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Visions of Beatitude

By Steve Finbow.

Naked Lens, Jack Sargeant, Soft Skull Press 2009.


Sitting in Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen in 1989 – it was his birthday and he had invited people over for food and drinks and talks, music in the background, and I can’t remember exactly who was there – I’m sure Steven Taylor, Bob Rosenthal, maybe Herbert Huncke. But I can definitely remember two people who were there some or all of the evening (in which I kept running out to the bodega for 40-oz bottles of Olde English 800) and they were Robert Frank and Harry Smith. This was only a couple of years before Harry’s death and he was suffering from emphysema, and the American magus, ethnomusicologist, and experimental filmmaker was in gnomic mode. At one point during our conversation, Harry beckoned me to listen more closely. I bent forward. “Steve,” he said, his voice hoarse and phlegmic, “I’m the only person here apart from five others.” Robert Frank, camera at the ready, snapped the guests, as did Allen. I remember that Robert took many photos of my then girlfriend Nazreen, a tiny Guyanese girl with Warhol-era-Interview-Magazine-inspired make-up and huge dreadlocks that would have put Bob Marley and Sideshow Bob to shame.

Harry Smith and Robert Frank are just two of the auteurs included in Jack Sargeant’s authoritative Naked Lens, an exhaustive look at Beat cinema which includes interviews with Alfred Leslie (disputed director of the legendary Pull My Daisy – Robert Frank also claims directorship), Taylor Mead (come to think of it, I think Taylor was at the party that night – showing off), Jonas Mekas, Allen Ginsberg, Klaus Maeck, and Brion Gysin; plus articles on Pull My Daisy, Jack Smith, Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua, the cinematic collaborations of William Burroughs, Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin; along with chapters on Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, Charles Bukowski, and Hollywood’s involvement with the Beat Generation.

Jack Sargeant is correct in asserting that the works of the three major Beat writers – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs – have no unified style or philosophy; indeed nothing could be further apart than Kerouac’s implied conservatism, Ginsberg’s peacenik pacifism, and Burroughs’ violent reaction to control in its many forms.

This book is a must-buy for anyone interested in the Beat Generation, fifties and sixties avant-garde or non-mainstream cinema, and the evolution of the New York art scene. Jack Sargeant provides a extensive bibliography, an index of films discussed, and film sources which will get any reader searching the internet for clips or ways to purchase films with fantastic titles such as – at random – Blonde on a Bum Trip, Commissioner of Sewers, Dynamite Chicken, It’s Clean It Just Looks Dirty, and Too Young, Too Immoral.

If I have quibbles, it’s the inclusion of a chapter on the films of John Cassavetes, which I think are closer to the novels of Nelson Algren than they are to the Beats. And, please, Bukowski is not a Beat writer. But these are minor objections to a fine piece of research and dissemination. Sargeant marshals his investigations and interviews into a readable yet scholarly work, providing breakdowns and analysis of the seminal Beat movies. The film stills and photographs provide an excellent backdrop to the history of the genre. Naked Lens was first published by Creation Books in 1997 and republished in 2001 (see Richard Marshall’s 2002 3:AM review which acts as an introduction to the new edition). Soft Skull Press, in repackaging and re-publishing this volume, has provided any Beat enthusiast with an essential volume to sit beside On the Road, Howl, and Naked Lunch.

Afterword: I got drunk the night of the party and I have a vague recollection of insulting Robert Frank after he asked my girlfriend to meet up with him the next day so that he could take photographs of her on the streets of the East Village. What a dickhead (me that is, not Robert Frank).

Steve Finbow‘s novel Balzac of the Badlands will be published by Future Fiction London in October 2009. At some point in 2010, his critical biography of Sergeant Bertrand will also be coming to bookshops near you.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 7th, 2009.