The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation

Studio: Kino Lorber

Oct 01, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Beat Generation was a movement of ragtag poets and novelists whose work came to define the sentiments of many Americans throughout the 1950s, in turn directly inspiring the hippie and punk movements of the 60s and 70s. Their significance in contemporary writing has receded as the years between then and now grow ever larger, though their resonance is kept alive by diehard fans and academic scholars. One crucial combination of these two groups is Academy Award-winner Chuck Workman, whose career is hallmarked by thoroughly unique retrospectives on significant artists (such as Andy Warhol and Orson Welles) and the art of film itself. Released in 1999, The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation strove to be the definitive retrospect, utilizing then-contemporary Hollywood rebels to better elaborate on the passion and worldwide impact of a bunch of junkies, hitchhikers, and social pariahs.

Equal parts documentary and dramatization, the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize during its 1999 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival; subsequently released on DVD by Fox Lorber Home Video in 2000, and broadcast in the United Kingdom as part of the BBC's prominent (still ongoing) Arena arts series in 2001. After this brief period in the limelight, the doc would slide into relative obscurity, especially given the attention paid to Workman’s successive works such as A House on a Hill (2003) and What Is Cinema? (2013). However, Kino Lorber decided to re-release the DVD for a new generation of cinefiles, though changing nothing from the original home release besides some mild alterations to the box art.

While tracing the Beat Generation from Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac’s budding friendship in 1944 at Columbia University all the way to the (then-recent) deaths of Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in 1997, the film also digs deeper into other movement greats such as Gregory Corso and Ken Kesey. As the film traipses point A to B, just like the cutup writings spotlit, it flits back and forth across recollections, live readings, academic analysis, and personal anecdotes with seeming abandon. These documented moments and interviews are interspersed with John Turturro, Johnny Depp, and Dennis Hopper performing select readings as Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs respectfully. These readings are where the life of the words (and the film itself) truly begins to leak off the screen, (possibly unintentionally) highlighting the accelerated influence the Beats would have on the evolution of spoken word and slam poetry through the 60s-80s.

Connecting the movement’s roots with the Harlem Renaissance, bebop and the blues, the writers’ mutual influences on music, abstract expressionism, and living theater are explored in mostly cursory avenues. Though the majority of the film romantically pedestals the Beats’ contributions to the zeitgeist, it doesn’t shirk away from the many shortcomings and crimes perpetrated by several of its inner circle (namely Burrough’s shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951). However, it does stop short in actually investigating beyond what the titular artists are willing to discuss, making some latter sections feel a bit hollow.

Though always entertaining and illuminating, the film impresses more like a fanboy’s personal scrapbook than an actual investigative docu. Each segment is built (contextually and aesthetically) upon the preceding one to where these individuals are almost mythologized, and any criticism or objectivity established in the film is fairly shallow. Now, that isn’t bad (per say), but the final cut resultedly pales in comparison to other crucial Beats documentaries already out at the time, namely Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie (1983) and Maria Beatty’s Gang of Souls (1989). This aspect was also further compounded by the release of Yony Leyser’s fantastic William S. Burroughs: A Man Within in 2010, which I can easily consider to be the most definitive work on Burroughs produced to date. This understanding ultimately cheapens the experience, which is thoroughly disappointing as the film does (very evidently) brim with creativity and technical ingenuity.

While the docu certainly is an engaging sit with some truly unique moments that won’t be found in any other doc of this type (especially sold by Turturro, Depp, and Hopper’s multifaceted performances), it comes up short in too many areas to be considered all that conclusive. While certainly desirable on principle to Beats fans and literary authorities, The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation is a fun, yet underwhelming experience that is worth slightly less than the price of admission.



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