An artistic movement sprang up in France at the end of World War I in direct response to the horrors people witnessed. The surrealists — the Dadaist in particular — were critical and rejecting of the values and the society that had allowed such a thing to occur. The works they created were sometimes violent, often outrageous, and always a condemnation of what they saw as the failings of the world around them.
Something similar happened in the United States at the end of World War II, as a group of writers — poets primarily, but prose writers as well — challenged conventionality through the style of their writing and their subject matter. While the majority of Americans were jumping feet first into the post war economic boom period — celebrating materialism and the American Dream — the Beats, as they came to be known, were delving into the dark underbelly of the same beast. Their work looked at the emotional and spiritual costs incurred when a society barrels full steam ahead in search of profit, and they were the first to suggest an alternative was possible.
William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are perhaps the four best-known names from that first wave of experimental American writers in the post war period. Seminal works — like Junkie by Burroughs, Howl By Gingsberg, and On The Road by Kerouac — burst upon American literature with a force equivalent to an atomic bomb, and the fallout is still being felt by individuals today.
In 1989, American director Maria Beatty created a documentary movie on Beat poets and their writing. Gang Of Souls is a series of interviews with three generations of American writers from original beats Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and John Giorno; their successors Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, and Diane Di Prima; to today’s next wave of Jim Carroll, Henry Rollins, Richard Hell, and Lydia Lunch. Marianne Faithful is also interviewed, but, as she freely admits, she isn’t a poet; she’s a lyricist. She seems to have been included as a way of showing the extent of the original generation’s influence.
The original film has now been transferred to DVD for the first time and is being distributed by MVD Video with its original audio re-mastered in 5.1 surround sound to take full advantage of contemporary digital equipment.
Talking head documentaries — ones that consist solely of interviews with individuals — have the potential to be as dull as dishwater. The majority of those movies don’t feature people quite as dynamic or exciting as those in this movie. Ms. Beatty has divided the movie up into chapters, and the first chapter allows the writers to briefly introduce themselves to the viewer and tell us a little about themselves and something of the nature of their work. Before each writer makes their first appearance, some highlights of their biography are flashed on the screen for us to read before we enter into their worlds.
That’s what happens in this film: we are given glimpses into the world these men and women inhabited. These are not people who write for a living, they live by writing. Ginsberg and Burroughs achieved international recognition. Ed Sanders had some commercial success as a pop singer, and Jim Carroll received critical acclaim for his book The Basketball Diaries – but they are hardly what you’d call household names.
When you listen to them as they talk about what they do, and you watch and hear them read or recite their work, they come alive like few others. It’s especially true when they read their work. A fire seems to be lit within them that illuminates their beings and allows us an unprecedented opportunity to look into their souls. There is something about the written word that has called out to each one of them like a siren’s song, and that motivates them to heights of creativity that few others have ever reached.
The irony is that none of them (these people who are so gifted with the use of words) seem able to articulate what it is that makes them who they are. The best that most of them can come up with is that they love words and what they allow them to do. They all freely admit that the idea of being a poet is really quite laughable. What are the chances of being able to live off the proceeds of poetry? What is clear, after listening to them talk, is that for the majority, they don’t have a choice in the matter; it’s a compulsion.
A lot has been said about the original beats and their use of drugs. Burroughs wrote with brutal honesty about the horrors of his attempt to go clean in the novel Junkie, and he spent the last 50 years of his life addicted to opiates of one kind or another. A lot of people have some sort of romantic image of poets and drugs, yet one only has to read the work of Burroughs to know just how much of a fallacy that is, and nothing any of these writers had to say makes drugs sound like an attractive proposition.
What becomes obvious from listening to these people is that they already have found their drug of choice: poetry and writing. They are addicted to the power and the energy that is contained within what they can create by putting one word after another down on paper, and nothing any chemical can offer them can match it. Yet, what happens if the words stop coming? Where do you go to find something that might approximate that same sensation of tapping into the collective unconscious of the human race and recreating it on paper? Drugs might offer some solace for the anguish of not being able to create, but they’re not going to do much else.
One of things that Gang Of Souls makes clear is that being a Beat poet is to be different, but it is not a cultivated difference. It’s a way of seeing the world and writing about it that you’re either born with or you don’t have. It’s as much an awareness of the world as it is an ability to write. In the case of the Beats, that awareness is married to a compulsion to write about what you see and feel. The pictures they draw with their words aren’t necessarily pretty ones because they feel the pain of the world as much as they see or taste its beauty.
Sometimes being able to see beauty is as much a cause for pain as it is a cause for celebration, especially when you see it being ignored and destroyed like is the case in our world. Each of the men and women you meet in Gang Of Souls has their own way of expressing that pain and celebrating that beauty. Being a Beat poet does not mean there is a style to follow, like a Romantic or a Realist would have adhered to a specific way of creating a poem. What all the people in interviewed in this documentary have in common is the desire and the compulsion to write about what they see around them with almost brutal honesty.
Gang Of Souls is, at the least, an amazing way for those who know little about the American poetic movement known as the Beats to be introduced to some of its leading lights from both the past and the present. William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg are no longer with us, so there won’t be another opportunity to hear them read or speak in public again. If for no other reason, this should make it compulsory viewing for anyone who claims to care about literature.