Naked Lens: Beat Cinema

Format: Book

Author: Jack Sargeant

Publication date: 1 January 2009

Publisher: Soft Skull, revised edition

Paperback: 288 pages, illustrated

As Jack Sargeant acknowledges in his introduction to Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, to offer a definition of ‘Beat’ is inherently problematic. The term carries with it a number of political, philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic possibilities and connotations, and is deeply rooted in the underground culture of post-war American society, with such novels as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ representing its popularly celebrated literary legacy. Sargeant’s Naked Lens, which is now in its second edition, is a unique exploration of the relationship between the Beat Generation and the medium of cinema, and the early influence of the literary movement on American independent film. Through his discussion of significant shorts and features, and interviews with such Beat filmmakers as Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, whose Pull My Daisy (1959) is often cited as the first Beat film, Sargeant offers an enlightening account of a spontaneous cinema which occurred on the social margins, yet eventually penetrated the cultural mainstream and proved to be a profound influence on such directors as David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant. Naked Lens benefits from a structure that is at once loose yet purposeful, providing a sense of Beat cinema as both a wilfully experimental art form and a closely-knit community with a genuine sense of social engagement.

Part One, ‘Searching for a Free Vision’, considers the roots of Beat cinema in Pull My Daisy, which was written by Kerouac, and the emergence of avant-garde activity in San Francisco in the early 1950s, alongside the films of John Cassavetes, Taylor Mead, and Jack Smith, the latter of whom intertwined Beat culture with camp in his exotic Flaming Creatures (1963). Part Two, ‘The War Universe of William S. Burroughs’, focuses on the influence that the author of Queer and Junky had on experimental cinema. Although more conventional accounts of the Beat Generation have chronicled the life and work of Burroughs, most notably Graham Caveny’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs and Barry Miles’s The Beat Hotel, the second part of Naked Lens is a fascinating insight into his collaborations with Anthony Balch and Ian Somerville, which were rooted in the ‘cut up process’ that had been devised for literary purposes at the Beat Hotel. The original incarnation of this method entailed cutting through a pile of old papers, creating montage and juxtaposition within the confines of the written word, and Sargeant provides an analysis of how this technique was appropriated to cinema, with Burroughs appearing in, and providing the narration for, such non-linear films as Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1967). Burroughs did not associate himself with the Beat Generation, often insisting that, although he was close friends with Kerouac and Ginsberg, his writing and outlook were distinctly different to those of his contemporaries, but Sargeant illustrates his importance to Beat cinema, discussing David Cronenberg’s polarising adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991), alongside Nick Donkin’s The Junky’s Christmas (1993) and Philip Hunt’s Ah Pool is Here (1994), a pair of short films that encapsulate the surreal humour of Burroughs’s writing in animated form.

In the tradition of Beat culture, Sargeant does not provide a conventional conclusion to Naked Lens, reaffirming his theory that this is an ongoing movement which manifests itself in a variety of texts, both literary and cinematic. He discusses the milieu with enthusiasm, including such affiliated figures as Peter Whitehead and Conrad Rooks, but resists the temptation of myth-making to instead elaborate on the creative process and cultural context of Beat cinema, making Naked Lens as much of a map of its underground networks as it is a celebration of its subversive spirit.

John Berra