Beat (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

William S. Burroughs was one of the more interesting figures of the Beat Generation, those pre-hippie bohemians who railed against the mainstream culture back in the 50's.

The Beat writers were a close-knit group of friends first, and a movement later. The core group consisted of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighborhood surrounding Columbia University in uptown Manhattan in the mid-40's. As they moved their discussions to Greenwich Village, then to San Francisco, they picked up other colleagues like Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Most of them struggled for years to produce worthwhile texts and to get those manuscripts published, and an important part of their group ethos was their mutual support for the other members' efforts to create and spread the word. Within a few years, three of them would produce the works that defined their sub-generation. Burrough's "Naked Lunch", Ginsberg's "Howl", and Kerouac's "On the Road".

I suppose we will never again see a time when such a small and homogeneous (white, male) group is able to define an era. Yet when we think of beatniks, cool jazz and coffee houses, these few men created and shaped our perceptions and memories of the sub-culture of an entire era. The phrase "Beat Generation" was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948, and was propagated to the general public in November of 1952 when John Clellon Holmes wrote an article, 'This is the Beat Generation,' for the New York Times Magazine.

What were they all about? I guess to sum it all up in a sentence or two, they were decrying the absence of spirituality in post-war America, bemoaning the fact that their war-weary generation was getting lost in a sea of mass culture and consumerism. After watching their childhoods and adolescences pass through the Great Depression and World War 2, they had a vaguely articulated vision that overcoming all of that suffering should have created something more meaningful, more lasting than the bland, conformist culture of the early 50's. They reached out for new experiences, experimenting with alternate lifestyles. Sexual experimentation was part of their "search for self". So was their use of other drugs beyond America's accepted choice, which was alcohol. Many were homosexuals, or at least experimented along the way. Some were junkies. They dug deep into subcultural America to find better music than the offerings of the mainstream Hit Parade, and they re-discovered a laid-back kind of jazz. They developed their own slang, a bastardized version of which was eventually introduced into the mass culture as the beatnik talk you've seen in the movies - "cool, daddy-o".

Burroughs's grandfather and namesake had invented the adding machine and started the Burroughs corporation (eventually Unisys, after various mergers and transmogrifications). Burroughs himself was educated at Harvard and spoke in an emotionless way. On the surface he seemed about as Bohemian as Ben Stein. His readings were infamous for sounding like a Hollywood conception of a robot: a man in a fedora and sunglasses reciting dry, passionless, and uninflected words. He was the Leon Redbone of poetry recitation, cooler than cool. But make no mistake about it, Burroughs was a true eccentric and Bohemian of the first order. Although he was married to a woman, he paid pretty boys to have sex with him. Although he is associated with peaceful types, he loved guns and assembled quite a collection. Although his family surroundings were comfortable enough, he chose to live penniless in a Mexican slum. Although he aspired to authorship, he spent altogether too much time under the soul-destroying influence of heroin. He himself has admitted that he might never have written anything if he had not killed his wife.

Which brings us to this movie.


there is a brief flash of nipple from Courtney Love

The story begins with the Beats being brought together by Lucien Carr, a UPI reporter and member of the Columbia crowd. Lucien himself went off to prison for killing a friend who would not cease homosexual advances. When Carr was released, years later, he and Allen Ginsberg decided to make a field trip to visit William and Joan Burroughs in Mexico. William knew his old friends were driving thousands of miles to see him, but nonetheless decided to spend the time in Guatemala with one of his pretty boys. This left Mrs. Burroughs to entertain Lucien Carr and Ginsberg. This awakened some old feelings in various ways, and as a result, the two begged Joan to return with them to New York.

She did not, choosing loyalty to her philandering husband, a decision with the fatal consequences hinted above  -the "William Tell Incident".    Joan and William often did a party trick in which she placed a drink on her head, and Burroughs shot it off.  They tried this trick one time too many.

About 90% of the film concerns the Ginsberg/Carr visit in Mexico, with brief flashbacks and flashasides to explain or develop the background incidents which led up to William Tell Day.

The film isn't heavy on plot, but relies on mood, characterization, and photographic style to carry the load. The performing is quite convincing. Kiefer Sutherland brings a touch of humanity to Burroughs, which has not usually been the case in previous screen renderings of the author. Courtney Love and Norman Reedus are effective as Bohemian star-crossed lovers. The surprise of the film is Ron Livingstone as Ginsberg. Although Livingstone has been excellent in youth-oriented comedies, I had no idea he could focus in on developing a character so different from himself, and he did quite well.

The film is not bad, but fair warning: it is a film with idealistic, sarcastic, people talking non-stop about their bohemian ideals. Not much "happens", except for the obvious finale, which was mandated by the fact that it is a true story. And it is difficult to maintain emotional involvement. You want to say "if only Joan had just gone home with the other two, she'd be alive today, but she was so loyal to a man who didn't deserve it  ...." But you can't really feel the emotions implied by that situation. Courtney plays Joan with a cynical, nihilistic, taunting sang froid that pushes you away from caring about her, and makes her a casualty not of her own devotion and integrity as much as of her own stubbornness, bitchiness, and drug-addled brain rot. "If she was just not wasted all the time ...". "If she hadn't been taunting Bill before standing in front of him while he held a revolver and a grudge ... "  That characterization drains the potential emotional identification from the story and forces us to view it cerebrally, which may be exactly what the director intended, but doesn't make for a very fulfilling watch.

The story is non-committal on Burroughs's motives. Did he aim for the glass and miss, or did he aim for her head as she stood there calling him a "fag", then regret it immediately? The author ain't sayin'. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. 3/5, film threat 3/5


The People Vote ...


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C-. It has some appeal for people interested in the life and times of these characters, the acting is effective, and the director shows flashes of real brilliance in his shots. If those items aren't important to you, you'll find it dull, talky, and arty.

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