Source, The (1999)

Director: Chuck Workman

Stars: Johnny Depp, Dennis Hopper, John Turturro

Release Company: WinStar Cinema

MPAA Rating: NR

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Workman: The Source


Sign, Jack Kerouac Street, North Beach District, San Francisco, United States of America
Sign, Jack Kerouac Street, North Beach District, San Francisco, United States of America Framed Art Print
Cummins, Richard
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“The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.”

Amiri Baraka

If you feel like a creature from Mars, questioning the nature of your existence while mainstream people around you are obsessed by the latest incarnation of Survivor or the latest pop music idol playing every 15 minutes at the local gym, get hold of The Source—Chuck Workman's 1999 documentary about the Beats. And if you're already hip to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, you'll also enjoy this overview and introduction to a group of thinkers and writers who were often laughed at and belittled by many academics during the 1950s and 1960s. Even academics who are not completely attuned to the Beats will enjoy this well edited collage.

The Source is far removed from any a cut-and-dried literary studies. Just the first few minutes of film clips showing the elder Allen Ginsberg receiving an honor, a lonely William Burroughs gazing at the Universe from his Kansas home window much as he does in Drugstore Cowboy, and Gregory Corso telling a drug anecdote—all with Phillip Glass music underscoring, indicate that we will be entertained during this highly informative documentary.

Workman chooses to rely mostly on archive footage as well as eloquent clips by the older Ginsberg and Burroughs along with other kindred spirits from that period instead of focussing too much on an embittered older Gregory Corso, youth who think that the Beats are cool (without knowing much more than the titles of their works), or too much on the embarrassing 1960s televised interviews with an alcoholic Kerouac. He also includes a number of effective clips with other Beat writers, people associated with the Beats, and artists who follow “Beat” thinking in later generations—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez.

The better recent clips belong to Ginsberg, who indicates that he's "exhilarated
" by the prospects of his coming death and denies feeling nostalgic for the 1950s, saying that that period is no different from the 1960s, '70s, or '80s because “it's all eternity, and there's no using having nostalgia for eternity.” While Kerouac's On the Road remains the definitive work that personifies the spirit of the Beats and Burroughs is recognized as its most brilliant (obscure) thinker, Ginsberg is considered the Beats'; finest poet. And this documentary can only add more karma to Ginsberg's reputation, as he comes across as a very humble and centered individualist, even reaching out a comforting hand to the embittered Gregory Corso, who bemoans his lack of recognition in contrast to the big three of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.

The Source credits the origin of the Beats with the a 1944 meeting of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University and their subsequent introduction to the older and fellow
"weirdo" William Burroughs. They had no idea of beginning a new literary and cultural movement at the time—they dared to be different and were merely trying to make sense out of Life. They sought edgy jazz, poetry, and art that lie hidden from most of the world. They often railed out against mainstream culture, and would occasionally marvel at the neon lights of Times Square while under the influence. We can't be sure how serious Ginsberg was when he declared “we're taking over the universe,” but the documentary makes a compelling case for the continuing Beat influence through subsequent generations.

The most direct connection cited is Ginsberg’s call for a “Be-in” in the late 1960s in San Francisco to mark the official “birth” of the hippie movement. While this connection is tenuous at best, the documentary presents an interesting thesis worthy of literary discussion. No doubt that individualists can look back at the Beats and relate with them, for their free spirits remain universal, and this documentary compiles excellent source material to begin a study.

Even though the Beats were mostly ignored during the 1950s, it seems that early 1960s pop culture discovered them and poked fun of them—illustrated here with appropriate clips from television shows like Route 66,
Happy Days, Groucho Marx, and Dobie Gillis. Of course the true Beats reacted naturally when their ideas began to get mainstreamed—Ginsberg headed to the Far East, Burroughs to Algeria, and Kerouac retreated into himself.

To preserve the true spirit of the Beats director Workman includes many clips of them during their youth, highlighted by home footage of Neal Cassady energetically dancing bare chested during their road travels. Seeing those old clips of Cassady gives credence to the mentality of the Beats at that time during their travels west, and perhaps it's fitting that Cassady remains youthful—preserved only in Kerouac’s classic work and on film. As Ferlingetti says of Cassady's early death, “He wasn't destined to grow old; he was always young, and he always will be.”

Another nice inclusion results from the three actors who personify Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Well, at least two of the three are a joy to watch.

The often edgy Johnny Depp looks and sounds remarkably like Jack Kerouac as he speaks to the camera from a favorite Kerouac haunt while holding a glass of liquor, and Dennis Hopper gives a remarkable performance reciting from Burroughs' The Naked Lunch following a surreal montage of Burroughs clips, all accompanied by the Stones'
"Sympathy for the Devil." The documentary would be worth its purchase value just for this lengthy Burroughs sequence painting him brilliantly as a latter day Rimbaud--the disjointed visual imagery matching Burroughs' word dreams.

Unfortunately, John Turturro's screaming rendition of Allen Ginsberg's controversial
"Howl" doesn't work as well. Even though Turturro has a slight physical resemblance to Ginsberg, his rendering “Howl” has no soul to it. Contrasting with the other two actors inhabit the cosmic sensibilities of Kerouac and Burroughs, Turturro superficially acts out his part and remains out of synch with the rest of this documentary. It seems like Turturro is reading the poem for the first time, especially when he starts belting out the lines—this is to demonstrate the intensity? But much of the fault must go to the hokey staging with Turturro appearing with a variety of New York City street scenes. Why Workman didn't return to the source of Ginsberg's initial reading at the 6th Gallery in San Francisco remains a mystery.

Despite the unfortunate staging of the landmark
"Howl," the rest of the 89-minute film is enlightening and mesmerizing. I wish Workman had made this film a number of years ago when I was still teaching high school English. Attempting to expose students to the Beats by sampling poetic bits, showing an available Kerouac clip from the Steve Allen show, and through playing jazz music only finds a handful of students who will get it. And these are the same ones who already have figured out some of the cosmic forces at work and are considers a bit weird by their peers

The Source will work so much better to introduce novices to the Beats, and the documentary contains enough unique material to satisfy even people who think they already know Kerouac. People often congregate at Kerouac's gravesite, have a few drinks, and leave one for Jack. I have to think that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs would be pleased to know that this documentary may inspire a few other souls to strike out on their own and not be “intimidated by a bunch of jerks who don't know anything about life.”

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, mystical, naked . . ."
Allen Ginsberg


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