One suspects that the appeal of The Source, Chuck Workman’s entertaining if somewhat sketchy new documentary about the Beat Generation writers, will increase inversely with one’s familiarity with the subject matter. If you know this stuff, it plays like a greatest hits package.
There’s Kerouac looking painfully uncomfortable on TV with Steve Allen, the cadaverous Burroughs intoning some slimy fantasy from Naked Lunch, angel-headed Ginsberg playing his finger-cymbals in the park. Even second-stringer Gregory Corso, who wrote some of the wittiest of the Beat poems, is starting to wear out his welcome in his latter-day incarnation as a sour Aunt Blabby ("I’m not bitter," he says at one point in the film, bitterly).
This is a big subject and a short film (89 minutes), and it’s padded by celebrity readings – Johnny Depp, John Turturro and Dennis Hopper, all credibly committed to the material – so it’s understandable that it’s a little thin when it comes to context. The nonconformist aspects of the Beats are related to the nervously affluent Cold War American society of the ‘50s, but literary antecedents are glossed over, if mentioned at all. It would have been helpful to elaborate on the Blake-Whitman-Williams connection to Ginsberg’s seemingly ungovernable syntax or to ponder for a moment Kerouac’s debt to Thomas Wolfe (and what in God’s name spawned Wolfe, for that matter?).
Then there’s the matter of people not being properly identified. Herbert Huncke flashes by in a wink, while Michael McClure appears as a frequent talking head but with his accomplishments unmentioned (the guy could almost carry a documentary by himself). Ornette Coleman is shown, unnamed, playing "Sadness." Roger Corman’s very strange Beat horror film, A Bucket of Blood (1959), is clipped but unidentified (well, maybe in the end titles, but by then ... ).
Maybe The Source should have been called The Outline: The atom bomb drops; the drab ‘50s begin; a dissenting underground emerges, literary in nature and paving the way for Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and not-too-embarrassing career opportunities for a whole generation of record reviewers. Dissent becomes a commodity and the accomplishments of the Beats an occasion for nostalgia.
Kerouac, at least, seems hopelessly naive by now, doubtlessly an essential component of his continuing appeal. Burroughs is still dangerous, having created a coherent interior world which is forever an invitation to psychosis. And Ginsberg remains, as Norman Mailer says in the film, "if not a genius, then a major poet."
Mailer’s little blurb is one of the few times where The Source makes a measured assessment. This is a celebration not a re-evaluation. Its omissions are the result of enthusiasm rather than malice and, with luck, it’ll point the novice to the real source, which is to be found in the dusky medium of print.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].