(1986) directors Richard Lerner, Lewis MacAdams
I saw this film back in its initial release back in Gainesville, FL at the Hippodrome Theater with my girlfriend when I was a teenager. It’s funny because I had never been to the Hippodrome (which was primarily a place for plays) for a film before, and I’m not eve sure how much I knew about Jack Kerouac before we went to the movie. So, it’s an odd little memory of mine from the time.
I decided to re-visit it now because I’d just finished reading The Dharma Bums, the fourth of Kerouac’s novels that I’ve read now over the years, and was remembering about this documentary and intrigued more and more about Kerouac himself and the Beats in general. Oddly enough, I’d picked up The Dharma Bums at San Francisco’s Beat Museum in North Beach on Broadway, which used to a bookstore that I liked to visit. The Beats’ legacy locally is part of the San Francisco historical and cultural landscape, which I mostly appreciate with great affection, but regarding the Beats themselves, have always had a vague sense of over-aggrandizement by locals, since it’s a bit of self-importance on the world’s literary stage. We’re kind of a small town in that respect.
But I’ve grown to appreciate Kerouac on my own terms, having enjoyed On the Road the most of the novels that I’d read and having grown as well to appreciate the local qualities of the stories, of the events, of the people, not because of their importance as literary artifacts, but simply because they are snapshots of the city that I do love, images of its transitory past, and ties to aspects of California and history that have great meaning and depth (I actually read On the Road right after I’d read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which turned out to be a fascinating comparison point from California literature and the changing nature of America of the Depression and post-War eras. Which I highly recommend.)
Kerouac is a sad figure, a tragic drunk, who managed to completely destroy himself before he turned 50. And at the time of the film’s production, less than 20 years after his death, his literary legacy was still somewhat in question and many of his contemporaries were still alive to be interviewed. And actually that is one of the film’s two most “killer apps”, the interviews with Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and a host of others. While none of the interviews are pure genius, nor is the film, it’s hard to forget that most of these people are no longer among the living, no longer can attest to their knowledge of Jack Kerouac. Originary sources no more.
The film’s other strength, in my opinion, is some of the 8mm or 16mm footage that was shot of New York City, Lowell, MA, and San Francisco, whenever it was captured (probably close to the time of the film’s production), but what I can attest to from the San Francisco footage, while perhaps it captured the parts of the city that Kerouac liked: Skid Row, South of Market, the train tracks, it certainly captures elements of San Francisco that have changed in the 20 years since I’ve lived here. The images capture glimpses of an older San Francisco and certainly a no longer San Francisco, and transposed as they are over the words, spoken by Kerouac himself, reciting poetry about them, there is an uncanny element of the past re-echoed, redoubled.
Additional to these elements are clips from two television appearances by Kerouac in his lifetime. One from 1959 is on The Steve Allen Show, right after the publication of On the Road in which the still handsome Kerouac reads with some still-intact lilt of the Beat style ebullience (which was interestingly probably at the end of its period just as the publication of the novel “broke” the aesthetics and sensibility to America at large). The second is from The William F. Buckley Show, from 1968, only a year before his death, in which the drunk and ornery and bloated Kerouac snipes and makes a fool of himself. It’s a sad glimpse of the man in his growing dissipation.
Kerouac was a zeitgeist. Was zeitgeist. And what’s sort of strange and fascinating is that the ideas and sensibilities that he lived, invented, and transcribed all largely lived themselves out before On the Road was ever in print. All of the ideas and historicality of the Beats has grown since that time, and while Kerouac continued to write for a while afterward, the fame and notoriety helped to speed his end, or so many of his friends attest. And what you don’t get from the movie, but I did glean from The Dharma Bums, was the loneliness and depression that ruled his life, part of the early, youthful passion and belief in peace and beauty and hope that rode alongside the downbeat, misery, and unhappiness that ultimately claimed his perspective.
What’s not at stake here is whether he was a great writer or genius or merely a “typist” as Truman Capote called him. What’s not at stake is the significance or insignificance of the Beats and their writings. The film is more just an investigation into, as the title says, “What Happened to Kerouac?” But sadly, that answer is all too simple. Booze. Drugs. Depression. What would be more interesting, I would say, would be a bigger, more robust question of the period, of the individuals, their friendships, and their work. While they are models for many, what they have come to embody for 20th century America, is an aspect of youth culture, highly poetic and yearning, striving for something amidst the passing landscape of time, their roots in the Great Depression, and the realities of one life in particular, set on self-destruct.