Three men who were outcasts in their time are being honoured as the icons they are today.
William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac â the leaders of the Beat Generation – are each the subject of a film recently, or soon to be, released.
The Beat Generation was a group of friends first, a movement later, formed in New York, with some later migrating to San Francisco. William S Burroughs was seen as the godfather and mentor of the group, while Jack Kerouac was the spokesperson (or at least the most outspoken).
They were writers, poets and artists; bohemian hedonists who experimented with drugs, sexuality, language and life itself. They were post-WWII youth who rejected conformity and materialism; steeped in jazz, they were exuberant and unreserved in their expression and being.
The Beat Generation inspired and documented its own new culture in three key publications â Allen Ginsbergâs poem âHowlâ (1957), Jack Kerouacâs âOn The Roadâ (1958), and William S Burroughsâ âcut-upâ novel âNaked Lunchâ (1959).
The videographic tribute to Burroughs comes in the form of director Yony Leyserâs November 2010 documentary âWilliam S Burroughs â A Man Withinâ.
It brings together archival footage of interviews and other events, home-video and photographs, as well as personal insights from friends and influence-ees including Thurston Moore, Patti Smith, Gus Van Sant and David Cronenberg.
The life of Burroughs is uncovered, from his middle-class up-bringing during which we was apparently introduced to opium by the house-keeper, to his graduation from Harvard University and subsequent move to New York, his friendship with Ginsberg and Kerouac, and the spawning of a movement.
He was gay and a heavy drug user (dubbed the ‘pope of dope’) and broke boundaries with his writing on drugs and homosexual culture in books such as âJunkyâ and âQueerâ.
He was ever-resplendent in a three-piece suit, loved cats (he had at least six in his later years) and guns. Tragically, he accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan, while demonstrating his shooting skills, William Tell-style, with a glass of gin and tonic on her head. Although a gay man, he was married and loved his wife very much.
Burroughs writing was responsible for spawning various words that are part of our lexicon today. He prophesised punk in âNaked Lunchâ, championed it in his column for Crawdaddy magazine and was lauded as its godfather at his local venue, CBGBs.
Patti Smith, who would become a regular performer at CBGBs, says: “I had a huge crush on William. I used to dream that we would get marriedâŚ He encouraged me to sing before I sang publicly.”
Director Leyser says of âA Man Withinâ: âI wanted to capture on film his life, persona and the friends he influenced. His circle of friends was incredibly diverse – rock stars, trash collectors, intellectuals, âgun nutsâ, conservatives, shamans, upper-class New Yorkers, junkies, and good corn-fed Kansans.
âThey were absurdly supportive of the film, and once they saw the progress I was making, pushed me forward with footage, introductions and incredible interviews.â
Burroughsâ novel âNaked Lunchâ is arguably his most well-known and influential work and is considered a landmark in American literature. It pioneered a new form of writing, the âcut-upâ technique (invented by his friend Brian Gysin), in which text was literally cut-up and rearranged to form new narratives. The book is made up of loosely-connected âroutinesâ that are intended to be read in any order, and which chronicle the various exploits of the central character, a junkie called William Lee.
âNaked Lunchâ was the subject of the USâs last obscenity trial, in 1962. It was later made into a film by David Cronenberg in 1991, starring Peter Weller as Burroughs.
William S Burroughs died at the age of 83 in August 1997.
The mixed-media, mixed-format film is a hybrid of drama, imagination and reality starring James Franco as Ginsberg and Aaron Tveit as his life partner, Peter Orlovsky.
It weaves three stories â the obscenity trial against the bookâs publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, a biographic portrait of Ginsberg, and a wild animated ride (designed by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker) through the reading of the poem.
Court proceedings created from actual transcripts and reconstructed interviews with Ginsberg are shown in colour, while key moments â such as the infamous 1955 Six Gallery reading of the poem, and interactions with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy â are shown in black and white. Archival footage is briefly inserted in reference to a line from âHowlâ (âangel-headed hipstersâ) and electro-shock therapy in reference to Ginsbergâs 8-month stay in a âloony binâ, where he met the man to whom âHowlâ is dedicated (and the recipient of said shock therapy), Carl Solomon.
Epstein says of the film: âWe set out to find a way to bring together all these different elements â the text of the poem, Ginsbergâs life and ideas, this landmark trial â to create a multi-faceted picture of âHowlâsâ creation and the worldâs response. The thrilling part was that we were inventing the form as we went along.â
The San Francisco obscenity trial in the summer of â57 debated the literary merits of Ginsbergâs four-part, 3000-word poem and particularly whether the language and themes it contained â which included homosexuality and drugs â were ânecessaryâ.
Ferlinghettiâs attorney, Jake Ehrlich (played by Jon Hamm), closed his case with the statement: âLet there be light. Let there be honesty. Let there be no running from non-existent destroyers of morals. Let there be honest understanding.”
The trial proved to be a watershed freedom of speech case. Federal Judge Clayton Horn (played by Bob Balaban) dismissed the charges: “An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words”.
Ginsberg believed the key to great literature (and what would come to typify the writing of the Beat Generation) was including the most exciting aspects of casual conversation.
He said: “We talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re going to fuck tomorrow, when we got drunk, everyone tells ones friends about that. So the question is what happens when you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your muse?
“The trick is to break down that distinction, to approach your muse as frankly as you would talk to yourself, or your friends; to commit to writing, to write the same way that you are.”
While âHowlâ may have been Ginsbergâs most publicised poem, he wrote many more volumes of work. But he was more than just a poet – he was a champion of social justice, a songwriter and photographer, a political agitator, a renowned teacher of poetry, a spiritual adventurer and world traveler.
Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 at the age of 70. His partner of more than 20 years, Peter Orlovsky, died in 2010.
Third member of the vanguard of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, also subscribed to the premise of real and raw writing.
His seminal book (and probably the most widely-read work of the movement) âOn The Roadâ – which is currently being adapted into a film â is just that.
Kerouac described his style as ‘spontaneous proseâ and is said to have approached the writing of âOn The Roadâ in the style of a letter to a friend, rather than a traditional novel.
The book captures on paper the energy and enthusiasm of the Beat Generation. Indeed, the draft of the novel is said to have been written in just three weeks, typed onto a continuous roll of paper 120-foot long.
‘On The Road’ takes the form of a cross-country hedonistic search for release and fulfillment, incorporating drink, drugs, sex and jazz – âWe were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move.â
The spirit of the characters â all drawn from real-life Beat figures and others met along the road â is captured by this passage: âThe only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…”
Walter Salles (director of the Che Guevara-based âThe Motorcycle Diariesâ) has completed principal photography on a film version of the book, and it is expected to be released before the end of the year.
It stars Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (the fictionalized version of Neal Cassady), Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s own fictional alter-ego), and Kristen Stewart in the role of Marylou.
Jack Kerouac died in 1969 at the age of 47, preceded by a 41-year-old Neil Cassady in 1968.