The Beats are back — again. This fall, not one, but two films hit theaters resurrecting the texts and life stories of the mid-century lit-life rebel law firm of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady & Ferlinghetti: John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings and Michael Polish’s Big Sur. Last year, we saw Walter Salles’ On the Road adaptation, and before that James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, Noah Buschel’s Neal Cassady, and many more portraits, semi-fiction and non-fiction, about the men, their books, their fame, their hotels, their talk, their boozing, their criminal runins, their marital malfeasances and their hangers-on.
By now, the Beats are an antique brand of meta-cool, and their self-destructive stories do seem ready-made as movies: the Lucien Carr-David Kammerer killing, Burroughs’ drunken William Tell shooting of his wife Joan (not to mention his multiple near prosecutions for drug smuggling), the sordid tale of Cassady’s notorious Joan Anderson Letter (filmed as The Last Time I Committed Suicide, in 1997), the road trips, the mate swapping, the bisexual hookups, the Chicago 8 trial, the acid-test bus voyages with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and so on.
You can just hear the hipster jaws drop, just as jaws dropped for the filmmakers 20 years ago (almost all of them are in their late 30s). The Beat stories are just old enough to be new again for the under-25 crowd, who cannot be blamed for being bedazzled by grungy tales of norm-busting American high life that predate Mom and Dad and their annoying nostalgia for the era of Led Zeppelin, Watergate, Norman Mailer and Dick Cavett. The Beats’ radiant badass lifestyle — cigarettes, whiskey, itinerancy, unfettered self-absorption, uncorked self-expression, mildly anti-bourgeois ideas about sexuality and family, more whiskey — can play like a counterpoint to the safety-first ideas of helicopter parenting and healthy American correctness as they have evolved since the Clinton administration. It stands to reason that if you bring orange slices to your kids’ third-grade soccer games and make them wear GPS bracelets in your driveway, years later they’ll be swilling Teacher’s, reading Rimbaud and crashing in transient hotels — or at least reading blissfully about those who did.
At this remove, the fantasy world of coolness erected around the Beat legend is more than a little absurd. These guys were not swashbucklers and libertines; they were writers, and when they weren’t inebriated and bickering with partners, they wrote. Kill Your Darlings starts at the beginning, at Columbia in 1944, when the youngish pre-Beatsall clustered around force-of-life rebel Carr; Big Sur, adapting Kerouac’s 1962 autobio-novel, focuses on the wheelspinning years after fame arrived and centers on Cassady’s reckless leadership. Both films strain for action, but come to illustrate something interesting: that the Beat writers, being introspective, passive and wordy men, were never interesting themselves, even to themselves, and often required a Carr or a Cassady to embody their wild principles for them. The Beat idols were actually just the documenters of their Zeitgeist, not its energy source.
Stunt-casting aside — in Darlings, Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe incarnates Ginsberg as an elfin nebbish — the genre is a common pop daydream that America cannot seem to stop having about itself, about counter-cultures finding their moment and rising up against orthodoxy. But these struggles are idealized only after enough time has passed to assure us the threat is minor and the mainstream will always survive. This is why the Beats are of minor consequence to everyone except the occasional wave of high school graduates produced by the dialectic of generational evolution — they are essentially solipsistic, and therefore unpolitical. Like Rimbaud, they do not express their own cultural moment so much as the perpetual, personal insurrectionary spark behind the eyes of every brainy, immature teenage self-pitier. Beat movies are just a sign that a new wave of such whiners has arrived to see them, and, because movies take years to make, is probably already progressing beyond the adolescent obsessions that the moviemakers thought to capitalize on. Or so we can hope. As the pouty, childish Beat movement grew up into the political engagement of the ’60s, so do we all.
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