All the exciting members of the Beat Generation have died, and one can feel it while watching the rudimentary documentary the Beat Hotel. Filmmaker Alan Govenar tags along with British photographer Harold Chapman as he returns to Paris to visit what remains of the cheap, bare-bones hotel where several members who defined a generation once stayed. The documentary covers the presence of William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, as well as his lover and fellow poet Peter Orlovsky, during their stay at 9 Rue Git Le Cœur, in the late fifties to early sixties.
“The last of the great Bohemian hotels,” Chapman calls it at the start of the documentary, as images and illustrations flash past during similar commentaries by various sources who will present running commentary throughout the film. Early on, someone notes that the hotel’s years of relevance began with the stay of Ginsberg and Orlovsky in 1958 and ended in 1963, after the Beats’ last relevant figure, Burroughs left. The documentary then proceeds to go over these times, exploring anecdotes via Chapman’s photographs but also with illustrations by another former hotel dweller, the Scottish artist Elliot Rudie. Talking heads range from those who lived there to younger scholars who now study the output of the Beats in university settings.
Though the documentary tries to keep the pace sprightly with fast edits and several images of the times, it does slow down to allow Chapman to chat with some of his old friends of the time. An oral history unfolds, as Chapman shares memories of his experience there. He tells Rudie about cameraman Yon Paulsky’s idea to shoot a cartoon via the hotel’s walls. Panels of illustrations were plastered along the wall of a hallway in the hotel, and he rode in a stolen supermarket cart as some pushed him past the panels. “It never came to anything … everybody had strange ideas then,” Chapman says.
Some great works came out of that hotel, nonetheless. Corso wrote “Bomb,” Ginsberg Kaddish and Burroughs finished Naked Lunch there. All mark definitive works of the Beat poets. But, more interestingly, it also marked a time where a rift emerged between Burroughs and Ginsberg. While at the hotel, Burroughs would discover decoupage, or his cut-up technique to writing poetry. Ginsberg expressed an opposition to the mechanical and random manipulation of cut-out phrases written by someone else. However, Burroughs reveled in its accidentally inspiring quality.
It seems doubtless this place, like the Latin Quarter Paris of those other American expatriates who came before them, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, marked an important moment in literary history. It’s a ghostly artifact whose specters are stories. The hotel that replaced the original “Beat Hotel” only hints at what was once there structurally, as revealed during a tour Chapman takes of the new hotel built within the shell of the old one. Chapman’s photographs actually offer a more vivid springboard to the stories within the documentary, including one long night photographing Corso and another evening when Burroughs “disappeared” into thin air during a “magic-trick” that counted on audience members to take drugs.
For the most the stories that paint a picture of the hotel are slight and will first and foremost prove interesting to fans of the authors than those who are not. Govenar does not employ any particularly creative or distinctive cinematic techniques, which is just as well. Anyone trying to upstage legends of a long past literary world via a medium outside that world would only embarrass themselves. It’s nice to see Rudie’s illustrations come to life in crude animated fashion on occasion, but beyond that and a couple of brief instances of staged re-enactments, the film never strays beyond the predictable limitations of historical documentary on a group of deceased artists.
The film carries a sentimentality and preciousness in following its quiet former resident. Indeed, quiet one must have been to count themselves a survivor of this group of people who lived life to the fullest with reckless abandon. The fierce creative energy of these people picked up where the surrealists and Dadaists took off (another keen story revealed during the course of the film involves an encounter between Corso and Marcel Duchamp at a house party) and blazed a trail for the free love generation of the late sixties. There were not many of these people before the beatniks became the more popularly embraced, if not recognized, hippies. These were the true “deviant” artists of their time. It’s a quaint testament to their creativity that the Beat Hotel never seems to overshadow its own subjects. Fans of these writers would do well to experience it while they can.
The Beat Hotel is unrated, runs 82 minutes and opens in South Florida on Tuesday, July 17, 7 p.m. at Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me to a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. It runs only three nights, until Thursday, July 19. If you live outside the Miami area, the film screens in select cities, which can be found here.