Monday, March 4, 2013

Pops on Beats

I spent the last week researching and writing about the evolution of Beat cinema and films about the Beat Generation. The occasion was an assignment for writing a 3000-word critique of the new adoptation of On the Road by Walter Salles which is going to be published on Iranian Film Monthly.

My opinion about the film, and the predictable disillusionment I had after watching On the Road, as well as arguments about problems of translating Beat literature to moving images need another place and time to be fully explained. However, the process of writing concurred with discovering new films and revisiting some of the milestones of Beat cinema which many of them would appeal to jazz people. Films such as Pull My Daisy (with Jack Kerouac's scrips and voice-over and a jazz score), Shadows (containing Charlie Mingus's soundtrack), The Connection (the groundbreaking Shirley Clarke film with Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean) and even the mediocre Subterraneans (based on Kerouac's novel) which features Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet have their own merits that in many different ways exceed so many limitation of what Salles offers us.

It is interesting that how among the major Hollywood studios MGM developed a particular exploitative interest in Beat Generation, first by making a very offensive portrayal of Beats in The Beat Generation, 1959, and a year later softening their views in The Subterraneans and elevating the production values from "B" department to that of "A"'s (George Peppard and Leslie Caron appear in The Subterraneans).

The Beat Generation with a well-executed crime story and a remarkable Steve Cochran is highly problematic in its malicious representation of Beats as lazy, ignorant, pretentious and even a dangerous group of people whose anarchistic attitude, in Louis Amstrong's words, is "headed for the blues." Now you might wonder what Armstrong got to do with it, but that's exactly the most straightforward message of The Beat Generation which is delivered in the opening credit of the film and the song Armstrong and his All Stars perform. In this opening sequence, Pops, who already had poked fun at Bop movement, gives some "advice" to Beat people. Regardless of how offensive can be Hollywood's treatment of contemporary issues, this film is an important document of  the way Hollywood used the guiding light of the Beat literature, jazz, against the movement itself.


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