Friday, March 30, 2012

The Beat Hotel, which begins a weeklong run at Cinema Village in New York tonight, is a charming, if imperfectly intimate, documentary about an important and too-little-understood chapter in American letters, the convergence of all the major Beat writers save for Jack Kerouac in Paris between 1957 & 1959. It was at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur on the Left Bank that Allen Ginsberg composed Kaddish, Gregory Corso composed Bomb, William Burroughs completed Naked Lunch & Brion Gysin built his Dreamachine & demonstrated the use of cut-ups, a literary collage device that he appears to have stumbled across independently of Bob Cobbing’s earlier work, and which Burroughs would make his signature literary tool. Also living there at the time were Peter Orlovsky, Harold Norse & Ian Sommerville, quite a gathering for a 42-room residence.

Directed by all-around-renaissance man Alan Govenar, the film functions by pulling together interviews with a number of former residents of the hotel, including photographer Harold Chapman, Cyclops Lester, artist Eliot Rudie, designer-musician Peter Golding & Jean-Jacques Lebel, making heavy (and generally felicitous) use of Chapman’s photos & Rudie’s artwork, as well as some klutzy dramatic re-enactments (the only one that is really needed is of Bill Burroughs’ “disappearing” trick), as well as commentary from some of the standard Beat scholars such as Barry Miles & Regina Weinreich.

As a retelling of a familiar story, The Beat Hotel wins points for not belaboring the larger beat narrative & honing in on what its key figures really know, which was & is their experiences sharing the same small establishment run by Madam Rachou & containing this wealth of creative energy. When it ventures much outside this range, its reliability as narrative becomes more questionable – Neal Cassady is twice identified in the photograph linked to his name as Jack Kerouac.

Like so much work around the Beats – Beat scholars must be the ufologists of literary criticism – there are a lot of claims here about the revolutionary nature of these geniuses & very little actual demonstration of that genius, as such. I don’t quarrel with the claims – I think that largely they’re correct, especially with regards to Ginsberg’s best works, Kerouac’s early writing and Burroughs’ sardonic satires – but to continue to see such unsupported major claims when plenty of evidence for it actually exists does make me cringe, not just here, but here also. Other than a few lines of Howl, very little of the work as such is quoted directly, and the most interesting literary discussion as such is Lebel’s depiction of his translation of Howl into French.

But this is quibbling. I just wish that anybody making a doc today on the Beat movement would commit themselves to doing at least as good a job as What Happened to Kerouac? Beat Hotel has its limits, but its virtues are substantial as well. I would especially point to the interviews with Chapman, Rudie, Golding & Lebel for their capacity to give a real feel for what life was like in Paris in the 1950s. The film does an excellent job articulating Brion Gysin’s oft-misunderstood role in Burroughs’ development & the movement in general, and really excels at suggesting not only how Naked Lunch was cobbled together, but also how the period at the hotel marked a turn in Burroughs’ work away from being simply the avuncular guru to the wide-eyed Ginsberg and becoming a major artist in his own right. If the film has a blind spot, it’s in articulating what became of the likes of Sommerville & Sinclair Beiles, and who precisely Madam Rachou was beyond somebody who liked to rent to poets.