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Beatniks and Poets

Embodying the Free Spirit

By Jonathan Choi

The Source

Directed by Chuck Workman

Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Dennis Hopper

The Museum of Fine Arts kicks off its new film series, Beatniks and Poets, with a brilliant piece of filmmaking by Oscar winner Chuck Workman. Workman’s new film, The Source, chronicles the far-reaching impact of the Beat Generation on Americans today. An intense visual bombardment seamlessly combined with the sounds of Parker, Monk, and Dylan and inspired readings and performances by Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and others, The Source is a searing portrayal of the high-strung, life-hungry spirit of the Beats. It is an adventure that passionately rediscovers the source of the American counterculture that is very much alive today.

The film begins with the meeting of writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs as Columbia undergraduates. Rejecting the accepted values of the time, they strove to create their own meaning in life. Jack Kerouac wrote the American classic, On the Road. He called his generation the Beat -- the downtrodden and poor, but the beatific as well, the givers and indicators of great joy and bliss.

On the Road portrays an American dream of wandering, drugs, sex, jazz, love, sunsets, dawns, soul-searching, expression and joy. The embodiment of this American dream was Kerouac’s friend and inspiration, Neal Cassady. The grainy 1940s clips of Cassady are striking. The clips Workman uses are of Cassady doing everyday things, from driving a car to explaining a story. It is the energy that exudes from his eyes, his body, from every cock-eyed movement of his limbs that gives the viewer the sense that this is a different type of man. A close friend of Neal comments, “Cassady was the art and fire.”

Perhaps the best description of Cassady comes from On the Road. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

This was the life of the Beatnik, the life of the cultural dissident and joyous bohemian. Kerouac gave Americans a new consciousness to question imposed values and meaning-deprived duties: “Dare to Dream!”

The highlight of Workman’s film is John Turturro’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl.” The poem -- highly controversial when it was published -- bravely portrays the harsh realities of Beat life. Opening with the lines, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” Turturro spectacularly interprets the emotion and mindset of the poem’s speaker. Workman treats the film medium as a poetic device itself, phrasing images with Turturro’s lines and reinforcing tones and shifts with appropriate changes in scene. The serenity of Turturro’s opening lines on a quiet Brooklyn rooftop quickly descend into the horror and frenzy that Ginsberg describes with horrid intensity. The tumultuous performance ends with Turturro painfully whispering his last lines through the grating of a fence in the dark, empty streets of Brooklyn.

After these powerful segments on Kerouac and Ginsberg and another equally powerful segment on Burroughs, Workman concludes the film by showing the Beatniks’ lasting impact on American culture from the hippie generation to the youth of today. Workman captures this legacy in a single clip showing Neal Cassady shirtless, smiling at the camera, bursting with joy and voiced over with Kerouac’s words, “Our existence is so brief, life is a dream almost over.”