New York in the Fifties (2001)

Steve Allen, interviewed Jack Kerouac during the 1950 and asked him he meaning of "Beat." Kerouac replied..."sympathetic. The beat movement began in New York during that romantic moment in time when non-conformity meant something.

Betsey Blankenbaker's film is based on a 1999 book by Dan Wakefield, a nice older man I met while attending a yoga retreat in the Bahamas in 1992. I sat with him over several vegetarian meals that week. We were both New Yorkers traveling alone. He mentioned that he was a writer and working on a book about New York in the 1950s. I was not overly impressed at the time since I was sure that my 1980s New York topped that. We re-lived the 1950s during that era.
Now, I truly appreciate knowing the real details of the time and events. It was all so fresh--a time of jazz music, jazz writers and jazzz painters. It was a time before JFK was shot and before The Beatles--a time of innocence with a deep questioning of the status quo.

Feminism had not quite happened yet so women were left out a bit, but literature, journalism and poetry were on fire. Dan Wakefield was a young writer from the midwest who was in the middle of the whole thing. The film is full of interviews with him and other central figures of the day--Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Ted Steeg, Gay Talese. Wakefield dedicates the film "For James." Author James Baldwin advised him that a writer should aim to write and publish a shelf of books. Wakefield has done that, along with many of the other writers interviewed for the film.

Wakefield wrote a less-than-complimentary article about Jack Kerouac for The Commentator and Kerouac was quick to make the connection when the two met at Allen Ginsberg's apartment for an evening of drug exerperimentation with Harvard professor Timothy Leary (Wakefield had opted to remain the sober observer of it all).

This film is a historical must-see for anyone who loves New York.

Pull My Daisy (1959)


“Early morning in the universe” begins the this rare film I found on YouTube in three parts. It's fun to watch when you have a little background info on the cast of characters. Shot in his Manhattan loft at 4th Avenue and 12th Street, painter Alfred Leslie directed and the footage was filmed by documentary photographer, Robert Frank. His book of photographs, The Americans was already famous and included an introduction by Jack Kerouac...To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.

The film is based on the third act of Jack Kerouac’s unpublished play The Beat Generation, based on true events of 1955 when he and Allen Ginsberg were invited to Neal Cassady's home in Los Gatos, California for a meeting with Bishop Romano. Cassady greatly admired the man for his openness of thought. Cassady peppered the Bishop with questions about Zen, but the gathering deteriorated, eventually driving away the Bishop and his entourage.

The Neal Cassady character, Milo, is played by the painter Larry Rivers. Actress Delphine Seyrig plays his wife. Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso were signed on to play versions of themselves. Art dealer Richard Bellamy plays the Bishop. Painter Alice Neel is the Bishop’s mother.

Allen, Peter, and Gregory thought it was wonderful to be paid eighteen dollars a day to clown around. While Kerouac was banned from the set for fear he would stir up chaos, Leslie later took the film to him and played it three times. Each time, Kerouac improvised a narration. In the late forties Ginsberg and Kerouac had composed a poem together and called it “Pull My Daisy," a slang term for the act of removing a stripper’s g-string.


The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (1994)

I recently heard a live reading of Ginsberg's famous poem, Howl. Then I watched a movie called Heartbeat, a dramatization based on a story by Carolyn Cassady (Neal's 2nd wife), about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the two wild and crazy writers loved by Ginsberg. That led me to Carolyn Cassady's other book, Off The Road. Each piece adds a bit more to the large story of an artist among a family of artists who left a big mark.

This film by Jerry Aaronson documents the life of Allen Ginsberg who was born just before the Great Depression in Patterson, New Jersey. He pioneered the rebel poets of the 1940s and 50s that inspired the label "beaknik." The Beat Generation were non-conformist, anarchist youth who favored jazz and led the way for the larger youth culture movement of the 1960s. Commentator of the day, William F. Buckley is featured in the film calling Ginsberg "the hippie's hippie." Leader of peaceful activism during the anti-war protests of the 1960s, he was always in the vanguard, someone who wore his hair long until everyone else did--then cut his off.

The film opens with the famous line: "The weight of the world is love." His immigrant parents instilled values of justice, freedom and equality. Father Louis was a poet and teacher. Mother Naomi was in and out of mental institutions. He was often left to care for her, a task that bred deep empathy and the soul of a poet according to interviews with his brother, Eugene, and stepmother, Edith. He inherited her poetic paranoia and he too went on to spend some time inside a mental hospital.

Ginsberg met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady while attending Columbia University during the mid 1940s. Still in the grips of corformity, his association with Burroughs soon loosened that knot. Burroughs took on the role as analyst for both Ginsberg and Kerouac by offering them daily sessions on the couch unraveling their personal problems. This growing group of supplementary family would heal Ginsberg's feeling of benig unloved. A group of poets and artists met nightly at Foster's Cafeteria in Times Square.

Poet Michael McClure describes the Eisenhower years as the beginning of the industrial corporate state and missile consciousess as the threat of nuclear weapons was front and center as a polarization of two groups emerged. Most people bought into the hope of an American Dream. A smaller group of artists and dreamers felt a growing alienation and pain.

Ginsberg came out as a gay man and met his life partner, Peter Orlovsky. They left New York for California and Ginsberg read his now-famous poem, Howl (for Carl Solomon) at the SanFrancisco Six Gallery in 1955 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVGoY9gom50). Ginsberg later defined this moment as "a united front of pure angelic poetry." Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and several others also read that night. Carl Solomon was another psychiatric patient Ginsberg met while hospitalized. The reading caused a stir that resulted in his arrest for obscene language. The court trial is the subject of a 2010 film called Howl.

Timothy Leary claims that a visit by Ginsberg and Orlovsky at Harvard during his 1960s LSD experiments changed his life. Up until that time, he was an "uptight" professor. After experiencing the liberation of Ginsberg's being, Leary changed his ways to become the psychadelic hipster he was later known as. Interviews with Dick Cavett, Ed Sanders, Ken Kesey, Abby Hoffman and many others add to telling of Ginsberg's story.

Cassady died in 1968. Kerouac died in 1969. Ginsberg mourns his passing: "While I'm here I'll do the work--and what is the work? Drunken Dumbshow."

The 1970s began a chapter of increased spiritual development and buddhist meditation after a chance encounter on a New York street corner when he met Chogyam Trungpa who told him that in order for his buddhist meditators to be able to speak about liberation of mind to America, they would need to develop the golden mouth of a poet--thought patterns become elegant as spontaneous mind is cultivated. Trungpa invited Ginsberg to teach poetry. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Insitute was founded.

Ginsberg's home was always New York. He maintained his east village apartment (down the street from where I lived 1979-1992) until his death. During 1985 he was given a show of his photographs at the Holly Solomon Gallery. He had begun his hobby during 1952 when he purchased a Kodak Retina camera for $13 and began snapping shots of his friends and had them developed at the drug store across from Tompkins Square Park. During the next thirty years, his snapshots of friends had become a collection of famous people.

There are other documentaries about the Beats, but this one is a lovely tribute to an artist who was also a significant force of history. Ginsberg lived until 1997. Peter Orlovsky just died in 2010.


The Lodger (2009)

This David Ondaatje film follows closely the 1913 book of the same name. Alfred Hitchcock also made a 1927 silent film called The Lodger. Those stories were set in London. This one takes place in West Hollywood after prostitutes on The Sunset Strip are being killed in a Jack The Ripper style. "Everyone is suspect," reads he movie tag line.

Detective Chandler Manning (Alfred Molina) is unraveling the case as housewife Ellen Bunting (Hope Davis) rents her guesthouse to handsome writer Malcolm (Simon Baker). He tells her "I'm looking for something new--something to inspire me." He captures the imagination of Ellen, who is home alone raising her young child while her unpleasant husband is off working and drinking.

I found this film while researching Hope Davis, who is featured as Mia in Season Two of the HBO series, In Treatment. She is wonderful to watch. Molina has appeared on Law & Order and Baker stars in the successful show, The Mentalist. The thriller is full of mystery. The extra features include an in-depth interview with Ondaatje about his influences. The dark and unusually told tale is a thriller that is suspenseful rather than horrifying. He explains the difference between seeing terrible things happening versus fearing what terrible things may happen.There is plenty of implied violence, but not a lot of blood.

The colors are muted and interesting cinematic elements tell an internal story. This movie is an homage to Hitchcock and this is a lot of fun to watch as it all the pieces unfold. Manning has a troubled wife (Mel Harris from Thirty-Something and Brothers and Sisters). Ellen Bunting becomes more and more strange in her ways. This is not a movie to watch while you wash the dishes. This is as much about what you do not see as what is shown. The big old house is a wonderful eclectic place that mirrors the landscape of Ellen's mental deterioration.

The John Frizzell musical score carries the mood of the story. I don't want to give anything away. The clues lead us in many directions until the satisfying final conclusion.


Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)

Tamra Davis was a friend of JMB and filmmaker in downtown New York City during the 1980s. She and Becky Johnson interviewed him at L'Hermitage Hotel in Hollywood durng 1985. He was just 25 and at the top of his career as a painter. Two years later he died. Tamra put away all the film footage for twenty years.

Her "racialiscious" film (says the webpage) is full significant interviews with artworld folks, friend and lovers. It paints a picture of late 1970s and early 1980s Manhattan when it was still affordable for young art students, runaways and lost personalities to assemble. Part Puerto Rican, part Haitian, Jean-Michel arrived in the city with no money and a lot of creative spirit to mark the artworld. The film implies that there were about 500 people in the downtown art scene of the time. Jean-Michel was a grafitti artist who tagged walls around SoHo with content-laden/poetic messages signed by SAMO (same old shit--clearly directed to the art world).

"He was one of the people I was truly envious of, but he was too fragile for this world," says Madonna. He had a band called GRAY, including one Vincent Gallo, now an actor/film director (Buffalo 66). Jean Michel made collage cards and paint splattered t-shirts that he sold on the street. One commentator mentioned a characteristic of a good artist is a sure strong hand, something that JMB had plenty of.

Glenn O'Brien was involved with the making of the film Downtown 81, about the scene below Canal Street...starring JMB as the ambitious young artist. It was during that time that he was encouraged to take his grafitti off the streets onto a canvas. Debbie Harry of Blondie was his first big sale. She bought one of the canvases for $200.

JMB participted in The Times Square Show, the first radical show of the 1980s, with more than a hundred artists showing their work. Jean-Michel's good pals, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf also showed in the TSS. Following that was the No-Wave Show at PS1 in 1981. Diego Cortez curated it, tired of seeing white walls, white people and white wine.

Annina Nosei discovered Jean-Michel's work at this exhibition and was taken by it's sophistication, despite the primitive appearance. She offered him the use of her Prince Street Gallery's basement as a studio and encouraged him to make large canvases for a show. He listened to Ravel's "Bolero" over and over, though his music tastes were eclectic and he also had a passion for Jazz. It drove Annina a little crazy, but JM was prolific and productive. Her gallery show made him an instant art star.

Fame came fast and JM found refuge with Andy Warhol, who bacame a paternal influence and mentor. JM kept working in unexpected ways. He created his own versions of famous paintings and had an ongoing desire to compete with living legends such as Julian Schnabel. Andy Warhol befriended him, leading to a close paternal/mentor relationship relationship. When Andy died unexpectedly after gall baldder surgery, Jean Michel was distraught and began a downward spiral of drug use.

Annina Nosei considered his last works to be masterpieces...spacious and loose. His sudden death at age 27 was a great loss to the art world, but he had already produced 1000 paintings and 1000 drawings. His work was selling for 14.5 million. This film tell a wonderful story of artistic genius during a special time in the history of New York art.