The Beats go on

Filmmaker Chuck Workman on "The Source," his fawning tribute to the Beat generation.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

By now, Jack Kerouac is almost as famous for his Gap ad as he is for his books. And William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg are, to some, just those quirky writer guys whose closely timed deaths a couple of years ago sparked a flurry of reflective eulogies about alternative lifestyles in every newspaper across the country. Today all three are icons: Their names and faces are famous and their books are still selling well (even if they're not always as well-read as they are well-bought). Everybody knows who the Beats were, and Beat culture survives and thrives in modern manifestations of poetry readings and jazz jams. But the roots of the movement and the intoxicating words that ignited a generation of writers are less familiar, especially to audiences who've struggled helplessly through "Naked Lunch" or missed their "angry person with a copy of 'Howl'" phase.

Director Chuck Workman ("Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol") wants to change that. Starting with the meeting of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs in 1944 and going up to the present, Workman's documentary "The Source" traces the rise and continuing legacy of the Beats in an affectionate, appropriately dreamy and collagelike fashion. Using the original holy trinity as his anchor, he threads in vintage clips of other Beat writers, jazz and pop music, and contemporary interviews with Burroughs, Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Phillip Glass and a host of other writers and thinkers.

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And, just to remind you of what all the fuss was originally about, he offers Johnny Depp reading from "On the Road," John Turturro doing "Howl" and a hair-raising interpretation of "Naked Lunch" from Dennis Hopper. The result is a work that's both exuberant and elegiac, a high-speed journey through 50 years of driving and drugging, writing and fighting, that's also a tender testament to enduring friendships.

"The Source" is showing this Thursday at "docfest," the second annual New York International Documentary Festival, and from there, will open in major cities across the country in late August. Workman, meanwhile, is starting work on his next film, a dramatic feature called "A House on a Hill." The Beats, however, are still very much on his mind.

Workman spoke to Salon Arts & Entertainment over the phone from Los
Angeles, where he is working on his next film.

Tell us a little about the genesis of "The Source," and why you chose to do a film on the Beat generation.

I'm very interested in pop culture -- serious pop culture -- poetry and theater and art, especially as it interfaces with everyday people. I'm into the sorts of things where there's serious pretense but there's connection with what's happening sociologically and historically. I feel there is a major connection between the nonintellectual consumer and fine art, and it's never given enough credit. There's a big world out there, especially in movies. So I was interested in Warhol, in the Beats, in poetry and jazz. Someone who'd seen "Superstar" called me about doing a movie about Ginsberg [executive producer Hiro Yamagata], and I said I was more into the counterculture that began in the '40s with Allen and how it changed the world, and how that was the source of so much of what we have today.

There's so much music and so many clips in the film -- how long did it take to make the movie and gain clearance for all that material?

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Four years. One of the jokes about being a director is that the most important trick is to never take no for an answer. I'd just say, "I can get the Bob Dylan song; I can get the Rolling Stones song." We did have a good budget for the film, but we still couldn't spend more than a few thousand dollars for each song and each clip. But people understood and wanted to participate. They knew it was being done in a serious manner, and I tried to do that.

The music was really important. I felt an obligation to get all the right moments in there so you'd watch and think, "There's Monk, there's Gillespie." I got the Dead and Billie Holiday and "Hey, Jack Kerouac." At the end I knew I had to get them all in somehow if I wanted to show this world.

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One of the things that's different about "The Source" is how much time you spend on actually presenting the words of the authors, and doing it in a way that's unique -- like using the actors to perform them.

If you're making a film about writers, how do you do that? You have to sample the writers. And in this case, the writing is fairly dense. I said, I'm going to subjugate the audience to really listen and pay attention. These actors were all my first choice for these guys. I had to wait a long time for the their schedules to open up, but I was happy with the result.

There's also a lot of text in the film. You see the words and there's a lot of typing, all these metaphors for writing that go through the movie. There are people who feel the scenes are too long, who don't really get it, and I say, 'I'm sorry, that's what the movie's about.' It's like saying you don't like the art in a Jackson Pollack movie.

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The construction of the film is very mosaic. How influenced by the Beat style were you in assembling the images and sounds of the film?

I didn't consciously do that; it's basically my style. I force you to watch hard and to catch connections. I guess it is like jazz. There is that loose lyrical quality that comes out and that may be from the subject and the music. I know what I want in every reel, and what goes first and what goes second, but I want to allow for something that will keep people in their seats and give it a theatricality. I'm always trying to bring a dramatic structure even to a non-dramatic story.

In this case, the material does that: It's great and outrageous and it forces you to cut that way. And when I shot my own stuff, I tried to be kind of loose. I wanted a non-structured, edgy, anything-can-happen feel.

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During the making of the film, some of the participants passed away [in addition to Burroughs and Ginsberg, the film also features Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary]. Do you think the fact its subjects are now gone will change how people view this movie?

People are saying now it's the only thing left. There are other Beat films, there are other Beat projects, but the resources we had were great. We wanted to lay a document down that nailed these guys in a certain way.

Since the Beats are so widely written about and talked about, how did you find ways to say things that hadn't been said before?

I don't think anyone has ever looked at 50 years of counterculture in this way, and shown in a linear way how one thing built on another. That was my take on it.

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As you started researching the film and talking to people, were there things that surprised you?

There are certain things you take for granted. The positive was that the literature was so great. Some of that work is very important literature. And I met people whose lifestyle was so far away from mine, even though I was close to their ages. The quality of the literature and the quality of the people were amazing. They were such classy and such cool people. They were very fun-loving; they loved to get stoned, they loved to run around and get naked, they loved sex and rock 'n' roll, and I had to constantly remember that about them. I wasn't in that world but I'm fascinated by it. On the downside, these were such smart men, but I knew what male chauvinist pigs they were.

What do you think the allure of the Beats is today? Do you think that people today think of Kerouac as a writer or an image in a khakis ad?

I think this is greater than just an idea of something that comes and goes. There was definitely something in the air after World War II that changed us, and whether the Beats' own work is still relevant, I don't know. I think it is. "On the Road" is certainly one of the most popular books in college bookstores. When we were filming and went out with Burroughs or Kesey, they were mobbed. People look at their lifestyles and say, there's so much venality and hypocrisy now, and these guys stuck to their guns. People at the turn of this century can respect that. They didn't bullshit; they did their own thing. And maybe that is their legacy.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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