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Naked Lens: Beat Cinema

Book cover featuring photographs of Allen Ginsberg

Typically, books on the history of American underground filmmaking follow similar timelines and trajectories and include a previously established canon of films and filmmakers. However, Naked Lens, Jack Sargeant‘s survey of how the Beat literary movement influenced the avant-garde film world, gleefully veers off of the well-trodden path to take a fresh look at old classics and welcome new faces into the fold.

Arguably, without the Beats, underground film wouldn’t have become a “movement” back in the ’60s at all. Although there had been a long tradition of avant-garde filmmaking in the U.S., the November 11, 1959 double-bill screening of Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy and the infamous “first version” of John Cassavetes’ Shadows at Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 in NYC opened up a whole new world of filmic freedom.

Pull My Daisy directly captured the soul of Beat philosophy by adapting part of a Jack Kerouac play and casting Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky in key roles; while Shadows‘ gritty story about African-American jazz musicians seemed inspired by the Beats’ notions of living on the outside of society. Both films share a loose, improvisational style — although exactly how improvised Pull My Daisy was is apparently up to debate — that was a break from both conventional mainstream narrative storytelling as well as the avant-garde’s reliance on dream structures.

Naked Lens is split into two sections. The first covers how Pull My Daisy and Shadows influenced ’60s underground cinema while the second focuses specifically on the film legacy of William S. Burroughs. Splitting the book in half this way is an interesting choice since Burroughs, while personally friendly with Ginsberg, Kerouac, et. al., didn’t want his own writing to be considered Beat. However, Burroughs is the writer from the “Beat Generation” who has the closest connection to film than the other writers.

While his friends collaborated on Pull My Daisy, Burroughs worked on his own collaborations with British filmmaker Antony Balch. Their two major projects together were Towers Open Fire (1963), which deals with several of Burroughs’ themes including the breakdown of order and control, and The Cut Ups (1966), which utilized the literary idea of cutting up text that was founded by writer Brion Gysin and developed by Burroughs. Sargeant also turns over several pages to performance artist Genesis P-Orridge, who details his cataloging of Balch and Burroughs’ film footage that didn’t make it into finished works.

Several films are also cited in Naked Lens in which Burroughs was a direct influence and partial participant. These include an obscure German punk film called Decoder that has its direction attributed to the one-named Muscha. The film stars industrial muscian FM Einheit of Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, features Burroughs and P-Orridge in cameo roles and makes the Burroughs’ idea of tape recorder terrorists (via audio cut ups) the main focus of the plot. There’s also mention, of course, of David Cronenberg’s loose movie “adaptation” of Naked Lunch; Burroughs’ influence on Gus Van Sant and his role in Drugstore Cowboy; plus a couple animated adaptations of his work.

The other Beats’ influence on film past that historic 1959 screening was less direct than Burroughs, but Sargeant tracks the Beat philosophy through a diverse range of underground filmmakers, including Ron Rice and his collaborations with underground superstar Taylor Mead, animation visionary Harry Smith and film diarist Jonas Mekas. Plus, Sargeant argues that, although mostly a work of camp absurdity, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures is analogous to the Beats through its celebration of the individual, especially the outcast individual.

While Rice, Mead, Smith and Mekas are familiar figures in the American underground film scene, Sargeant also discusses two filmmakers outside of the traditional NYC avant-garde circle of the ’60s. One is Peter Whitehead, who filmed a major Beat poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall for the documentary Wholly Communion, and the other is Conrad Rooks whose fictional persona in the autobiographical Chappaqua is indistinguishable from the director’s real life. Chappaqua was also shot by Pull My Daisy co-director Robert Frank.

The real strength to Sargeant’s writing here — as it is in his other book Deathtripping, which serves as a nice companion to Naked Lens whether that’s intentional or not — is that he covers his subject from multiple angles. Most chapters of the book begin with a bit of background on a filmmaker or filmmakers, then serves up a thorough description of a film or films and ends with an interview with the director.

Some filmmakers, like Jack Smith, Harry Smith, John Cassavetes, Ron Rice and Burroughs, have unfortunately passed away so their voices are not heard from directly. But there are several lively chats with Leslie and Frank — who both offer contentious histories of their landmark collaboration — Taylor Mead, Peter Whitehead and Allen Ginsberg, plus an interview with Jonas Mekas conducted by filmmaker Tessa Hughes-Freeland. Sargeant structures the book so that the reader gets a fully immersive experience of these films, filmmakers and their respective places in history.

The edition of Naked Lens that I read for this review is a revised and updated version recently published by Soft Skull Press. The book was originally published in 1997 by Creation Books. However, since I haven’t read the first edition, I can’t say what has been changed or expanded upon. Regardless, the current edition is a lively, informative read about a key and somewhat neglected component of the history of underground film.

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