I Saw A Film!
Independence used to mean of mind. Intellectual pursuit, arts, and independence of mind, used to be tremendously valued. Steve Allen and even Buckley would have these writers and thinkers on panel shows, and while often enough the questions discussed were crap (or in Buckley’s case pointedly leading), it was still far better than the way we worship empty stars now. So many of them have no actual significance beyond their recognizability. Kerouac actually isn’t very recognizable, but he’s a strangely accomplished individual, a typewriter artist.
What we have here is a terrific documentary, perhaps the most thorough one with plenty of colleagues and friends and family, collected bits, poetry readings, the inevitable Allen Ginsberg and the bizarre Burroughs (the killer), a bit of Lowell, MA, the snow, Jack’s mom, and the Catholicism. Personally, I first didn’t get it, had On the Road foisted upon me through a kind of cultural necessity. My poetry was Jim Carroll and Fate of the Earth and Kurt Vonnegut. I knew nothing of these “Beats”, which Kerouac said was “sympathetic”. John Clellon Holmes says that people mistook jack for his character Dean Moriarty, and never knew he wasn’t that character at all.
Think about this, we basically live admidst two kinds of people, these people who cannot criticize that world in which they’ve devoted and yoked themselves. These people are still (I already imply it’s a kind of schizophrenia) faithful to their religion, to their nation, to their culture, to their mac and cheese. They identify with the teams they grew up with, they identify with the music that was on the radio when they got their first cars. They believe the system will reward them if they are truly faithful, but even more so they never think about that, it’s a given. It’s not a question of choosing it’s a question of never quite accepting that there could be a different life.
Then there are the folks who, for one reason or another (and there are lots of very good reasons), learned early to ask questions, to test limits, to understand that when the cue forms up, what it forms up for and whether or not there is good risk involved in joining it. If you’re a minority in America (or anywhere really) you learn to wonder why it’s been harder for your parents for your grand-parents, and when you realize that there’s something called a KKK or a neonazi it makes your head explode with the insanity of it, but it doesn’t have to be anything this violent to create a question, or a self-criticism. A person who learns early to criticize self or systemically quickly loses faith, but replaces it with reason, arts, sciences, historical studies, civics and on and on.
When a conservative fails to achieve they don’t then punch up to the system (which would imply undermining it) they punch down toward others who struggle in order to keep a kind of hierarchy of deservingness. This kind of thinking keeps a kind of order in the minds of those who base their lives on devotion to a system.
Some of us grow up and get exposed to a larger world and we wonder what a life in Tokyo, Istanbul, or Mumbai might be like. We might study a new language, read a novel by a foreign writer. Others look at those possibilities and immediately dismiss them as dissatisfying out of a kind of glue that cements them to their world and the faith that their experience is superior. This is religion. If you can do without religion then you can escape the need for enforcers of order. Etc. You catch my drift.
All that to say, if you appreciate arts, independence of thought, and the mutual inspiration of jazz and writing, you probably already have a good idea of the mad people this is about.
When Kerouac published On the Road he’d already written a million words. Some called it typing only. He’d actually already published a book in a famously Thomas Wolfe mode. But it would be On the Road (which finally got out seven years after he wrote it) and got a lucky review (a story I’ve covered previously which is included in Dan Wakefield’s excellent NYC in the 50s) which launched him and his gang of “beats” into a limelight that changed arts and culture forever. We are still reaching into it for entertainments, love it or hate it, it still seems to carry a heavyweight blow. It took me a long time to be able to trust Kerouac’s know-nothing story-telling as anything but drivel. I was a harsh critic. Later in life I began to understand the temper and the music in the writing. I also began to be more empathetic to what was meant by beat.
Sadly Kerouac was a life-long drunk, and sadly much of his value in the few minutes of clips we have of him is lost significantly due to this fact. Still the interviews are revealing and some of them compelling. The editing here is excellent, and the joining of the be-bop music and the comparison of Charlie Parker to a sort of Buddha is really moving. These sorts of immersion studies are very involving and we feel like we all smoked on TV. How much can we learn from a man dead by booze at 47? It’s a question you’ll have to undertake on your own trip.
This is running free on Prime over here in Kerouac’s USA.