What is it about the Beat Generation that always seems so ripe for re-imagining, be it on the page or the big screen or just inside our own heads? I think it was Allen Ginsberg once said there really was no ‘Generation’ in the way it has entered the popular imagination, just a rag tag bunch or artists and visionaries who happened to be publishing at the same time, in a certain cultural and political climate. I also think about Chabrol and “there are no waves, old or new; there is only the ocean”. But while fiction is usually stranger and more enticing than the truth, the facts of most of those great poets’ lives take some believing. Reading about the escapades of those characters (real and fictional, and real-fictional), you can’t help but think you really couldn’t make it up. Perhaps that’s what is so perennially interesting about the Beats.
There was Howl a couple of years ago, which was not universally adored but which I quite enjoyed, finding the psychedelic animation a suitable inroad into the bizarre landscapes of the poem, and James Franco a more than acceptable Ginsberg. Now we are awaiting the seemingly forever in production On The Road, which I am more sceptical about, but I will be fascinated to see where Walter Salles takes it. There has been the publication of Kerouac’s ‘lost novel’ The Sea Is My Brother. Next year will see the release of Kill Your Darlings (not to be confused with the Swedish, non-Beat related film of the same name) which takes another look at Kerouac and Ginsberg’s early years at Columbia and the Kammerer murder. I already hear mutterings that Daniel Radcliffe is too young/too English/too attractive/too this/too that to play Ginsberg but I think it is an interesting piece of casting that could work out well. Either way, he’s not as handsome as Franco, who definitely was too good-looking to play a young Ginsberg. Really physical appearance is not of paramount importance, especially since most people’s mental image of the poet is of a wild-haired, slightly mad looking middle-aged man in a stars and stripes top hat. How many people who are not Beat afficionados really know or care what Allen Ginsberg looked like in 1954?
My question really is this: is there something about the world at the moment, about youth and politics, about our way of thinking about art or some other cultural force which makes the Beats seem particularly relevant again? Or have Hollywood producers just spotted a trend and chosen to cash in on it? A mixture of both? Or (and I’m leaning towards this last idea) have these novels, poems, photographs and lives just stood the test of time, despite being to firmly rooted in the culture that bore them? Maybe there is some kind of truth in them which will always be important, especially to young people. I don’t believe in god or the supernatural, but I do think that art can seem prophetic. Sometimes I wonder what my generation will look like twenty or fifty years from now. And sometimes I think it’s not important. But I think in some way we have our own beat, our own rhythm to dance to. I’m just not sure what it is yet.