Anarchy in Cinema: The Beat Generation

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One of the few groups of artists in history understood artistic anarchy better than the Beats. Initially, the ideology behind the Beat Generation was an impassioned (and it would be safe to say, slightly mental) innovation to experiment with style (greatly infused with drugs), giving a face to alternative sexual identities, introducing Eastern philosophies to Western audiences, a rejection of materialism (which in the 40s and 50s was being promoted as the American Dream to those of the up and coming Baby-Boomer Generation), and explicit portrayals of violence and sex that is sometimes on par with the Marquis de Sade. However, at its core, the Beats were the epitome of art before structure.

"The Beat Generation" Theatrical Poster

“The Beat Generation” Theatrical Poster

One of the primary critiques of the Beat writers and their work is that their embracement of this experimentation is anti-intellectual and primitive which in turn promotes mindlessness and violence. This has the foundations of a legitimate criticism however. Anyone who might pick up William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and see the style and content of the work can be starkly harsh, disgusting, violent, sexually depraved and just downright confusing. If every routine was removed, shuffled and placed back into the novel, it would make just as much logical sense as it does now. In truth, the organization of the novel is up to the personal tastes of the editor producing that particular version. Now, though this may be the basis for anarchy in art, how does this impact Anarchic Cinema?

The Beats in 1948 were an underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York City, which subsequently went nationwide as the orchestrators spread out and went primarily to San Francisco. Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr (two of the founding writers) constructed a desire for a “new vision” to counteract formal conservative literature. French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose method was primarily focused on long “immense and rational derangement of all the senses”, greatly influenced this idealism. However, the placement is essential. At this point, Hollywood’s highest grossing films were George Sidney’s The Three Musketeers, Howard Hawks’ Red River and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (a British film released theatrically in the US). These films are all fantastic examples of filmmaking at the time; however, they are all primarily focused on the traditional idea of the fantasy and grand adventure.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Very similar to when Mozart was revolutionizing the Opera during his time, when it was originally almost entirely focused on legends and myths of the Classical Era, this began Hollywood’s disassociation with its audience, which led to many studios going bankrupt or near bankrupt in the 1950s. Though the majority of the influence on the alteration of film language and content from 1950-1960 can be linked to film noir, Italian Neorealist Cinema (which began roughly in 1945) and the French New Wave, the Beats writing began the content of what would become the central momentum behind the Punk, No Wave and Transgressive movements in New York beginning in the late 1970s, infused with French New Wave, New Hollywood and the Roger Corman.

The earliest motion picture exposé into the Beats is the overly sensationalized The Beat Generation released in 1959 by established television director Charles F. Haas and producer Albert Zugsmith (who had released Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil the year prior). This was the beginning of the transition in cinema into the New Hollywood movement. Due to the overwhelming success of television, movies were further and further desperate reaches to try and pull audiences back. However, as aforementioned Hollywood was in the grip of the Hayes censorship and bygone standards for production had lost the majority of their touch with audiences. Many of the more progressive filmmakers of the era such as Jules Dassin, Leo Hurwitz and Emile De Antonio had been in positions that expressive work in the medium were out of reach in Hollywood. Studios and critics were having great difficulty understanding how Hollywood was stagnant in the early 1960s, and that the Hays Production Code smothered rather than protected audiences and artists.

"A Bucket of Blood" Theatrical Poster

“A Bucket of Blood” Theatrical Poster

During the first half of the 1960s, filmmaking was almost a lost industry (with long periods of inactivity and relatively low box office returns), and because of this, it allowed other art forms to flood into it, influencing heavily the start of New Hollywood films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 and Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. And the most prominent at first were the Beats.

As The Beat Generation came to theaters, this was also the year of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, one of the most inflammatory and controversial novels released from the Beats. This work (along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) began the true debate over censorship and obscenity in America. Ushered further along by the support of writers such as Norman Mailer, co-creator of The Village Voice. This is when reality and public perception began to finally merge, and it did so in many unforeseen ways in cinema.

Two of the most prominent names during this stagnant period in the United States were Charles B. Griffith and Roger Corman (who became major players in New Hollywood). Though neither one are considered enfranchised with the Beats, they were an interpreted voice of that counterculture nonetheless. The first major work of beatnik-influenced filmmaking came from the Corman/Griffith production, A Bucket of Blood.

William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg

William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg

In the middle of 1959, American International Pictures approached Corman to direct a horror film on a shoestring budget and a five-day shooting schedule. Corman began his first collaboration with Griffith to develop ideas for producing a satirically comedic horror film about beatniks through research at various coffeehouses along LA’s Sunset Strip.

This was the birth of the drive-in movie; films that were made to be background action for teenage sex in cars. Though drive-ins had existed long before Corman (stretching into the 1930s), this newfound low-grade exploitation-style was the freedom that many filmmakers wanted from the Hays Code, because its market was not of the major motion picture chains, it began redefining film language. Though many films such as Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue is credited more highly with the eventual implementation of the MPAA over censorship, Corman and Griffith began the first true elements of modern anarchic sentiment in narrative filmmaking.

To be continued… (Anarchy in Cinema: Part Four – The Cinema of Charles B. Griffith and Roger Corman)

Written by Matthew Roe