About two-thirds of the way through John Waters’ Hairspray, our teen runaways happen upon two crazy Beatniks holed up in an artists’ pad in Baltimore.
Rik Ocasek and Pia Zadora click fingers, recite poetry (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, naturally), espouse the joys of Bohemian life, and conform to the stereotype of The Beat Generation, as written by Hollywood. You know the drill.
In a 1958 article for The San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen coined the infamous term Beatnik, and forever after every beret-wearing, black-clad, bongo-playing, finger-snapping, coffee-drinking, drug-taking poet/artist/musician got saddled with the name.
The Beat culture was nothing new. Kerouac and friends borrowed heavily from the jazz musicians of the 40s, adopting slang, dress, drugs, and ways of living that ran counter to the socially accepted American Dream. US Beat culture also ran parallel to French Existentialism – a rejection of social norms, an emphasis and exploration of Eastern religions and philosophies, a concentration on the here and now, an acceptance of drugs and alcohol and free love.
They wrote a lot – acres of poetry and novels by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more. Every student and semi-intellectual from the late 50s onwards have carried a tattered copy of On the Road in their duffel coat pocket. When you think of The Beat Generation you think of typewriters – but you might not necessarily think of cameras. But a handful of genuine Beat films does exist – along with the Hollywood exploitation flicks that inevitably follow.
The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had… of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America… ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way… beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction – Jack Kerouac
So, how did the real Beatniks portray themselves – and where does the Hollywood vision fit in?
In Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (1959) – reviewed here – he shows the genuine article in all its self-absorbed, artistic, nonconformist glory. He based the film in a vague way on an abandoned third act of a play written by Jack Kerouac, which Kerouac in turn based in a vague way on the then marriage of Neal Cassady and wife Carolyn. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso waft in and out. Frank shot the whole thing in black and white and features a bit of jazz, some indistinct dialogue, bizarre camera angles, and a loose plot of sorts.
To be frank, pun intended, the Beats don’t come off very well. Life appears rather nihilistic and nebulous, and the women-folk get sidelined.
Now Hollywood deserves its reputation for exploitation – as an industry it tends to take any form of youth culture or artistic movement and sensationalise the crap out of it. Hippie films, student unrest, biker films, the perils of LSD, beach movies – the list goes on.
But in a bizarre twist, Hollywood made The Beat Generation a damn sight more attractive than the reality. They lapsed into a good deal of exploitation along the way, but in terms of culture, the movie version of black-clad poets and artists became the standard that everyone aspired to.
Pre-On The Road
D. O. A. (1950)
Edmond O’Brien stars in this tense film-noir as a poisoned man who must track down his soon-to-be murderer. Later remade in 1988 with Dennis Quaid, the original features the first ever portrayal of Beats in a nightclub scene full of hipster slang and finger pops. Beatniks set the tone of underworld intrigue and twilight mystery.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Erstwhile princess Audrey Hepburn, frustrated by the restrictions of her charmed life, takes off with reporter Gregory Peck on an adventure through the Italian capital full of Vespas, dances, romance – and a Beatnik photographer named Radovic who comes off as a bit of a flake, but at least he works rather than bums about.
Funny Face (1957)
Audrey Hepburn stars again as a black-clad Bohemian chick who works in a Greenwich Village bookshop and dreams of an existential life in Paris amongst intellectuals. We see the inevitable nightclubs and coffee houses, but again – Audrey works, albeit among strange tomes and weird philosophers.
The On The Road Years
Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)
Sexy witch and erstwhile Beatnik Kim Novak sells groovy African artefacts by the day, and hangs out at The Zodiac club by night to watch hepcat brother Jack Lemmon and his be-bop jazz combo before she gives it all up for the love of Jimmy Stewart. New York seems cool, intellectual, and hip – and everyone works in a Bohemian way.
That’s what happens to people like us. We forfeit everything and we end up in a little world of separateness from everyone
Do Beatniks celebrate Christmas? It would appear not.
High School Confidential (1958)
In which Amber Tamblyn’s dad and Drew Barrymore’s dad smoke reefer and act out over Mamie van Doren. This seems less about Bohemians, mind you, and more about surly teenagers, but coffee bars abound willy-nilly and hither and thither. Mamie van Doren also gets typecast, as we shall see later.
The Bloody Brood (1959)
Colombo himself deals drugs to Beatniks and murder and mayhem ensue in an underground jazz bar. Dealing drugs might not necessarily be a goo thing, but it’s a living, as is serving coffee and throwing out some hot jazz shapes.
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
With Roger Corman at the helm, you know that exploitation rears its ugly head. Dick Miller stars as busby at The Yellow Door Cafe turned murderous sculptor. He hangs out with an awful lot of poets which would turn anyone to murder, but the tongue is very firmly in the cheek here, and the Beat shenanigans light.
The Rebel Set (1959)
Now we hit full-on exploitation in this film-noir thriller, where murder and sexual assault ramp up the notion of Beatniks as weirdoes, psychos, and freaks.
The Beat Generation (1959)
Now the Beatniks turn on their own kind! Diabolical coffee bar owner Edward Platt uses an actor, a writer, and a jailbird to pull off a heist, and then watches the double-crosses begin. At least he helps the teens find gainful employment among the bongos.
This film marks the start not only of John Cassavetes’ incredible career as an actor, director, writer, and all-around auteur but also of American independent cinema in general. It doesn’t deserve a place in the Beat category, it rails against racism above all else, but it does provide a cast of Bohemians, jazz musicians, a brilliant Charlie Mingus soundtrack, the use of black and white, improvisation, and the usual culprits.
Beat Girl (1960)
A British take on the whole lark with the usual underground coffee bar turned club – The Off Beat – which plays rockabilly in a bizarre twist. Grumpy teens talk a lot and then there’s Adam Faith, which tells you everything you need to know.
The Prime Time (1960)
Yet more rockabilly features in this dip into exploitation territory. Nudity! Modelling! Bearded artists! Coffee! Of course it surrounds a murder plot, and of course, people live outside of convention, but in truth, it’s just a semi-nude flick with hirsute men in black.
The Beatniks (1960)
Again this is less about Beatniks as such and more about teenagers in general – less beatsploitation and more teensploitation. In the tradition of every Cliff Richard movie ever made in the 60s, we see a let’s do the show right here tale of a bad boy with a voice who goes from the gutter to stardom and back down again with a mighty crash.
Visit to a Small Planet (1960)
From TV pilot to stage play to sci-fi film, Planet stars Jerry Lewis as an emotionless alien who sneaks off down to planet Earth for a good time with the bongo-playing kids, discovers love, and then goes home again without a backwards glance. If you were looking for an in-depth exploration of Beatnik or indeed teen culture I have two words for you. Jerry Lewis.
The Subterraneans (1960)
Hollywood finally gets its claws on Kerouac and misses the point but still provides one of the best jazz soundtracks ever. Miss the film, buy the soundtrack.
The Rebel (1961)
Here, much-loved British comedian and perpetual underdog Tony Hancock goes from that most Establishment and bourgeois of professions, civil servant, to full-on Beat Generation poster boy when he takes up a paintbrush, dons a beret and a smock and proceeds to take the piss out of everything Bohemian and counter culture. Despite the fact that it plays as a parody, he winds up sticking with art and an outsider life, and the whole thing comes off as an ode to the Boho life rather than a condemnation.
The Connection (1961)
Based on the Jack Gerber play The Connection centres around a group of jazz musicians and drug addicts holed up in a New York loft. It plays pretty much in real time and cements its reputation as a solid piece of cinema verite with the requisite jazz soundtrack.
Who Were Those Weirdoes Again?
Once Upon a Coffee House (1965)
A well-meaning New York with disposable income buys a coffee house – as you do – and learns how to be a Beatnik – as you also do – in order to woo the Boho chick of his dreams. But out there in the real world, it’s already 1965 and Haight-Ashbury is in full psychedelic swing. This is cliched even by Hollywood standards – and when I tell you that there’s a folk trio with Joan Rivers in it… Squaresville, man.
The Party’s Over (1965)
With its rather prescient title, When the Party’s Over filmed in ’63 but didn’t reach cinemas until ’65 due to strict censorship. Oliver Reed stars as, you guessed it, a Beatnik, at a time when the former was on the ascent and the latter firmly on the descent. One wonders why a 1963 film didn’t centre around a group of mods?
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959 – 1963)
On the one hand, you have the perpetual teen on the lookout for love Dobie Gillis and on the other hand, you have network television’s first ever Beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. Dobie Gillis is often seen as the watershed moment when innocent 50s teens turned into protesting 60s teens, and the somewhat dopey, definitely work-shy, but eminently likeable Maynard provides the missing link. You could argue that the minute TV gets hold of something, in particular, something from popular culture, then it’s effectively over and done with. By 1963 when Dobie Gillis finished The Beatles hit America and popular culture went through a staggering series of lightning changes sans bongos and berets.
And then the hippies moved in, and the androgynous glam rockers, and the punks, and so on, and pop culture eats itself and regenerates as pop culture always does.
But although we cringe at the endless black capri pants and jazz musicians in dark underground coffee bars on the big screen, the image and the goal of the Beatnik endures. At least the Hollywood version does. Anyone who has ever felt even the slightest twinge of an artistic or creative bent or the spirit of wanderlust and adventure dreams about a road trip or a loft in New York or Paris with jazz playing in the background.
No one aspires to be a hippie anymore – far too drippy. No one wants to be a punk either – far too grubby. But an intellectual, musical, artistic, let’s see what today brings Beatnik? Black clothes are always chic, darling.