and provides commentary and observation throughout. Here’s a brief transcription of some of that commentary, interspersed with (unedited) notes
part one – Allen browsing through photographs – Boulder “July 3rd, Allen Ginsberg Day” proclamation – Ann Charters reading from Kerouac at NYU Beats Conference – Ed Sanders introduces phone-link to William Burroughs at NYC’s Town Hall –
AG: “Gregory Corso and I collaborated, almost inadvertently, in building a whole mythology of a generation”
Gregory Corso on a NYU Beats Conference Panel – glimpse of Anne Waldman – Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading at NYC Town Hall – Kerouac monument in Lowell – William Burroughs in<
Kansas – Allen in empty loft space – Saturday Night Live Beat/Star Trek parody – tv news announcer – Steve Martin parody – tv announcer – glimpse of Jack Kerouac – Amiri Baraka – miscellaneous 50’s movie-clips of rebellion/anger –
AG: “In the forties the Bomb dropped, the entire planet was threatened biologically ..was suddenly the realization why are we being intimidated by a bunch of jerks who don’t even know about life? who are they to tell us what we feel and how we’re supposed to behave and why take all that bullshit?”
[sound of the typewriter] “In 1944, three young men, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs met for the first time in New York City. Things were never the same again for them, or for the century” – Columbia University campus – ’60’s class – On The Road field trip
AG: We weren’t trying to make a social revolution particularly, we were just trying to propose our own souls to ourselves..We felt very close to each other just intuitively but, you know, without any overt sexual thing (except that I was in love with him. I had a crush on him and a crush on everybody)
African-American culture – footage of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington etc –
AG: (to William Burroughs) – “Jack and I went over to investigate your soul. We both really thought you were real interesting, dignified, and weird – but intelligent. Jack said he was the most intelligent man in America”
observations on drugs – footage of Paul Bowles and of Burroughs (“It kept me occupied”) – Columbia University field trip juxtaposed with footage of Ginsberg, Kerouac, etc
AG: “Burroughs began exploring Times Square sort of to see the lumpen population. He was interested in the different varieties of the bars. Then he met Herbert Huncke. Huncke was living around Times Square, practically on the street”
Herbert Huncke: ..(they were) rolling down the street with books under their arm.
Allen Ginsberg: We thought you had a kind of secret knowledge.
Herbert Huncke: Just good healthy activity in a way
AG: (in contemporary Times Square) – “We’d pick up some grass, smoke, and observe the phenomena of the red light over the roof cones of the buildings that indicated some kind of apocalyptic, end-of-millennium consciousness
Herbert Huncke: It’s all justifications! (laughs) – for what? – for an interesting..
Michael Schumacher at NYU Beats Conference – Pull My Daisy (with Jack Kerouac narrative
part two – ‘Fifties continues – images of McCarthy hearings – Philip Glass and Robert Creeley on the atmosphere of the ‘Fifties – Ann Charters – Walter Cronkite – J.Edgar Hoover
AG: “It was such a schizophrenic distinction between the private world of what everybody knew and talked about, like black culture and tea-head culture of those years, or just sexual culture, gay culture, there were all these marginalized cultures which were never represented in public” – George Stade at Columbia University notes parallels in Abstract Expressionist painting and jazz – Philip Glass on Living Theater, John Cage and Happenings – David Amram (on joy and optimism – and music) –
AG: We were our own audience. I mean Kerouac wrote 7 books, 14 books, before they were published.
Michael Schumacher – George Stade – David Amram
William Burroughs: Allen had these visions, these Blake visions, and he suddenly said, “We’re taking over the Universe!”
definition of Beat – Kerouac interviewed (in French) – Ed Sanders – Gregory Corso (quotes Huncke) on it –
AG – “When the Sputnik went up.. and he [Herb Caen] said, “Oh, these guys are out-of-this-world – Beat-niks”
on women and sexism in the Beats – Gregory Corso – “Women were pretty much ornaments for men and the Beats and they were the caretakers” (Kyle Roderick, Corso biographer) – Shirley Clarke – “They got away with murder..”
AG: “I don’t think we were particularly machismo. Actually, Burroughs and I were queer, very sensitive and literary”
William Burroughs and Gregory Corso remark on women and sexism – more Kerouac footage – “In 1957 with the publication of its most famous work , the scattered scene of writers, musicians, artists, and their friends had a spokesman, and began to be taken a little more seriously by the literary establishment”
AG: “We didn’t expect to be representative folk. We just wanted to represent ourselves and write for heaven..building up treasures in heaven. I think Kerouac despaired of ever having his work published”
Gilbert Millstein, New York Times reviewer of On The Road – Burroughs on Kerouac, the writer – David Amram scat-sings
AG: “Life magazine came around to interview us for an article on the Beat Generation and I thought “Jesus, if they think that we have anything to say, they must be scraping the bottom of the barrel, they must be pretty desperate”
Kerouac on the Steve Allen show – David Amram (“The road is life”) – Johnny Depp reading from On The Road – Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Ken Kesey – Gary Snyder – Johnny Depp – audio Allen reading from “America”
part three – images of America – 50’s America etc – soundtrack and image of William Burroughs reading – Johnny Depp reads Kerouac – Gary Snyder – Ken Kesey – Jack Kerouac (from Steve Allen tv show) – focus on Neal Cassady – Burroughs on Cassady – Jerry Garcia on Cassady – Ken Kesey on Cassady – footage of Neal Cassady
AG: “(Neal) Cassady was a sort of self-taught prison-boy who came to New York to con Kerouac to teach him how to write..His special ting was that he could remember the chain of thought that went before that led up to a moment of conversation
Kesey on Cassady – Allen and Neal at City Lights – Jerry Garcia – more Cassady footage – Johnny Depp continues reading from On The Road – Lawrence Ferlinghetti on City Lights
AG: There was already cultivated a San Francisco Renaissance. There always was an anarchist pacificist anti-Stalinist anti-authoritarian literary bohemian anti-war circle..and that manifested itself in literature, in painting, in bohemian parties, poetry readings.
Footage of Jack Michelene reading – cartoon – Michael McClure (on Kenneth Rexroth) – Steven Ronan, Beat historian, outside Gallery 6 location –
AG: Rexroth had been invited to organize a reading at the 6 Gallery. He suggested to McClure or myself that we organize it and it fell to me. And Rexroth gave me Gary Snyder’s address (Snyder was a student studying Chinese and Japanese Zen)
Gary Snyder on Gallery 6 – Philip Whalen on Gallery 6 – Michael McClure
AG: “(Jack) Kerouac (was) in the audience with Neal Cassady in the audience – [Allen reads from Kerouac’s account in Dharma Bums] – images of Robert LaVigne mural etc – Michael McClure: “When Allen read from Howl, we all knew a line had been drawn in the sand” – Lawrence Ferlinghetti
AG: I had a conversation with Rexroth the next day. I said,”Gee, I’m going to be famous in San Francisco..or North Beach! – and he said, “You’re going to be famous from bridge to bridge” –
AG: “There were a whole series of trials in the late ’50’s that liberated the word and that meant a whole spiritual liberation after that”
– Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Norman Mailer (on Allen – “What I’ve always loved about Allen was his bravery..”) – opening lines recording of Howl – then actor John Turturro reads Howl
part four – the first approximately two minutes and fifty seconds is John Turturro in the persona of Allen reading (from) Howl – Norman Mailer on Howl
AG: I had no idea that it would be famous. I had no idea that it was of such value to other people. Apparently it was.
Norman Mailer – Michael McClure – “Despite Howl and On The Road, few people in the ’50’s cared about the Beats. This didn’t seem to bother them much. But small unorganized breakthroughs were occurring all over the world”
Lenny Bruce – Groucho Marx interviews poet Stuart Z Perkoff – brief Bukowski audio – William Burroughs’ letters to Allen Ginsberg from Tangier – Steven Ronan, Beat historian on San Francisco docks – Burroughs again – banned from Mexico (“She said to Bill, “Shoot that odd my head””) – Burroughs on “the ugly spirit” – Allen: “It was then that he began writing – Burroughs – miscellaneous Burroughs’ footage (to soundtrack of Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil) – including Terry Southern, Brion Gysin (on “cut-ups”), George Stadte – Robert Motherwell offers a definition of “Surrealism” –
AG: “Over a series of years from ’53 to ’57, Burroughs sent me the letters with all the chapters, or “routines” of Naked Lunch. And then by ’57, there was so much material that I had and he had that it was time for me to leave San Francisco and work on it with him to shape it into a book. Kerouac had started the typing. We arrived with all the new material, shuffled it around, typed it up.
Burroughs on Naked Lunch – AG: “Burroughs said, “I’m not American Express. If the reader’s asked to take it from Tangiers to Paris in one jump, he’ll have to get there himself”
Young kid calls it “cool” – Burroughs on writing and solitude – Mortimer (William’s brother) expresses exasperation and disgust about the book – more Burroughs – actor Dennis Hopper reads Burroughs
part five – For the first three minutes and ten seconds, Dennis Hopper reads from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – Burroughs himself then appears – observations on drugs – “Dear Allen..” (Yage Letters) – Burroughs on drug-taking – Michael McClure reads from his “Peyote Poem” – Ken Kesey (“I would never have written (One Flew Over) The Cuckoo’s Nest without LSD”) – Gregory Corso on drug-taking (“It was my protector..”) – Michael McClure continues with his poem – Timothy Leary – footage of Leary – and
AG: (testifying to government commission) – “If we want to discourage use of LSD for altering or attitudes, we’ll have to encourage such changes in our society that no-one will need it to break through the common sympathy – Leary – Michael McClure – Ed Sanders (“It’s like everything else in life, you can over-dose on sushi”) – “When the ’50’s ended, to the relief of many) people continued to make fun of the Beats but ironically also began to accept them. The Beat counterculture began to move into the mainstream – Alfred Hitchcock – Rod McKuen – Beat Kitsch – Louis Armstrong – Maynard Krebs – Happy Days – Bob Hope – cartoons AG: “There was kind of a Beatnik craze around the end of the ‘50’s..which became parodied and co-opted. So Gregory Corso went to Paris, Burroughs stayed in Tangiers (and Paris). Kerouac, getting more retired at home after having a great deal of venom and mockery laid on him..Peter Orlovsky and I disappeared into India, basically, went around the world and stayed away for three years and studied something new.
Gary Snyder on Buddhist meditation – glimpse of Ted Joans (and others, on panel & audience at NYU Beat event) – footage of Allen (interspersed with footage of Gary) –
AG: (conducting, meditation) “So you’re like the tree sitting there..your muscles hanging down from the trunk, mouth closed, shoulders relaxed, – so now why don’t we sit, doin nuttin'”..”thank you for your patience”.
William Burroughs: I was never really heavy into Buddhism. Get Allen Ginsberg to talk about that. He can go on and on and on”
Gary Snyder on Buddhism – Gregory Corso on Buddhism (“..they just may see what I see”) – Amiri Baraka (materialist criticism of Buddhism) – footage from London Albert Hall reading – footage from Prague Kral Majales – LBJ
AG: By the time I got back in ’63, war was raging already. America, rather than being sort of enlightened by the possibility of some open world, was trying to inflict the Catholic dictator on the Buddhist Vietnamese.
“Sixties”- Allen chanting in Chicago – footage of Fugs – Ed Sanders on the 1967 Be-In – footage of the Be-In – the beginning of the Hippies – Paul Krassner – Helen Adam reciting a ballad (section ends abruptly)
part six – Helen Adam continues from previous part – Jerry Garcia on the “Sixties – Michael McClure – Bob Dylan – Diane di Prima – Jack Kerouac – Ed Sanders – Chicago 1968 (David Dellinger – Tom Hayden – Mayor Daley (“The policeman is there to preserve disorder!”) – Allen chanting – Beats and Politics (Burroughs on Beats and Politics, David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman) – Rocky Flats Demo – Joan Baez – Anne Waldman – Bob Dylan – brief glimpse of Allen singing along on “Knockin’ on Heavens’ Door”) – Neal Cassady focus again (Ken Kesey -Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Beat art show shows his painting of Neal Cassady’s death and speaks of Neal Cassady – Allen reads from “On Neal’s Ashes”)
AG: “Our existence is so brief, as we understood it, that it becomes more poignant, more emotionally rich, knowing that it’s like a dream that’s already finished, as Kerouac once said – life is a dream already over
John Sampas (Kerouac’s brother-in-law) on Kerouac’s death
AG: America by his day was sick, hard-heartedness had taken over, so I would say America broke his heart. You just have to read the reviews of his books in those days (how) he was put down, it was if he was.. knifed.. in the.. and yet he was writing about enthusiasm and delight and he was being treated like some juvenile delinquent
William Buckley interviewing Kerouac – Lowell priest (“thinking about heaven”)
– AG (reading): “He’d already scribed a thousand dreams, a thousand pages of dharma, a million words that sounded like a million ears.. His heart was tender. He’d already died and become “recording angel”
Walter Kronkite tv announcement of Kerouac’s death – footage of Kerouac funeral (Billie Holiday soundtrack) – Lowell gravesite hommage (including Allen and Bob Dylan at the gravesite) – back to William Buckley interview (“it was pure in my heart”) – Johnny Depp reads Kerouac (from “List of Essentials..” and On The Road) – “By the seventies a new consciousness was part of the culture, a consciousness that the Beats and their followers had significantly helped to define and bring to life” – Jack Nicholson film clip – Gregory Corso
AG: None at all. It’s more interesting now. It’s always the same, the 50’s, the 60s, the 70’s – same thing as no. It’s eternity all the time so there’s no point having nostalgia for eternity
Gregory Corso – William Burroughs on Saturday Night Live – Gregory Corso (reading from “Columbia U Poesy Reading 1975”)part seven – Gregory Corso (continuing reading from “Columbia U Poesy Reading 1975”) – Ed Sanders – miscellaneous footage (McClure’s The Beard and the San Francisco Vice Squad, Timothy Leary bates Allen about getting busted – demonstration – “mad as hell” – Beats on Jeopardy quiz-show – Gregory Corso to Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the Beats acceptance -Gregory Corso focus – from NYC Town Hall Beats reading – 1988 Lowell Kerouac Mayoral Proclamation – Lowell – Jan Kerouac by her father’s grave – Jan Kerouac and “Kerouac-gate” – Beat exploitation? – Ed Sanders introduces Allen at Boulder tribute – Allen explains “Gap” ads on the Conan O’Brien tv show (“I have my alibi for not selling out!”) – glimpse of him, David Amram and Steven Taylor performing “Father Death Blues” – Dennis Hopper reads Burroughs on Allen’s last words – Johnny Depp reads Kerouac – Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads at San Francisco Ginsberg Memorial event – Gregory Corso at the Kettle of Fish (bar) in NYC – “Death is a rumor spread by life”. From approximately five-minutes in, poignant footage of Allen wandering around (contemporaneous) Times Square (Jenny Holzer texts on the marquees) –
Youth (including Stefan from The False Prophets) declare they’re continuing a tradition – Miguel Piniero, Jim Carroll, John Leguizamo, Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, Robert Creeley – Michael McClure (to the youth – “You’re us”) – William Burroughs (“because we’re the source”) Johnny