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Resurgence of the Subterranean Celebration: The Beat and the New-Age

By Sagorika Singha 

“There’s no beat generation, just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” (Allen Ginsberg)

“…because the only people for me are the mad ones.” (Jack Kerouac)

Who are these angel-headed hipsters?

When Allen Ginsberg, a doyenne of the Beat generation and the creator of ‘Howl’, the Beat generation’s most influential poem, says that he wanted his writing to reflect his life, it outlines what the Beat generation stood for – anti-conformism, rebelliousness and an unhinged liberalism all of which made them critical of the conventional. A product of the Cold War, bearing the post-war after-effects, it was during the mid-1950s that the Beats truly announced their arrival. On October 7, 1955 at The Six Gallery readings, Ginsberg in the presence of other figures of the Beat generation read ‘Howl’ for the first time. It was later published in 1957 and is regarded as a harbinger of this new era of liberation.

 With its continued unrest, overarching consumerism, and government intervention and surveillance, the 21st century finds an uncanny solidarity with the environment that produced the Beats, a tie which its popular culture also acknowledges. Since early 2000, there has been a significant interest in offering celebrated works from the Beat generation a new life. In this essay, we look at two such cinematic attempts – ‘Howl’ (Epstein, Friedman, 2010) and ‘On the Road’ (Walter Salles, 2012), the former based on Ginsberg’s poem and the latter on Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical road-trip novel. As Rob Epstein, director of ‘Howl’ says,  “this age of Palin-ism and reality television” was an apt time to bring back the Beats and their rebel spirit[i].

The publication of ‘Howl’ and the obscenity trial against the poem has forever been projected as a crucial moment in both cultural history and in the establishment of the Beats. A case was filed against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of ‘Howl and Other Poems’, and it attracted a great deal of attention because of the state’s censorship of free speech which deemed Howl’s proclivity for cuss words, open acceptance of homosexuality and unrestrained depiction of sex intolerable. And even though the intrusiveness of the state on a work of art was what the media focused on initially, the then little-known poet and publisher also gradually came into prominence in the slipstream of the furore. One might, therefore, say that much of what followed since Ginsberg’s first public reading of ‘Howl’ was inadvertent and was a reaction to the times and atmosphere it was delivered into. In fact, the character playing Ginsberg himself acknowledges in the film that he has to thank the trial completely for his fame though it was, ironically, not against him. 

A Tribute and a Tribunal

The idea behind the film, ‘Howl’, was to show the significance of the poem as a cultural experience and the filmmakers, Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, chose a mixed format of pseudo-documentary and animation for their work. Their comprehensive use of all the court records, interviews and Ginsberg’s works emphasises Howl’s value in the history of the Beats’ beginnings. Their rendition of ‘Howl’ is an earnest tribute to Ginsberg’s most notable poem and also highlights the effect his poetry had on generations to come. For the narrative, they adopted a stream-of-consciousness flow with a sense of jagged association between different aspects of the poem and its development. The film primarily focuses on the key events surrounding the poem – the trial, an interview of Ginsberg in New York by an interviewer whom we never see, Ginsberg’s first reading of the poem in San Francisco and its animated interpretation based on ‘Illuminated Poems’ (Allen Ginsberg & Eric Drookner, 1996).

James Franco arrests us with his sincere and restrained performance as the young Ginsberg coming to terms with his new-found fame and status as the new Beat hero. Franco’s impression, intonation, cadence and mien add so perfectly to the personality and traits of Ginsberg that one overlooks the physical dissimilarities. The film tries to provide glimpses of Ginsberg’s early life and his personal history in the form of his mother, his lovers and other Beat companions and features appearances by Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit) but these characters have non-speaking roles and thus end up being distant figures.

In the interview sequence, we find the camera concentrated mostly on Ginsberg’s face and when it is not on him, it focuses on his room and the many objects filling it up – the wallpaper, the stacks of books, records, Edgar Poe photographs, the typewriter, and scattered, empty mugs. Thus we are presented with a window to his world and views which emphasises his passion for the arts and writing and the philosophy of being. We also find this reflected in his response – “I did not want my father to read what was written, so I assumed it would not be published so I could write what I wanted.” – when he is asked about his poem, ‘Howl’ and in his admission that he escaped the shock treatments and medicines at the psychiatry centre by promising to try being a heterosexual.

The film, however, leaves out the intimacy, involvement and influence of other Beat members and literary figures on Ginsberg. This absence affects because the Beat generation celebrates the distinct individuality of its different members which in turn helps us appreciate their collective originality and their shared terrors. Thus by glossing over these connections, the Beat energy is excluded and its distant presence makes the rendition lack depth. The animation which was added to amplify the complex storytelling format also ends up distracting the viewer and raises the question:  Can one truly translate poetry into any other form?

Prequel: Youth and Transition

Like the Beat sensibility, the films inspired by the Beats’ works are expected to evoke an innate verve. In the film, ‘On the Road’, Brazilian director Walter Salles sets out to do the same. The film seems an apt predecessor to Howl, chronicling the Beats’ first steps. The film tracks the narrator Sal Paradise’s (Sam Riley) cross-country trip of the Americas and his relationship with his friends Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx. The book was based on Kerouac’s travels with Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg and takes us on a whirlwind ride with these ‘mad ones’.

The film with its brilliant cinematography and background score manages to excel in showcasing a bygone America and its varied geography as our protagonists travel across the continent in a Benzedrine-driven haze. The editing of the film follows a jazz-bebop tempo with certain sections shot with an exhilarating array of cuts while others filmed in relatively longer takes. We also see lots of sex, drugs and aimless journeys and conversations but the film steers clear of the force behind this lack of inhibition. Also, even though the female characters enjoy a freedom decades ahead of time in matters of lifestyle choices, drugs and promiscuity in an inconsistent way, we also witness the rampant misogyny that enveloped their lives – something for which Kerouac and his companions have often been criticized. Marylou, Dean’s first wife and later mistress could share the drugs but was still treated with a distinct lack of respect while Camille, Dean’s pregnant second wife, finds herself frustrated and alone with her child owing to Dean’s irresponsible behaviour.

The Beat generation, feeling raw, tapped their anti-establishment outlook to stand against the traditional. But the film remains inconclusive in detailing what ignited that drive. Even though Sal considers Dean’s holy-spirit as his inspiration, the portrayal is too one-sided to inspire the film as a whole. The journey introduces us to a motley of ‘mad’ characters but apart from Viggo Mortenson’s Professor Bull Lee, none stands out. Consequently, in this mad, wonderland of growing up and discovery, we are unable to sympathise with anyone or understand what pushes them to this recklessness or whether there is any meaning to this madness at all.  The film thus fails to make the viewer experience the passion driving the Beats or feel what they felt and the protagonists come across as pale versions of themselves, indistinguishable from the ways of being of the youth in any other period.

These filmic representations of the Beat ideology seem to raise some new questions. Should one be simply allowed to look at them as films about the Beats or is it necessary for one to be already aware of their history to truly appreciate them? If not, how should they let the imagination be affected? The Beat generation was against established form, structure, values and welcomed new expression. These sentiments are in themselves timeless and, perhaps, if we think along these terms, both these films win in their own way. ‘Howl’, because it dares to physically interpret a poem, something which is not done often, and is not just a paean but also a representation of the Beat tenet of new formalistic ideas. And ‘On the Road’ because of its jazz inspired editing and Salles’ efforts to imbibe the Beat spirit during the making of the film through his decisions of using film instead of digital to keep the unpredictability of the footage, favouring improvisations while filming and avoiding make-up changes throughout the day. The Beats will thus hover over us dripping with youthful vigour and newness until a newer movement raises its head. Until then, in Gregory Corso’s words, “The beat generation is no longer about poetry. The Beat Generation is now about everything.”


Sagorika Singha
is currently a research scholar in cinema studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. Her research interests include subculture, techno-culture and digital experience. She has been published at The Book Review, Dear Cinema, and The Apollonian, among others.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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