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Weekly Alibi Beat Me

By Heather Iger

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Have you seen the best minds of your generation destroyed by self-indulgent, drunken meanderings, a relentless narcissism that compelled them to become poets or rock stars and propagate vapid cultural personas, cocking their heads toward the sky whilst voicing their rebel yells of alienation and contempt for the norm? No? Well, then it's high time for The Source.

This documentary by Oscar-winning film editor Chuck Workman harks back to yesteryears when being dissatisfied with the status quo and having something to say about it was unusual -- and to the people who put the capital W in the word "Writer." But Workman's documentary about the Beats is more than a nostalgic glance at an already shamefully romanticized period of American literature and the personalities surrounding it. The Souce is an insightful overview of who and what the Beats were, where they drew their inspiration from and where it landed the rest of us.

The Source is a spectacular whirling dervish of period footage from the ridiculous (Steve Martin's hilarious caricature of a beat poet) to the resplendent (Harry Smith's hallucinatory images). The montage is carefully culled and interspersed with interviews from many members of the pantheon of Beat personalities and with readings of their work. The pace is steady and mesmerizing, never losing its way, and the juxtaposition of an exceptional array of music from Dizzy Gillespie to Sonic Youth will have you tapping your foot and Daddy-Oing the whole way through.

One of the most alluring elements of the documentary are the recitations of Beat works by actors Johnny Depp, John Turturro and Dennis Hopper. There's something vaguely comical about all of these renditions. Of course, dressing cute, little Johnny Depp up as Jack Kerouac is more fun than putting a dress on your cat. Turturro can't help but look perversely fanatical reading "Howl" -- just try it in front of the mirror and see if you can pull it off without busting a rod. And that zany, drug-addled Dennis Hopper is almost too obvious a candidate for the portrayal of William Burroughs.

It's also ironic that today's media superstars speak for yesterday's cultural elite. In the heyday of the Beats we had icons of the intellectual and political vanguard. Nowadays our culture is mediated by the televised spectacle -- Pamela Lee Anderson is our moral conscience as the spokesperson for PETA, and it's not unthinkable that the star of Dick Tracy could lead our country through the beginning of the next millennium. The decay of the power of the written word and the subsequent crowning of the filmed image as our cultural benefactor is well iterated when an interviewer asks an adolescent boy what he thinks of Naked Lunch. The boy replies, "It's cool." And what is his criteria for cool? "They made it into a movie." The film is thus interestingly self-reflective.

Workman is not afraid to ask the real cutthroat questions either, even though he does eventually throw these squirming fish back into the water. The film cleverly introduces a segment on the exclusion of women from the traditional Beat Hall of Fame after an impromptu misogynist demonstration by the inebriated Gregory Corso. Significant contributions made by great writers like Anne Waldeman and Diane di Prima are pulled out from under the spoiled diapers of their more infamous male counterparts.

The late Allen Ginsberg, the self-elected spokesperson for the Beats, spent the last decade of his life writing prose poetry about Mahayana Buddhism and non-ego while launching a shameless campaign of self-promotion. The filmmakers question him about the good old days and whether he didn't pine for the limelight of the '50s and '60s, when taking drugs and writing about it was controversial, and when inciting others to stick it to the man wasn't cliché. The interviewers call him on the Gap ad, too, bluntly asking him whether he had sold out to the establishment.

But aren't the Beats in part, at least, the source of the present day establishment -- of a mainstream "alternative" culture that presents an illusion of something meaningful, yet falls short? Perhaps the inclusion of Henry Rollins chortling his insipid passages of spoken word (sorry Hank, you've got a nice bod, but you're stupid) is meant as a subtle commentary on the true legacy of the Beat Generation. During a class taught at Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Ginsberg once said, "If you see Buddha in the street, then knock him down." Well here's an alternative interpretation for the aspiring: "Kill your idols; make room for yourselves."

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