THE NAKED LENS: A REVIEW OF JACK SARGEANT'S NAKED LENS: BEAT CINEMA
"What's fascinating about this book is the tension between the attempt to find out what this cinema was all worth -- tracing the gesture but also making it accountable both in the sense of measuring its worth and also in the sense of making it utterable as narrative -- and the counter ideal, which is to leave everything as messy, unmeasured, fluid, unstable -- organs without a body -- archiving the gesture, archiving it as just the haunted cinema it seemed to think it was at the time."
by Richard Marshall
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
One of our most necessary publishing outfits, Creation Books, continues to deliver the getaway vehicles: books that celebrate the instincts to conjure up an emergency and get you nailed to a gaudy pole, where an honest action is momentary and honest suffering is equal to it -- that is, equally long, equally obscure and equally infinite. They know what the crime is, know where it is, they're in on it, and will get you to safety in the aftermath -- or go down trying. These are books that matter.
Creation Books is that publishing house that works in the time of Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart -- where all action takes place in a time that is always night, and where it's always "about midnight" in that night. All forms of suffering, madness and love are in their books. Poison is exhausted. Gestures are written like wind blowing on rubble. Gestures are what scholarship looks like when there's nothing like a body of agreement to stabilise interpretations, lives, experiences -- when things are happening but there's no one sure what it might all add up to. Where you might not wake up in the morning.
When the celebrated works of mainstream artists are derided, you're left having to decipher idiotic pictures, decorative lintels, theatre sets, fairground backdrops, popular prints, freakshows and terrorists -- and it's not an option, it has to be done, like I said before it's necessary. This is what the Creation outfit have set out to do. Their authors work out scholarly enemas of ecstasy, are writers who settle down and go about their cultural activity that's equivalent to planting warts on a face. The reissue of Sargeant's 1997 book, updated, revised and expanded, is a beautiful example of all this activity.
Here are the names: William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Charles Bukowski, Brion Gysin, Antony Balch, Ron Rice, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Harry Smith, Gregory Corso, John Cassavetes, Gus Van Sant, Peter Whitehead, Taylor Mead
Pull My Daisy, Chappaqua, Towers Open Fire, The Flower Thief, Shadows, Don't Look Back, Wholly Communion, The Subterraneans, Beat Generation, Bucket Of Blood, Heart Beat, Barfly, Naked Lunch
Sargeant is a more disinterested abstracted figure than a mere author. He works in the scholar's library, works his sources and references -- interviews and essays, notes, rumours, asides, other books, other films -- he takes them all out and makes them labour, react, do something, walk somewhere. Sargeant is out to revolve round a kind of wayward soul, he's working up a shrine to things maybe people think they know, think they've experienced -- when you read this stuff you half remember conversations about some of the material -- Kerouac's Jazz 50's, Ginsberg's Hippy 60's, Burroughs' punk 70's -- and makes us mindful of what he calls "a cognitive mapping of this previously neglected area of cinema."
He's clear about what he is doing: "This book is an inaugural attempt to trace this engagement across a wide variety of texts and authors -- who share only their belief in expressing their personal vision/s -- yet this tracing resists teleology, rather it seeks to explore these areas in specific essays which may be approached in any order" (p.8, author's introduction.) Tracing a gesture -- the articulation of "a personal vision" -- and it's this notion of "personal vision" that Sargeant wants to say is Beat -- fetching up those Wordsworthian "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," and after reading the text you're able to find Sargeant as much as the people he discusses and engages with. His book is part of the project he describes. It's got a fluxy, engaged style. It's an example of Beat scholarship that's precise, critically alert and enthusiastic without being windy or asking for second chances. It's a book that knows the score. It's been there. It's done that. No special pleading.
What's fascinating about this book is the tension between the attempt to find out what this cinema was all worth -- tracing the gesture but also making it accountable both in the sense of measuring its worth and also in the sense of making it utterable as narrative -- and the counter ideal, which is to leave everything as messy, unmeasured, fluid, unstable -- organs without a body -- archiving the gesture, archiving it as just the haunted cinema it seemed to think it was at the time. In terms of style there's the feel and the mood of its subject matter -- especially when reading the second section which revolves around Burroughs and his "war universe" -- but throughout, especially when you read the transcribed interviews (Alfred Leslie, Robert Frank, Taylor Mead, Jonas Mekas, Peter Whitehead, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin) you pick up the "to the moment", "unmediated nowness" of the text. In a way it's about working out values without connecting up to any franchise.
The stories about the films -- about how they were conceived, about how they were made, about how they were received -- are excercises in écrit vérite -- and Sargeant has packed his detailed knowledge into this as into each of the stories he has to tell to give the reader a sense that everything's there and nothing vital is missing. These are organs of a fabled beast, scattered out for some alchemist to breathe life into them, to regenerate. Read them in the right order, find a way through, and you'll restore the whole, complete it, bring it all back home. Perhaps memory will do this, or else an engagement at a level a notch above reality, explaining everything via a guilty conscience. Conscience is in the habit of clinging on to apparent consciousness, and this Beat Cinema project was all about slinging out that habit. And Sargeant is writing it up to keep a certain kind of momentum going and break our lazy habit.
Just to quickly intimate how he does what he does in the book, he talks about Pull My Daisy and suggests that it was, at least in part, a catalyst of all the cinema that followed, not because it was improvised but because people believed it was improvised. He writes: "By utilising Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky to act/appear as 'themselves' the film . . . serves to deconstruct the division between 'reality' and 'fantasy', the meta-narratives around the lives of these members of the cast mean that the events could be read as appearing to be those the poets would experience, they thus could appear to be authentic to the audience (p 19)." It's that breakdown of the division between reality and fantasy that all the films seem to try and serve. It seems to be where Sargeant himself is most focused upon throughout. But after writing about the film in such a way, he then fills in the story from the inside, so to speak, using huge interviews with some of the main players such as Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie.
Once you've read this stuff, you want to get out and see the films he's investigated and test them out. You also want to get in on the projects, you want to do something yourself. This is the sign that the book works. Sargeant has done a job on the reader, he's made you feel lazy and stuck in a dumb habit and that you don't measure up to what is possible at a whole other level. Which is what good writing should do -- cross a border and break things up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a talented writer and acts as an editor for 3am