The other night I sat down and rewatched Howl, the 2010 indie drama about Allen Ginsberg’s epochal poem and the landmark obscenity trial that followed its publication in 1956. Writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman took an admirably factual approach to their much-mythologized subject: every word of their screenplay is drawn from either trial transcripts, interviews with Ginsberg, or the poem itself. Though James Franco may seem an odd choice to play the young Allen Ginsberg, he contributes an expert impersonation, capturing every bit of the poet’s impish humor and penetrating diction. The movie is badly compromised by the third-rate, stupidly literal computer animation Epstein and Friedman use to illustrate the long stretches of recited verse, but you can avoid that by the simple expedient of closing your eyes and submitting to the powerful rhythm of Ginsberg’s words. For the most part, the filmmakers succeed at the daunting task of making “Howl” and its cultural moment seem fresh and vital again.
The same can hardly be said of Alan Govenar’s new documentary The Beat Hotel, which opens Friday for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque. By the time Lawrence Ferlinghetti—whose City Lights bookstore had published Howl and Other Poems—was found not guilty of having distributed obscene materials, Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, had already bugged out of San Francisco and checked into a cheap, filthy rooming house in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where they would later be joined by their literary compatriots Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. The Beat Hotel chronicles the five-year period when the place became a nerve center of the beat generation, its 40-odd rooms occupied by an assortment of writers, artists, and musicians. But its tired combination of talking-head interviews, black-and-white photos, generic cool jazz, clumsy reenactments, and even worse animation sequences never amounts to more than a flabby piece of counterculture nostalgia.
The beats have generated so many movies already that one expects Govenar to bring something new to the table. Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans was adapted to the screen in 1960, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1991. Heart Beat (1980) dramatized the friendship between Kerouac and Neal Cassady, whereas the more economically titled Beat (2000) revisited the writers’ early adventures in New York City. There have been two feature-length documentaries on Kerouac, two on Burroughs, two on Ferlinghetti, one each on Corso and Ginsberg, and at least three on the beat movement as a whole. Later this year comes the screen adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road by director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), and Kill Your Darlings, scheduled for release in 2013, will take another crack at the New York years, with Ben Foster as Burroughs and—get this—Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame as Ginsberg. For a group of artists committed to breaking with the past, the beats have attracted more than their share of retrospection.
Governar’s biggest asset by far is photographer Harold Chapman, who lived at the hotel when Corso, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were in residence, and whose striking black-and-white images of them, generously represented in the movie, have become almost as iconic as the writers themselves. Now 85, Chapman explains the low-budget techniques of his “dustbin photography” and shares a few anecdotes about his famous housemates. There are also colorful pen drawings of the beats by Elliot Rudie, another former hotel guest who shows up on camera as well. But other elderly participants prove less illuminating—like George Whitman, whose bookstore was a popular hangout for the beats, and Peter Golding, who used to hang around the hotel cafe playing blues for spare change and who now, for no particular reason, gets to deliver a guitar-and-harmonica rendition of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” None of these men has anything intimate or revealing to say about the beats; you get the feeling that, back in the day, the conversation didn’t really get interesting until these guys had gone back to their rooms.
I was particularly annoyed by the movie’s cartoonish portrayal of Burroughs, whose stay at the hotel coincided with his editing of Naked Lunch and his growing friendship with the visual artist Brion Gysin (one result of which was the cut-up technique of word collage that would dominate Burroughs’s work for more than a decade). The Beat Hotel drove me back not only to the “Howl” movie but also to Howard Brookner’s alternately hilarious and heartrending documentary Burroughs (1983). In contrast to the cryptic, fedora-wearing character of The Beat Hotel, the man revealed in Burroughs is both vengefully angry at the heterosexual world that forced him to the margins and haunted by how badly he failed his wife and his son, William Jr., who died at 33 after years of alcoholism. In short, the older film captures a real person, whereas The Beat Hotel seems more like an empty room littered with food cartons after the guests have moved out, and moved on.