“Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady…” 
Beatniks have intrigued and inspired since the beginning of their movement. For the mainstream media and film that favored shortcuts, redundancy and therefore second-hand stereotypes, they soon became the very pop-cultural product they were trying to remonstrate in their art and actions. It was about what people thought they were, not about their true identity. And they were thought to be extravagant, free, rule-breaking, hungry for change and experiments, treating tradition in any shape or form with contempt. Ready-made movie characters!
Joyce Johnson, who was associated with Kerouac and close to the Beat Generation writers, poignantly noted in her 1983 memoir Minor Characters: ”Beat Generation sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun—thus to be either condemned or imitated. Suburban couples could have beatnik parties on Saturday nights and drink too much and fondle each others wives.” This rather cynical observation perfectly fits most of the late ’50s and early ’60s, productions with beatniks in it – presented either as an anecdote or reduced to an entertaining collection of clearly coded symbols.
The most iconic image of a “mainstream beatnik” is probably Audrey Hepburn’s character in Funny Face (1956): most of the times dressed in obligatory black, obsessed with “empathicalism” and eager to “express herself”, preferably through a crazy, artsy and rather ridiculous “jazz” dance number. That sequence was a direct illustration of the public idea of beatnik look and behavior: attractive, extravagant, enthralling, maybe even a bit dangerous. No surprise the scene was appropriated by big business machine 51 years later, when GAP re-purposed it to sell their jeans. Ginsberg and Kerouac would sure make a “funny face” if presented with how their anti-establishment movement – or rather its image – got easily commodified and given a market value.
Dick Miller’s Walter Paisley amazed the world with his sculpting “talent” after burying a neighbor’s cat, that he accidentally killed, in clay. Roger Corman’s landmark Bucket of Blood (1959) visualizes beatnik criticisms – falling for impressions instead of merit, the truth. Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek were hilarious as black-clad bongo-playing beatniks in John Waters’ Hairspray (1988). Not to mention The Rebel Set (1959), The Bloody Brood (1959), Beat Girl (1960) or the ambitious, but overtly simplistic Heart Beat (1980). Beatniks were a catchy phrase used most of the time as a wink or something “cool,” an easy-to-solve charade, with key words of the director’s choice: “Hegel/Kant”, “goatee”, “bare feet”, “black cat”, “typewriter”, “crazy jazz-dancing”, “beret”.
And now the Beat is back. Americans feel somewhat nostalgic about the wondrous, stylish and – at least in theory—still morally pure sixties. It seems to be an instant antidote to the contemporary pains. A colorful postcard from times where there were no rapid gas prices jumps, no banks going bankrupt and every man in a suit was a potential proto-yuppie. But they also miss its dark belly, as AMC’s Mad Men‘s immense popularity can indicate. Beatniks still embody the myth that the superficial hipster society would like to see come to life. The difference between then and now is that Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs were not rebels designed by society, popular demand or fashion. They could afford to be carefree about their actions, because they were the ones setting the standards, not the ones trying to meet them.
The Beat Generation’s literature might be charismatic and intriguing, but it is way too complex to become a mainstream hit in the fast-food culture we live in. But the beat-related fashion, all polished and trimmed to become sellable, adjusted to contemporary times and demand, has been more and more present in the public sphere last couple of years. In particular, Beat Generation faces – “avatars” like New York Times’ Gilbert Millstein once said – have recently reentered the public consciousness, becoming increasingly present in media and, especially, film.
First came Rob Epstein’s and Jeffry Friedman’s Ginsberg biopic Howl. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” — it’s striking how timeless and adequate the opening lines from the poem still sound. But Ginsberg’s richness, superficially chaotic yet methodical structure, and importance was not achieved by the director duo. Their feature debut is too ordered, unintentionally repeating all the fancy clichés about ‘50s bohemians that it should be avoiding.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge Epstein’s and Friedman’s endeavors to make their film unusual, engaging and rich, but they might just be trying too hard, losing the effortlessness and therefore the essence of what Beat artists were aiming for. The multi-talented James Franco falls in the same trap: focusing on “becoming Ginsberg,” he perfectly repeats the writer’s gestures and tics yet deprives Ginsberg of his innate leeway. Also the animation the duo decided to introduce is all but innovative or surprising, mechanically illustrates instead of attempting to shock so thoroughly as Ginsberg words did back in the day. There is no trace of the spontaneous and fun-loving man an avid Howl reader mightremember from Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy or the surprisingly fragile individual seen through the words of Father Death Blues, which Ginsberg wrote after his father’s death. The film is visually attractive and well made, but flat. It leaves the audience howling for more intensity, more suspense, and more meat. The heart is perfectly shaped and has a romantic deep color, but it’s not beating.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had a sensual style and unique perspective that had not been seen before in such condensation. After its publication in 1957, Millstein described it as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is,” predicting that his book would attain a similar status to Hemingway’s cult work The Sun Also Rises. He was right. Kerouac’s book has shaped generations of young Americans. On the Road has only recently been re-published in its full, uncensored version. Lucky coincidence, it happened soon before Walter Salles’ started working on his film adaptation that debuted in Cannes last year.
Salles publicly admitted that his relationship with the book was particularly intense. It took him eight years to close the budget for the film that became somewhat more of a mission than just another project. He wanted to make sure his cast would fully understand the tasks he laid for them and not just perform, but also experience. Table Reads and ordinary rehearsals were not enough. Following the contemporary fashion, he organized a “boot camp” for his crew. “There’s going to be a four-week beatnik boot camp in Montreal that’s gonna be amazing because I haven’t read everything those guys read,” – Kristen Stewart, who played Marylou, said back in 2010. “There’s a huge education process that’s going to take place with the whole cast. And it’s a small movie, so to have that much time is just awesome.”
Salles was also very meticulous about the script and paid the price. Trying not to let the tiniest thread slip makes the film feel strained and confusing. The protagonists cannot stop talking: their monologues and dialogues seem to be constantly pouring out of the screen. However spot-on and intriguing their endless lines can be, one might have the impression that strictly cinematic dramaturgy got buried underneath a pile of beautifully grinded words.
The particular rhythm and melody of Kerouac’s On the Road seems simply untranslatable. If there was a method to make it work, Salles surely did not find it. Watching the film arouses an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. We miss the jazz making the smoke-filled rooms vibrate, we long for freedom and romance. But don’t we always? In the meantime the formula of a road movie, a film about trying to construct one’s identity far from fossilized moral and social mores has been thoroughly exploited and Salles simply hasn’t managed to find his own take on this now almost completely dried-out spring. However well made, sensual and pretty the on-screen effect is, the film adaptation of the “beatnik bible” lacks this undefined “beat” that made Kerouac’s book so irresistibly seductive and immersive.
The latest proof of cinematic fixation on everything Beat-related is John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings. Set in 1944, 11 years before Ginsberg wrote Howl, the film is about those later described as passing “through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake – light tragedies among the scholars of war and thinking they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy”; namely Ginsberg, who got “expelled from the academy for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”, his friend and object of attraction Lucien Carr, “who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall” and other central figures of the movement – e.g.William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.
Unlike previous two, Kill… is not an adaptation of a pre-existing beatnik literary accomplishment. It takes inspiration from a real event, but, however factually correct most of the time, it is still a display of an author’s perspective not an illustration or translation of a particular voice from the past, which grants the director more room for individual decisions. Krokidas focuses on pre-Howl Ginsberg. We watch Allen processing family traumas, seeking his artistic, personal and sexual identity to finally become someone, who he – and the viewers – can recognize as himself. Much is added to this onscreen relationship thanks to introducing the till now put aside character of Lucien Carr. It’s their tumultuous relationship that forces Ginsberg to man up the most. Krokidas managed to find an intriguing focal point and put together a great cast, out of which it is paradoxically Radcliffe’s Ginsberg who shines the least. His impression of future Howl author is rather blend and forgettable.
Yet again the protagonists are praising innovation, scorn any rules afflicted on the society, want to redefine art and never seize to desire what’s fresh and amazing while Krokidas, like the other directors tackling the subject, does not meet the expected level of innovation. Beatniks on screen yet again become a shiny object, an empty symbol. They look stunning with their wrinkly, beige-and-plaid clothes, horn-rimmed spectacles and quaffs (all back in style), but there’s not much more to this picture that its’ attractive frame. Maybe it’s just the “market”, sign of expectations changing with time. Or maybe the fact that beatniks can’t seem to inspire a movie which quality and spirit would match this of their writing is a spell, cast by their ghosts onto directors, who dare to wrestle with their legacy?
 Unless stated otherwise all quotes come from “Howl and other poems” published by City Light Bokoks in 1959.