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Movie Review: Beat (2000)

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Beat (2000), written and directed by Gary Walkow, stars Courtney Love (Joan Vollmer Burroughs), Keifer Sutherland (William S. Burroughs), Norman Reedus (Lucien Carr), Ron Livingston (Allen Ginsberg), Daniel Martinez (Jack Kerouac), and Kyle Secor (Dave Kammerer).

This is a weirdly unassuming little movie that should clearly have a cult following. Its highly stylized opening sequence signals exactly what you’re in for even if you don’t know the key players. You get a still life series of shots depicting the most stylish '50s objects — typewriters and bangles and scripts and cigarette cases — that put you in mind of an Edward Hopper painting.

The action itself focuses mostly on the two least overtly famous characters of this particular set, Lucien Carr and Joan Vollmer. The authors of the Beat generation should be tolerably well known even if the viewer is not a huge fan of the Beats, or even a big reader. Kiefer Sutherland might seem like an odd choice for Burroughs until you see him and, more importantly, hear him. He has captured the signature speech patterns that make Burroughs unmistakable very well, and that’s not an easy trick to pull off.

I’ve read all these guys and I know a little bit about them, but I’ve never been big on the autobiographical aspect of writers’ lives, seeing as how there’s always an aspect of the fantastic to autobiographical material anyway. Personally, I always find the opening statement “this is a true story” in any book or movie an open invitation to snark. And possibly glee. The very nature of truth and objective reality is something that the Beats had fun with anyway.

I get a huge kick out of the fact that Joan and Burroughs reference the article in the newspaper that supposedly inspired the title for the book And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks that Kerouac and Burroughs used for the novel that talks of the events that transpired between Kammerer and Carr.

Kammerer had what can best be described as an unhealthy attraction to Lucien Carr, who he first met while serving as his Boy Scout leader. It’s difficult to work out how intense that got, but looking at it from the outside it seems like a bad case of stalking. Carr, who was straight, tried repeatedly to get away from Kammerer, who followed him from school to school, seemingly becoming more and more unhinged.

Kyle Secor, who plays Kammerer, manages to get across the clammy-palmed desperation of someone who is coming to the end of their rope as Lucien tries to ship off as a sailor with Kerouac, largely to get away from him. Burroughs takes Lucien aside and tells him to set Kammerer straight before something bad happens. There’s the proverbial gun on the wall for you.

Of course there are a couple of things that most Beat-readers know, like the fact that Burroughs played William Tell with his wife above a bar in Mexico. Or that Lucien Carr, who was never a fiction writer himself, introduced Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg to each other. They were the core of the Beat generation. Lucien killed Kammerer, probably in self-defense when he tried to ward off the advances of Kammerer who was simply too far gone to be able to handle Lucien trying to get away from him.

These are all seminal moments in the collective lives of this group and they have inspired some of the most well known works of the Beat generation, like Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

“This is a true story,” says the movie as it starts. And it might sort of, kind of, be. But that is neither here nor there.

There are no women among the Beats, or none who haven’t been just at the margins of the main events, but the choice to focus on Joan is intriguing. Even more intriguing is how perfect Courtney Love is for the part. And I mean that. She is ridiculously good in this one. Her angelic face, her long-lashed mock flirting and the searingly sharp tongue she uses when displeased… all this is underscored by a wild-at-heart darkness that seems sad and desperate and self-destructive at the same time.

Norman Reedus's version of Carr makes a good foil for Joan’s “staring into the abyss” with his somewhat self-serving and indifferent bohemian attitude. Of course there is more to Carr than meets the eyes, which is probably a good thing, seeing as how he can be ridiculously pretty at times.

This is one of those reviews that could just go on and on, because it is too easy to get mired in all the semi-factual detail and mock-authenticity, so I’ll try to cut to it.

The visual style is very much affected, very much a series of deliberate still life picture postcard pretty backdrops to the very ugly and sometimes desperate actions of these characters who are more or less real, even to themselves, I might add. If you like the Beats, if you know anything about them, this is a must-see.

The performances are solid throughout. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by Courtney Love, as I was. And Keifer Sutherland is more of a Burroughs than I thought he would manage to be, given that even Burroughs himself has had problems playing that part at times.

This movie deserves a cult following. I mean that in all sincerity. See it.

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