Well-cast `Source' gets most of it right

Review: If you weren't there the first time around, Chuck Workman's fine film will give you the essence of the Beat generation.

February 19, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Source," playing through Wednesday at the Charles, doesn't so much document the Beat generation as immerse the viewer in it -- a non-traditional method the determinedly non-traditional Beats would have applauded.

Director Chuck Workman, best-known for his rapid-fire movie montages that tend to show up on Oscar telecasts, uses much the same approach here. Film clips, snippets of dialogue, still photographs and lots of images that have nothing to do with the Beats but everything to do with the times in which they lived, all are strewn throughout "The Source" in a way that seems more organic that calculated.

Workman uses as his linchpin interviews he filmed with two of the movement's three founding fathers (or founding daddies, to use the Beat vernacular). Jack Kerouac, whose book "On the Road" was one of the first Beat projects to attract a mainstream audience, had died in 1969, but both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were alive when Workman began work on the film (both have since died).

Watching these once-and-forever rebels in their twilight gives the film an emotional weight. Ginsberg, in particular, comes across as a gentle, inquisitive soul whose resistance to mainstream thinking was more akin to Socrates than Thomas Paine. (Perhaps his gentle style was helped by his conversion to Buddhism in the 1960s.)

When they met in 1944, Kerouac and Ginsberg were still college students; Burroughs was older and something of a mentor. Determined to face down convention wherever possible, the movement they spearheaded through poetry readings in smoke-filled New York and San Francisco coffee houses never attracted multitudes, but it proved influential enough to eventually shift mainstream tastes.

At times, Workman gives the Beats too much credit -- suggesting, for example, that they pretty much invented the idea of rebellion. And while interesting tidbits of information are sprinkled throughout -- about Kerouac's writing style, for instance, or the fellow mental patient Ginsberg was writing for in "Howl" -- too many questions go unanswered, too many issues go undiscussed.

Still, "The Source" does a lot of things right. Listening in as college lecturers try explaining the Beat writers to a new generation of students points out the movement's continued relevance. Dozens of Beat figures and their spiritual descendants are featured, including Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary (expounding on the virtues of LSD and other illegal drugs) and Gregory Corso. It also includes readings from the works of Kerouac (read by Johnny Depp), Ginsberg (read by John Turturro) and Burroughs (read by Dennis Hopper, a piece of casting the "Naked Lunch" author would surely have appreciated).

The result is a tribute film that, like the writers it celebrates, meanders all over the place, goes off on odd tangents and sometimes finds itself in interesting, if hardly revelatory, dead ends.

Anyone looking for a history of the Beats would be advised to visit the library; anyone looking to understand what the Beat movement was, this is a good start.

`The Source'

Directed by Chuck Workman

Released by WinStar Cinema

Unrated (Language)

Running time 90 minutes

Sun score ***1/2

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