Saturday, May 18, 2013

Off the Shelf: The Source (1999)

Watching Chuck Workman's impressionistic, stirring, and often quite entertaining documentary The Source, you'll certainly get a supple feeling for who, and what, the literary movement known as the Beats was to American life. While weaving together a dazzling collage of free-associating visuals and sounds, Workman aptly demonstrates that there is certainly no shortage of material – written, filmed, or recorded – on this group of socially radical writers. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, in the late Forties, came to be the pioneers of this subterranean movement. Out of this material, The Source creates a wealth of associations about the Beats with the details – and incongruities – of their history lurking under the surface.

It was America's post-Second World War desire for calm and conformity that spawned the Beat Generation. These writers, as the official story goes, set out to break down the walls, shake up the straight world, and reject the spoils of American society. They wrote novels and books of poetry that shocked both the literary and the artistic world with explicit language, performed improvised readings that captured the bop rhythms of cool jazz, and lived lives of notorious excess. Novels like Kerouac's On the Road, Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, and Burroughs' The Soft Machine or Naked Lunch, ripped into the fabric of the staid Eisenhower Fifties. Yet this rebellious subculture, filled with individuals who laid claim to being desolate and underground dharma bums, also sought access to the mass culture. They wanted to be cool and hip, and to live out the mythology they helped create. The Source is a riff on their mythologized history. It's about how they created a movement, which became co-opted on television and in the movies, that would be the antecedent for Sixties counter-culture and, later, the music of such diverse bands as Soft Machine, Steely Dan, Sonic Youth and the head-butting poetry of Henry Rollins.

director Chuck Workman
Aside from being a documentary director, Workman has been making compilation short films for the last 20 years, and he shows amazingly fluid editing skills in The Source. He's stunningly proficient at putting together a smooth, coherent narrative from such disparate material. (Some might recall his wonderfully compiled retrospective episode for TV's Mad About You in 1997. He also created inventive trailers for numerous films including American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Workman also integrates dramatic readings from Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Allen Ginsberg, and Dennis Hopper as William Burroughs. And, for the most part, it works wonderfully. Depp does more than just evoke the doomed romanticism of Kerouac – he actualizes him. And Hopper shrewdly captures Burroughs' slow drawl that sounds like amplified whispers from a death-head. Unfortunately, Turturro seems to think he's back in Barton Fink. His reading of Ginsberg's Howl pales next to James Franco's reading in Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's docudrama Howl. Turturro stomps on the words as if he's trying to kill cockroaches.

As The Source explores the enduring myth of the Beats, it sometimes misses some of the more salient facts. The female point of view, for example, is fleeting. (One of the key figures, Diane DiPrima, is pretty much a cameo.) And we see just a glimpse of the latent misogyny in some of the men (like poet Gregory Corso's dismissal of a female companion who questions one of his assertions). But The Source is mostly a lovely primer about a group of writers who lived out a shared ecstasy of bohemian living. When Ginsberg – the movement's true hero – walks the streets of New York (not long before his death), there's a look of serene joy in his face. The man who once told America where to stuff its atom bomb now looks totally at home there. Despite their fabled railing against the culture that spawned them, in The Source, we're finally touched by their desire to be loved and accepted.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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