Allen Ginsberg was an amateur photographer. Throughout his years with fellow Beat poets and artists, he took hundreds of pictures of familiar faces — Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy — to document the lives they led. Few of the pictures were candid shots, and I think this was because Ginsberg knew, at least remotely, that their lives were made for the camera. There was something about them that had to be staged.
Judging by the recent rash of films focused on the Beat Generation, Hollywood knows this. However, what it doesn’t realize is that the Beats are nothing to be glamorized. They were simultaneously aware of both their appeal and their ugly self-destruction.
“Howl,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, was released in 2010, followed by “On The Road” (Walter Salles) in 2012 and “Kill Your Darlings” (John Krokidas), which just came out this month. Finally, “Big Sur,” directed by Michael Polish, will open in theaters on Nov. 1.
Hollywood knows that the Beat Generation is inherently cinematic. Leaping on library tables to recite poetry, kneeling before academic halls crying for lobotomies, cross-country road trips, tantalizing hints of murder — and all of this is only real life. In Beat literature, there is the delicious imagery of famous lines lamenting about the generation’s best minds, driven mad and raving.
But the Beat visual portrayed on the big screen has been caricaturized. They’re shown purely as one extremity — either carefree, YOLO-esque youth or clouds of brooding angst. The films never go deeper, or stray away from the easy path of romanticizing the Beats, of milking 1950s nostalgia, intrigue and montages of reckless drug use and wide, fruited plains. Their lifestyle was decadent, but Hollywood presents the indulgence almost invitingly. It reminds me of the general audience’s reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and how many people misinterpreted it as an advertisement for better times, back in the 1920s when every night was chic and ecstatic.
Because of the way it’s shown in film, the Beats may appeal to Instagramming teens or hipsters in the wrong way: all vintage Cadillacs and cigarette escapism, black turtlenecks and giant glasses, slick cool and soft anarchy. Even their self-destruction through alcoholism could be seen as a trait of tragic heroes. On the contrary, the Beat Generation is nothing to worship.
The decade of the Beat boom, the 1950s, also cued the rise of suburbia and the nuclear family. It was a time of oppression, in a way. Anything that seemed “Communist” was feared. Sexuality was shunned. There were very defined lines for gender boundaries and placement. The Beat Generation arose from the lost and confused feelings this constricted time created. They wanted to rebel against this new middle-class United States and find something new to believe in, and so their movement from city to city wasn’t born out of carefreeness, but rather an existential search.
Ginsberg once captioned one of his later photos of Kerouac with the following: “He looked by then like his late father, red-faced corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror.”
The flat Hollywood characterization allows viewers to live vicariously through Ginsberg, Kerouac and the gang, but it almost mythicizes them. Hollywood digs right into the drama — catering to what people want to see — and ignores the very human parts of them. But it may be a hard balance to keep. Even when depicting that soul-searching, it’s easy to fall to sentiment. The Beat Generation’s search for belief ends up being something we believe in. We’re all drawn to the image of explorers after all: modern pilgrims, earnestly due west like Lewis and Clark in Mustangs, toward the unknown destination.