The Beats at QFT

Kerouac, Ginsberg, Borroughs and others are the focus of a series of film screenings as part of the Belfast Book Festival

Now in its third year under the auspices of the Crescent Arts Centre, the Belfast Book Festival, which runs from June 10 –16, continues to expand and extend its reach into the consciousness of lovers of the arts by incorporating theatre, visual art and film into its programme, as well as the traditional author readings and Q&As.

As part of that expansion, the festival has teamed up with Queen's Film Theatre to present a selection of films turning a cinematic eye on a literary movement first termed ‘The Beat Generation’ more than 60 years ago, and which continues to fascinate to this day.

The most famous works by the ‘holy trinity' of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – were published in the second half of the 1950s, a period of time in United States history which saw the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the ‘invention’ of the teenager, and rising Cold War paranoia.

These three books – two novels and a poetry collection – were considered by some to have been dangerous to society when published. Howl and Naked Lunch were both the focus of obscenity trials, whilst On the Road was (wrongly) criticised for its glorification of violence and the lack of responsibility its characters seemed to advocate.

Belfast Book Festival


Of course, with notoriety came sales (all three books sold very well), and the original literary movement – born in wartime New York amongst a small group of bohemian friends – was soon usurped (and neutered), first by advertisers selling ‘Beatnik’ outfits (berets and striped Breton tops for the boys, black leotards and polo neck sweaters for the girls), and then by Hollywood.

The studios typically turned out films either far removed from the literary aesthetics of the Beat writers (see Roger Corman’s 1959 Beatnik comedy The Bucket of Blood, and ‘Beatsploitation’ crime drama The Beat Generation) or tame adaptations (see the 1960 adaptation of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which changed the novel’s depiction of an interracial romance to one between a white male and a young French woman). All these films fared poorly, and Hollywood soon lost interest in the Beats as an exploitable asset.

It wasn’t until 1980 that a film about the Beats next appeared. Heart Beat told the story of the love triangle between Kerouac (played by John Heard), Neal Cassady (a badly miscast Nick Nolte) and Cassady’s second wife, Carolyn (Sissy Spacek). For the next two decades, the few films made about the Beats followed the biopic path.

Long regarded as unfilmable, David Cronenberg’s 1991 take on Naked Lunch incorporated elements of author Burroughs’s life, including his accidental murder of his wife, Joan Vollmer, into the fantastical tales of Dr Benway, talking assholes and other bizarre ‘routines’ from the novel.

The death of Burroughs’s wife is also the focus of the 2000 movie Beat, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Burroughs and Courtney Love as Joan, whilst 1997’s The Last Time I Committed Suicide focuses on the teenage years of Cassady before he met Kerouac. None of these films were commercially successful (some never made it to UK cinemas at all), and none (Naked Lunch excepted) can be regarded as must see movies.

For The Beats at QFT, the programmers arguably present four films over three nights which are essential viewing for fans of the Beats. First up is Walter Salles’ much hyped yet little seen take on Kerouac’s On the Road. Given only a (very) limited run in Northern Ireland on its release last year, it’s great to see it finally grace the screen at the QFT.

A film adaptation of On the Road has been mooted since the novel hit the bestseller lists on its publication in 1957. Kerouac himself wrote Marlon Brando a fan letter suggesting Brando play the Dean Moriarty character whilst Kerouac himself could play Sal Paradise (who is, of course, based on Kerouac).

Producer Francis Ford Coppola finally managed to bring the novel to the screen after developing the project – and failing with numerous script writers, cast members and directors – since he purchased the screen rights back in 1979.

Showing on Monday, June 10 at 6.30pm, On the Road suffers from the same problem that film adaptations of Scott Fizgerald’s The Great Gatsby does: the true greatness of both books lies not in each novel’s respective story, but in the highly poetic prose styles of the authors. Capturing that on film without over-reliance on voice over is extremely difficult, but On the Road succeeds better than Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic take on Gatsby.

Incorporating elements of the notorious ‘scroll’ version of On the Road into the script (notably a scene of homosexual hustling by Dean Moriarty considered too risqué by the original publishers), as well as giving the Marylou character (played by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) a more prominent role in the storyline, Salles' film is a more downbeat take on the source material than many were expecting.

Sam Riley does a decent turn as the Kerouac character Sal Paradise, but it’s Garrett Hedlund who takes the acting honours, portraying the thrill-seeking, responsibility-avoiding Dean Moriarity with an underlying sense of sadness that gives the story – and the film – an extra layer of pathos.

Director Salles captures the 1940s period perfectly, and the wonder and achievement of crisscrossing America by car in a time before super highways is wonderfully evoked. There are fans of the book who will never be satisfied with any filmic take on their cherished tome, but Salles must be congratulated for making his version. A longer cut of the film, which was shown at Cannes Film Festival in 2012, is an even more satisfying experience.

Tuesday, June 11 has 2010s Howl showing, again at 6.30pm. The film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, stars James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg and is a non-linear exploration of one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, the genesis of the Beat Generation in 1940s New York, the first public performance of the poem in San Francisco in 1955 and the obscenity trial that followed the poems publication in 1957. The film was reviewed in these virtual pages on its release.

The season concludes at 6.30pm on Wednesday, June 12 with two contemporaneous films, both released in 1959, which explore and reflect Beat life in the late 1950s. Reluctant movie star John Cassavetes' debut directorial feature Shadows is arguably the film which gave birth to American Independent cinema.

The story of three siblings, Shadows explores interracial relationships and the search for love and fulfilment in Manhattan. Shot in black and white on the streets of New York using a handheld 16mm camera, the film is heavily improvised, and the energy of the direction and editing, coupled with a jazz soundtrack, makes Shadows the visual and aural equivalent of the Beat writers’ poetry and prose experiments.

Likewise with acclaimed photographer Robert Frank’s short film Pull My Daisy. Co-directed with Alfred Leslie, the film is loosely based on the third act of Jack Keroauc’s unproduced play The Beat Generation, and tells the story of a railway brakeman whose wife invites a bishop to for dinner only for the brakeman’s bohemian friends (played by Allen Ginsberg and fellow Beat poets, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky) to crash the dinner.

An improvised narration was added to the edited footage by Kerouac himself, and the author’s melodious voice, coupled by the onscreen mugging of the amateur actors, give this 27-minute short a ramshackle charm all of its own.

The movie world’s interest in the Beats is set to continue with the release of two more films this year. An adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur premiered at the Sundance Festival last month, as did Kill Your Idols, which explores the period in early 1940s New York when Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs first met, and their connection to a murder which changed them forever. The film features Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, and is hotly tipped to be one of independent American cinema’s most successful films of 2013.

The Belfast Book Festival runs from June 10 – 16. View the full festival programme.