The Source

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Beats Nicked
might have thought the Beats were just talented and driven writers and canny
self-promoters who were plugged into the bohemian social currents of the day
and successfully brought those currents to the attention of white middle America.
If that’s your impression, you’ll be surprised and amazed by The Source,
a documentary about the Beats by Chuck Workman.

This likable if scattered
film defines the movement in the context of America in the 50s and 60s, then
strings together watchable short bios of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg,
Jack Kerouac and other major figures in the Beat generation, all of which is
good. But it also credits them, explicitly or obliquely, with fathering pretty
much every progressive American social movement in the second half of this century,
from civil rights to gay rights and abortion rights to feminism and the antinuclear
movement. And did you know that William S. Burroughs discovered the polio vaccine
while mixing primitive designer narcotics in Tangier, and that Allen Ginsberg,
not Al Gore, invented the Internet?

Okay, I made up those last
two. But The Source is so enamored with its subjects that if it had made
such patently absurd claims, few sober-minded viewers would be surprised. It’s
one of those labor-of-love documentaries where passion sometimes trumps common
sense; the result, while consistently well-made and thought-provoking, borders
on hagiography, even deification. In his own defense, Workman would probably
say that he does touch on some of the unsavory, inconsistent and self-serving
aspects of the Beat generation and its denizens, such as the general devaluing
of women as anything but groupies/muses, and the young white writers’ simultaneous
glorification and dilution of black pop culture, which remains a problem even
in contemporary subcultures like hiphop and the online world.

But these issues tend to
be handled in a slightly distracted if not outright perfunctory way. For instance,
by my stopwatch, Workman gives the sexism issue about two minutes, spinning
off a bullying remark made on-camera by Gregory Corso to his young female biographer.
Far more time is devoted to the Beats’ liberation of young American men
from the shackles of straight machismo, which presumably encouraged them to
wear their hair long and see women as partners and friends rather than just
lovers and wives. That’s a fascinating assertion, considering how many
of the Beat generation’s leading lights were gay or bisexual (or comfortable
with gays and bisexuals). But it’s also highly debatable considering how
much sexism there was in the 1960s counterculture, particularly among antiwar

In raising these objections,
I don’t mean to suggest that The Source is worthless or completely
wrongheaded–just that Workman’s understandable, even commendable fascination
with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and company often leads him down paths that
either dead-end or lead straight to Fantasyland. (I’m also bringing this
stuff up because I suspect other reviewers won’t.)

Part of the problem, I think,
is the film’s conservative structure. Despite the progressive, even radical
nature of the Beats and their followers, The Source clings to the Great
Man theory of history. (Check out the I-will-brook-no-disagreement title, which
comes from a quote by Burroughs–a quote that I think might have been slightly
misunderstood by Workman.) The film is about these brave young artists who changed
the way we looked at ourselves and art; they looked around, didn’t like
what they saw and said to hell with it, man, I’m going my own way, and
you can come along and dig it or be a square, daddy-o. That’s sort of true,
but there are so many mitigating factors that one would think a filmmaker might
avoid choosing it as a premise for an authoritative documentary, even one as
agreeable and free-flowing as this one.

In any case, would Ginsberg,
say, or Burroughs have characterized their effect on future generations so definitively,
even on an especially egotistical day? Somehow I doubt it. The writers Workman
profiles gave careful consideration to the constant exchange of energy between
artists and the world outside their heads; all the beats were fascinated by
black jazz, the drug culture and abstract expressionist art, and Burroughs even
cut up found text to make fragmented, dadaist fiction. Workman has said in interviews
that he wanted to portray the Beats as regular guys, less conquering artist
heroes than conscious conduits linking disparate influences–bohemia and
suburbia, black urban culture and white middle America, music and prose.

But most of the time, when
we look up at the screen at Workman’s lovely, clipped images of the Beats,
we’re looking at pictures of gods on Earth; the men described onscreen
by the Beats and their admirers–interviewees include Philip Glass, Jerry
Garcia, poet Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey and Tom Hayden–do sound like gods,
or at least lovely and approachable demigods. (The fact that Burroughs and Ginsberg,
who advised Workman, died during the making of The Source doubtless contributed
to the elegiac tone.)

At the beginning and end
of the film, Workman puts classical music on the soundtrack–Bach’s
first cello suite and Glass’ Metamorphosis. There’s nothing
inherently objectionable or even jarring about the use of classical music on
a documentary soundtrack except that it reminds us of pretty much any documentary
about influential dead people. The selections during the 60s portion aren’t
any more imaginative. They canonize both the people and the era–the Grateful
Dead’s “Truckin’” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be
Wild.” It’s the official soundtrack of corporate media productions
about the 60s, selections that would be under scenes in tv movies or quickie
cable documentaries; in other words, lame. (In her review of Oliver Stone’s
powerful and square Born on the Fourth of July, Pauline Kael rightly
pointed out the irony of boomer filmmakers making films about their youth using
techniques embraced by their parents’ generation.) Why not pick surprising
and subversive music for surprising and subversive artists? This music says,
“You may now place these men’s names in the encyclopedia.” Jazz
and folk–the music laid over the middle of the movie–make more sense
because they’re freer, newer and more immediate, even the stuff that’s
40 years old.

There are many bright spots,
though–lots of funny, sexy, odd bits that get your brain humming until
you formulate digressive arguments like the one you just read. Workman’s
quicksilver, free-associative editing–honed during a long career in found-footage
short films, a career that includes everything from the Oscar-winning Precious
(1987) to the Andy Warhol documentary Superstar–is very
much in evidence. Some of his snippets are truly choice: beatnik characters
in cartoons and sitcoms and variety specials; Ted Kennedy, of all people, asking
Timothy Leary during a Senate hearing about drugs if he knows the difference
between right and wrong; Ginsberg summarizing the Beat motivation as, “Why
are we being intimidated by a bunch of jerks who don’t know anything about
life?”; Burroughs pointing out that “what can be a very negative experience
for someone else can be a very positive experience for a writer” and insisting,
with savage honesty, “my whole life has been a resistance to the ugly spirit”;
Kesey describing Beat gadfly Neal Cassady as “like Mingus…he played the
bassline… Whatever else was happening was happening around his bassline.”
And the sequences in which actors read the works of the three key Beats in character–Dennis
Hopper as Burroughs, Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg–are
way cool, man.

James is dead; long live Brion James. The tall, plain-looking, reliably versatile
character actor died last week at age 54, after a long career in a diverse array
of movies, not to mention having an off-camera penchant for helping younger
actors get off drugs. Like the late, great J.T. Walsh, he’s one of those
performers it never occurs to you to appreciate until it’s too late; at
least it didn’t occur to me until it was too late. I’m especially
fond of James’ work as Leon the replicant in Blade Runner, panicking
over a question about his mother and then trying to push Harrison Ford’s
eyeballs through his brain; in both 48 Hours movies, playing sensible
yob cop to Nick Nolte’s cowboy detective; and in The Player, creating
a relaxed, time-tested studio boss who’s so comfortable in his own skin
that he overlooks murder and condones venality. Great work from a movie foot
soldier whose presence will be missed.

Virtual Reed: According
to published reports, Oliver Reed, who died while filming the new Ridley Scott
epic Gladiator, will complete his part with help from digital technology.
As I understand it, special effects technicians will scan existing footage of
Reed, create a 3-D photorealistic facsimile of the actor’s head and face,
then paste the result onto a body double. This new, synthetic “Oliver Reed”
will then play scenes opposite the film’s principal cast, all of whom,
blessedly, are still alive. This technology has been used before, to create
three minutes of Brandon Lee footage for 1994’s The Crow, and to
resurrect dead superstars from Hollywood’s golden era for tv ads. But this
is the first time it will be used to create a human character who will interact
with live actors for extended periods of time.

My feeling is that Scott
and company are making a horrible mistake–one that will reduce what might
have been an interesting action-adventure to the status of film history footnote.
Setting aside the creepiness issue–which should never be discounted, and
doubtless will not be discounted by working actors in fear of their livelihoods–the
very idea of a digitally resurrected actor is a ghoulish distraction to the
viewer. No matter how convincing the digital Oliver Reed is, the audience will
know he’s not real–they will have read the press by that point–and
in any scene featuring Reed, they’ll completely forget about the drama
and concentrate on detecting whether they’re seeing a virtual actor or
the real thing. Scott would have been better off eating the cost of reshoots
and simply casting a replacement actor–who isn’t comprised of ones
and zeros.