Over the past three years there have been no less than four narrative films about the beat generation, starting with “Howl” in September 2010. Walter Salles’s “On the Road” followed in 2012, and then just a month ago “Kill Your Darlings”, about Ginsberg and Kerouac at Columbia University, arrived. And now there is “Big Sur” that opens on November first at the Cinema Village in New York. All of these films reflect continued interest in the lives and work of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al, motivated in large part by a new generation of “hipsters” needing to understand what Ginsberg called “the Nightmare of Moloch”. This article will assess the four films as well as a BBC documentary featuring Russell Brand that traces Kerouac’s itinerary in “On the Road”, a film that says more about Brand than it does about Kerouac. It will conclude with some thoughts about the connections between the beats and the radical movement, something that deserves a book of its own.
“Howl” borders on mockumentary with a reenactment of the obscenity trial of 1957 that pitted Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing company against the forces of law and order embodied by a district attorney played by Jeff Daniels (cast perhaps for his lead in “Dumb and Dumber”) who tells the court that “Howl” was not genuine literature because it imitated the form of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. When the defense attorney asks him whom Whitman imitated, he could not answer. James Franco, who is a mediocre actor and an even more mediocre writer, plays Allen Ginsberg. Thankfully, the film survives Franco mostly on the virtues of its faithfulness to the event, a trial that along with those involving “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” broke the chains of sexual censorship just as the free speech movement at Berkeley would break those on politics. The film is available as a DVD from Netflix and Amazon streaming.