Male friendship and the life of a writer are examined closely in director Xavie Villetard’s (Forever Lénine, Chez Frida Khalo) documentary that was first aired on French television. The 55 minute primarily black and white documentary covers the close and pretty much lifelong friendships between writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and how their novels gave birth to the Beat Generation in the 1950s.
The Beat Generation started in the United States in the years following World War II. So influential it became a cultural phenomenon that inspired American youth, musicians and then evolved to give birth to the hippie culture of the 1960s in San Francisco. It was a counter culture movement that rejected the accepted style, thought and perceived materialistic nature of the time, experimented with drugs, was open sexually, and wanted to portray the human condition in a very explicit manner.
Starting in the 1950s in New York City when struggling author Jack Kerouac met fellow authors Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Kerouac decided to write a large novel about their common experience. The three were fed up with what they saw as a puritanical America. Their novels – Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) – are seen as the seminal novels of the Beat Generation. Avant-garde literature in the United States was heavily affected by the three.
The three then began to travel to Mexico City, Tangiers, Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, San Francisco and finally back to New York. On their travels they allowed drugs, bebop music (jazz) and Eastern religions to influence their thinking and style of writing. Kerouac was really the founder of the uninterrupted style of prose the three eventually adopted. They influenced other writers to write their minds down as they were and write in a natural way. Continuity of thought was strived for.
Ginsberg’s Howl was his first epic poem and depicted a whole generation wanting to escape the existing social order. It was seen as a social bomb and landed him on the watch list of the FBI. In his own country, Ginsberg was considered a threat to homeland security. The novel was banned and pulled off the market in the United States.
Jack Kerouac is considered the centerpiece of the Beat Generation. He struggled for 7 years to get his novel On the Road published. When it finally was it was a huge hit and he was thought to replace Hemingway as the greatest American novelist. After the success of On the Road the novels he wrote in the 50s were quickly published in succession. He was never really comfortable with fame and the more he was heralded the more Kerouac felt the need to hide and rebel.
As the documentary illustrates, much of what we know about the relationship has been learned through the tons of letters they wrote each other. It was something they kept up throughout their friendships. Their fights and ensuing make ups are all there on paper. The friendships, while important to all three, were not always harmonious.
In 1958 there were definite cracks in the friendship between Kerouac and Ginsberg. They worked together on the only Beat film ever made, “Pull My Daisy”. It was the last time they would ever work together. By this time Burroughs, a heroin addict, had become a recluse in the Parisian hotel room he lived in and was dubbed the Invisible Man. In 1959 Naked Lunch is published by a French publisher and was only published in the U.S. after a court case.
No matter what controversy surrounded the Beat Generation or how much the authorities tried to repress the movement in America the number of Beatniks was growing every day. The reach even extended to the music industry as Bob Dylan was inspired by Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style and incorporated it in his songwriting.
As quickly as it had come, by 1963 Ginsberg had joined the hippies and the Beat Generation was all over. In October of 1969 Kerouac dies due to complications from drinking too much. While the Beat Generation only last a short while it still has an influence on American counter culture.