Movie review of "Whatever Happened to Kerouac?"
The “Beats” (circa 1948-1960?) are sometimes cast as proto-hippies: Bohemian; anti-establishment; aflame with the exotic and taboo; worshippers at the Dionysian fount of creativity; nonconformists—now nihilist, now visionary; poets of the absurd and the profound; idolizers of Charlie Parker’s jazz. Theirs was gut-existentialism and “Beat Zen,” Hindu cosmology and nuclear eschatology. “To be Beat,” wrote Kerouac, “was to be at the bottom of your personality looking up.” Beat was birthed by the misfits, the downbeat, the offbeat—not by the poor urchins who could manage no more than sleeping in parks and begging money, but by the artistic urchins who gave a voice to their rebellion and (somehow) got published.
Kerouac was arguably magnificent at times—churning out rambling, but poetic prose—despite the fact that he was dubbed by one of the literati as “a Neanderthal with a typewriter.” The film is appropriate punctuated by Kerouac reading chunks of prose on “The Steve Allen Show.” Kerouac’s work was impassioned and original; he invented a genre of continuous, spontaneous narrative seen in novels such as The Dharma Bums and On the Road which was written at high speed on a continuous sheet of paper a hundred feet long. Beat poet Allen Ginsburg called it “a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long.”
But Kerouac burned bright but briefly, then burned out rapidly, because being Beat meant being a rogue. As the interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances make plain, Kerouac was a drunk (who drank himself to death), an adulterer, a drug user, and a buddy of more of the same kind of misfits of the day such as William Burroughs (homosexual and junkie), Allen Ginsberg (homosexual and sometimes psychotic), and other assorted thieves, dopers, and thrill-seekers.
But decadence was heralded as transcendence and orgies as oracular. Cultural critic Carl Raschke notes that “Kerouac was self-consciously attempting to depict the whirl of sensation as the key to cosmic understanding, as a vehicle of liberation: though he left little distinction between the liberation of the mind and libertinism of the youthful rake and rebel.”
Decadence was avant-garde, and was touted as the engine of artistry. But the gaunt, sour, bitter faces of many of his now aged or recently deceased compatriots reveal that debauchery indeed debauches—even debauches the Beats, and especially Kerouac. Handsome, lithe, and vigorous as a young man, middle age found him to be bloated and beaten beat.
Particularly pathetic are short clips of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” in 1969. Buckley presided over the intellectual debris of a quasi-incoherent Kerouac who was asked to consider the relationship between Beats and Hippies. An unflappable Buckley gracefully withstood Kerouac’s juvenile ramblings, seeking to bring coherence out of chaos. Buckley smiled knowingly. Kerouac smirked contemptuously—an appropriate Beat response, perhaps. A rummied out rebel without a cause met a conservative rebel with a cause. The juxtaposition was telling, almost painful.
Kerouac at his best may have unmasked some of the pretensions of a complacent, self-righteous, post-war America; he may have celebrated elements of life—such as bebop jazz—that were unjustly ignored by others. But he exacted too high a price. By going “on the road” he deserted the Protestant work ethic that undergirds a productive and healthy culture, exchanging postponed gratification for immediate gratification (and addiction), exchanging hard work for protracted play—and encouraged others to follow suit. His promiscuity denied the sanctity of the family. (We see several clips of his abandoned daughter reflecting on her father’s life.) But Kerouac and friends corrupted more than themselves; they inspired a whole counterculture—as William Burroughs notes in the film—that both amplified and refined the Beat spirit of nonconformity, hedonism, and Eastern religious intrigue. And don’t we even hear something of “the beat” in the punks?
The film reports that Kerouac said that because he was a Catholic he couldn’t commit suicide, so he decided to drink himself to death (which is really gradual suicide). Although his prose drew inspiration eclectically from Buddhism, Hinduism, and just about anywhere—Beat was nothing if not unsystematic—several friends and his priest tell us that Kerouac was entranced by the crucifix, and painted pictures of Christ and cardinals toward the end. Yet no conversion was evident—only an alcoholic’s eroded body, mind, and soul. It seemed he never caught the spirit of the one he could not forget. Jesus said “seek and you shall find.” Jack Kerouac must have been looking in all the wrong places.