Beat has an aggressively banal soundtrack to match the mediocrity of the script. The film portrays a handful of beat generation figures (William Burroughs & his wife Joan, Allen Ginsberg, & the nearly forgotten journalist Lucien Carr) as perpetually depressed losers who can't even get laid. They ain't the Beats we've all imagined; they by a long shot ain't the Beats that really were.
It attempts to be a "take" on one slender aspect of the early history of these figures: their emotional response to heterosexual Lucian's queer-bashing escapade in killing his would-be lover Dave Kammerer (Kyle Secor being even more simpering than usual). The film opens with this murder, & closes with the famed incident of Bill Burroughs shooting his wife in the head. It's a dramatic framework, but very little that happens in between is effective.
The editing of this film is screwed up. It is a chore to follow the flash-backs that were created ad hoc from the deleted first twenty minutes of the failed original cut of the film. It never telegraphs the flashbacks sufficiently & they make the film jerky, sloppy, even contradictory. Once the viewer figures out, Oh, Flashbacks!, there are even some moments that are not flashbacks that seem like they are, like a close-up of a New York liscense plate which is suppose to telegraph the arrival of Ginsberg & Lucien in Mexico City, but which by its timing disorientingly suggests another flashback to Bill & Joan in New York is about to begin.
On the DVD's commentary track it's clear the editor & writer-director are convinced this afterthought-editing was really brilliant. They are of course wrong. Walkow has been at the directing business for about twenty years without a great deal of success, & from the amateurish errors he & his editor imposed on this film, it's no wonder he's been spinning his wheels for so long.
In one flashback Bill Burroughs is given a Lucky Strikes pack covered with Dave's blood, with one cigarette in it. Because the flashbacks are so sloppy it is impossible to tell if they wait until near the end of the film (when Bill smokes that last bloody cigarette) which time frame this is in, but it appears to be seven years later in the hinterlands of Mexico, with the implication that he's had the pack in his pocket all those years without it wearing out. Virtually every attempt at symbolism in the story falls flat on its face.
Ron Livingston as Ginsberg creates a believable character, but he does so little in the film his entire presence seems merely to observe. If he'd been written larger, doubtless his character would've fallen to bits too. Walkow's script has him claiming he had been Bill's lover & left him because he was a vampire. Historically Burroughs & Ginsberg didn't have sexual encounters until two years after Joan's death. So what little of Ginzberg we get from this film is fabricated by a pisspoor script.
By comparison Norman Reedus as Lucien has a lot to do in the film, & he is just awful. The character he plays has all the sex appeal of little baby onions, conveys zero intellect, & is purely selfish & dull. Yet we're asked to believe just about everyone who sees him falls in love with him. He is by far the least interesting character & he's in the story way too much. (The historical Lucien, who did not die until 2005, was a very private person who doubtless deplored being turned into a fictional character. In his youth he had indeed been a Rimbaud-like near-poet who intentionally fascinated older men. Better casting & way better writing might've conveyed that. The character we see instead has nothing of the historical Lucien about him, & the invention that even Joan wanted to fuck him makes no sense in consequence).
Keiffer Sutherland's tepid performance as Bill Burroughs is one-dimensional, & that is the dimension of smarm. He is certainly not as convincing as Burroughs as was Peter Weller in the fantasy film Naked Lunch (1991); the only time Burroughs was played better than by Weller was in Drugstore Cowboy (1989) with Burroughs as Tom the Priest is obviously playing himself.
Keifer has entirely the wrong physical presence, looking too fat & even too healthy. His idea for creating this portrait is to imitate Burroughs' voice, which we instantly recognize as not Sutherland's voice, it's so phony he might as well have been doing the voice of Kirk Douglas throughout. He purses his lips a lot to look smarmily prissy, & tried to act interested in boys but was totally incapable of throwing himself into that notion.
Worse, his gimpy performance is further hamstrung by placing him not at the film's center but in a dreadful sub-story about him going on a trip with a young man who doesn't actually like him (Sam Trammell as the uninteresting made-up prostitutional character Lee; it's perhaps beside the point that Burroughs' actual lover at the time was Lewis Marker, an army veteran, as very close to nothing in the film is more than glancingly correct). So it's a story of Burroughs having to pay to get laid by a boy whore who repeatedly rebuffs his advances. Nothing else develops, so even as the complete fiction it happens to be, it's a truly boring substory. He returns to Joan at the end of the story & kills her, show over.
Now there is one surprising saving grace for this terrible mess, & it's the ingredient that made me like this ill-conceived tale despite its ill conception. Courtney Love as Joan Vollmer is simply fantastic. She looks good in the period costumes & make-up. Everyone around her is like a geek or nerd with none of the charisma Bill & Allen in particular legitimately had in real life. Whether intentionally or not, the iconic Beats are shown to be hopeless stupid putzes, but in their midst is the Goddess, & Courtney truly pulls it off like a lioness among mice.
Now I'm well aware many people think Courtney is a skank but I swear, in this film, she is an astonishing presence. The film's overall mediocrity makes it hard to believe her excellence was intentional on the director's part; she saved this turkey unaided. But it might have been intentional that every actor is cast weak in order to make Courtney's performance larger than life.
In Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, Joan is played by Judy Davis who is certainly the equal of Peter Weller as Bill; it is a story about larger than life figures. But in Beat only Joan is an important presence. That's appropriate insofar as the film is all leading up to that fateful day when Bill kills her, whether accidentally or not is debated to this day by beatnik fans & scholars. This really is Joan's story, but I'm not convinced it was a good "choice" (if choice it was) to make no one's performance but Courtney's worthwhile.
And I don't think that the one thing that worked was intentional. I suspect when the casting was being done, more was expected of Keifer than he was able to deliver, & god only knows why Lucien's character was so badly cast. It appears to be only an accident that every character but that of Joan comes off as inconsequential. So the film Walkow apparently planned to make, which is a terrible film, is different from the film Courtney Love stole as her own, & which has her as a powerful saving grace.
It is difficult for modern screenwriters of only moderate talent or middling intelligence to capture the essence of talents greater than their own. A 1990 film more or less about author Paul Bowles had a great director (Sheltering Sky by Bernardo Bertolucci) but it was unable to capture anything credible or interesting. If one believed that portrait of Bowles, he was a privileged-class bore; in reality he lived a fantastic & curious life, but it's just not there on the screen. To great extent Beat has fallen into that same trap of re-imagining literary icons not so much as mere humans but as crashing bores. About the only author biopic I can think of off-hand that was rivetting was Barbet Schrader's Barfly (1987) with Mickey Rourke playing a thinly veiled Charles Bukowski, this having been a perfect marriage of director, actor, & poet all on the same grotesque wavelength. Beat had no one of Barbet Schrader's calibre on board.
The right wavelength is what Walkow never found writing & directing a tale of the Beats. On the commentary track he says the remarkable thing about these characters is that two of them killed friends and/or lovers even though they were Ivy league, not trailer trash. But what they were were wild youths, poets, drunks, & addicts. Drunks & addicts are exactly the kind of people who kill each other. It has nothing to do with trailer trash. That Walkow thought one had to step outside their class to kill shows no understanding of the human condition, let alone of the damaged brilliant Beats.
Because Walkow was so far out of his league trying to capture some essence of genius of even a warped kind, what he came up with instead was banality of a blithering kind. Except in the character of Joan, who very likely Walkow put on a pedistal hence made no attempt to understand her, hence could not reduce her to the banality of his understanding of the men in the tale. With Courtney Love bringing Joan to life (& to death), the film is nearly worthwhile. She had the wavelength because she has lived it; everyone else was a fraud not sufficiently talented to even fake it well.
Afterthoughts on the Director/Writer's Claim that the Film is "True"
Walkow promoted his film as a true story. Not based on a true story, not a work of outright fiction inspired by the lives of real people, no, he asserted it was true, that it distinguished Beat myth from reality, that it was true, true, true.
Beyond the fact that the historical originals really were all in Mexico City at the same time, very little is true. The relationship concocted between Joan & Lucien that is central to the story might've gotten by as "based on" real characters, but in pretending it is true, Walkow just shows what a dishonest shmuck he is. The affair never happened, never even almost happened.
Biopics aren't expected to be true & making crap up is fine, but pretending you didn't make up a steaming pile like this one is just lying. At the Beat website, the promotional text alleges: "Before they died, Walkow met & talked with William Burroughs & Herbert Huncke, the man who introduced Burroughs to heroin & lived with Bill & Joan in Texas." Burroughs' companion & biographer James Grauerholz immediately went on record stating categorically no meeting with Burroughs happened. To quote from the Grauerholz letter at aint-it-cool-news.com:
"Walkow did not discuss this movie with William Burroughs. In July 1996, on the way back to Kansas from the 'Ports of Entry' museum show in Los Angeles, William & I were approached at L.A. International Airport by a man who said he was a filmmaker, but we did not talk with him, because he seemed to be a creep."
It's equally unlikely Walkow met with Huncke as there is no record of it beyond Walkow's claim, but the cool thing about pretending association with dead people is they're not around to set the record straight. By pretending to these meetings he can fob off dullard inventions about the Beats as "true." If the historical record doesn't support his claims of factuality, well hey, he can pretend to have gotten it straight from the horses' mouths. Pretence is all it is.
As a work of unutterable fiction I was glad to see a great performance from Courtney Love, though it is too bad she couldn't've been in an honest film with an honest director with co-stars who gave as much.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl