They were the scar on the face of the Eisenhower era, an unmistakable blemish on a complacent world that fought the Cold War, embraced the cookie-cutter map of the new suburban frontier, looked to the strangely lifeless couple of Ozzie and Harriet as role models and accepted Pat Boone as a rock & roll star. Born from equal parts social unrest, bebop, existential thought, symbolist poetry and Zen Buddhism (and, ironically, given the freedom to study the latter three by the GI Bill), the Beat generation was a literary trend, a sociological phenomenon, a cultural revolution, a fad ... and sometimes all of these at once. The Source, Chuck Workman's new documentary on the history of the Beat movement, covers every angle, from the chance meeting in 1944 of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, the Three Musketeers of Beatdom, to its current cultural enshrinement as the stuff of historical markers and academic conferences.
Was it really a movement, or just a coincidence? With the benefit of historical hindsight, the early Beat triad seem united less by any common goal or shared vision than by their sheer uniqueness, their difference from the rest of the world. Kerouac, with his riffs on popular culture and his Whitmanesque vision of the open road, was exactly the kind of frontman the Beats needed; for magazine editors, the combination of artistic integrity and rugged good looks was irresistible. The media could embrace Kerouac, at least briefly, but Ginsberg a round-faced, wild-haired Jewish homosexual would remain an outsider for all but the last few years of his life. Though willing to play (holy) fool to interviewers, answering their questions with a Buddhist chant or a harmonium-backed singsong, his works revealed a deep inner pain. His breakthrough work, "Howl," probably the most justly celebrated example of Beat poetry, was a cry of anguish inspired not only by his view of '50s America but by his brief stay in a mental hospital. The third corner of the triangle, Burroughs, was genuinely strange even by Beat standards: a junkie, a self-styled alien whose hallucinatory fantasies of drugs, sex and science-fiction terror would achieve fame (and notoriety) only after the Beat craze had waned. Curiously, although Kerouac remained forever associated with the late '50s, his two friends acquired a certain degree of celebrity in their later years, Ginsberg as a hippie/LSD/antiwar figurehead, Burroughs as a postmodern icon in the late '80s, collaborating with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits and even appearing in Nike ads. (The Beat notion of "cool" would come full circle in the '90s, as The Source shows, when the image of a khakis-clad Kerouac was used in clothing ads.)
Workman, who is probably best known for his compilations of film clips for the Academy Awards presentations, has scoured hundreds of hours of archival footage both familiar and rare to illustrate nearly every aspect of Beat culture, from rare interviews and newsreels of the writers as angry young men to beatnik caricatures from The Flintstones and Saturday Night Live. Workman provides both the usual film clips, such as Kerouac's two most famous TV appearances one from the early days of his fame, as he reads from On the Road to host Steve Allen's respectful accompaniment, the other an embarrassing, drunken performance on William F. Buckley's Firing Line taped shortly before his death to many less familiar ones: home movies of Beat legend Neal Cassady, the "Dean Moriarty" of Kerouac's novels; scenes from Bob Dylan's long-unavailable Renaldo and Clara; noir-ish experimental films starring Burroughs. There are also glimpses of Beat-inspired media such as MGM's glossy version of The Subterraneans and Route 66, network TV's answer to On the Road; interviews with such surviving Beat figures as Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ed Sanders; and newly filmed dramatic readings performed by Johnny Depp (Kerouac), John Turturro (Ginsberg) and Dennis Hopper (Burroughs). It's a breathless collection of material, sometimes reeling through its long string of subjects so quickly that you barely have time to make the connections, more often leaving you wishing you could see more.
In his montages for the Academy Awards, Workman usually trades on nostalgia and the familiarity of movie-star faces and popular favorites (Look! It's Mickey Mouse! Casablanca! Indiana Jones!), but he's aiming for something bigger here. As the title from a Burroughs sound bite suggests, The Source aims to be no less than a history of 50 years of underground culture, and the Beats are not just a brief segment on the avant-garde timeline but the seeds from which sprang all things countercultural, from free jazz to Henry Rollins. Workman does a thorough job of mapping out the trail from Greenwich Village to San Francisco and from the Age of Anxiety to the Summer of Love, but he is less convincing at creating a seamless link to the present. Though it's obvious that interest in the Beats has survived and that many new generations will be energized by their discovery of "Howl" or On the Road, the endurance of these works raises other questions that are barely registered by The Source. If the literary establishment that rejected the Beats 40 years ago now embraces them, or if Kerouac can make an unofficial, posthumous endorsement of the Gap something fairly unimaginable 20 years ago then clearly something in the cultural climate has changed. Are the rebellious voices of the past finding a new audience or simply being ripped off (or, to put it in polite postmodern terms, "resituated")? The Source itself a product of the Beat generation's newfound respectability doesn't answer every question, but it provides a fascinating wealth of knowledge about the lives and times of those still challenging, still provocative "best minds of our generation" howling still.
Plays at 8 p.m. Sept. 25 and 26 and Oct. 1 and 3 at Webster University..