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Getting Beat in beat-up lodgings: “The Beat Hotel,” a film by Alan Govenar.

March 29, 2012 \am\31 9:15 am

“Her home for the homeless” is how Brion Gysin described Madame Rachou’s fleabag establishment in Paris’ Latin Quarter. With electrical wiring that would have made Benjamin Franklin blanch and plumbing shoddy enough to embarrass a medieval serf, the rundown lodging was where William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg lived from 1957 – 1963 and produced key Beat texts, most notably Naked Lunch.

The building, known by its address alone (9, rue Git-le-Coeur—it didn’t have a commercial name) is the putative subject of The Beat Hotel, a documentary by Alan Govenar that opens March 30 at Cinema Village in New York.

Govenar faced two significant challenges:

  • The Beats, perhaps the most self-mythologizing literary group in history, have been documented, anthologized, analyzed and critiqued ad infinitum;
  • The individuals responsible for the hotel’s legendary status are dead.

The first challenge poses the question, what insight does the film offer that biographies, critical studies and previous documentaries don’t?  The second, what living person can offer an enlightening perspective on life in the louse factory?

The answer to the first question: none, unfortunately. The Beat Hotel is thin material for a feature-length documentary. It was just a place where Gysin and several Beat icons happened to live for a few years. Gysin may have introduced Burroughs to the cut-up technique there, but the hotel itself had no overt impact on Burroughs’ writing.

The subject of The Beat Hotel, consequently, shifts periodically from the building to the Beats as personalities. Despite commentary by Beat scholars and a passing reference to “At Apollinaire’s Grave” by Ginsberg, there surprisingly is no discussion of French literature’s influence on the Beats, which would include the works of the Surrealist poets, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Genet and, in the case of Jack Kerouac, Marcel Proust. (It’s almost ironic that Kerouac, whose veins carried French blood via Canada, never stayed at Madame Rachou’s.)

The answer to the second question potentially rests in a single name: Harold Chapman. A photographer who lived in the hotel at the time, Chapman was a chronicler of life in that peculiar place; his book The Beat Hotel sells for hundreds of dollars on eBay and Abebooks.com. Although Chapman submits a perspective, he doesn’t enlighten. His screen time is basically a promotional vehicle for Harold Chapman. The profiles of former residents Elliot Rudie, an artist, and Eddie Woods, a poet, have an aura of “we have to settle for anybody who’s alive.” Rudie and Woods seem to revel in the fact that documentarians are legitimately interested in them, yet they contribute nothing memorable to the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of a distinguished moment in time in that bohemian enclave.

The film is blatantly padded. Chapman spends a few digressive minutes explaining his technique, which he calls “dustbin photography.” Black-and-white dramatic recreations of Corso and Burroughs are presented without dialogue by actors who don’t look like the writers they portray. Since there’s no footage of Gysin, Burroughs and the others in Paris, the filmmakers rely heavily on still images, predominantly Rudie’s color drawings and Chapman’s photographs. The photographer’s shot of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky positioned back to back shows up several times. There is an in-depth segment on the cut-up technique, but the intended audience for The Beat Hotel surely knows its history and is familiar with Burroughs’ cut-up novels.

The property at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur closed in 1963. It reopened decades later as the Relais Hôtel du Vieux Paris, an elegant, pricy establishment.

The Beats in their day were viewed as dangerous prowlers on the property line of polite society. The ensuing years of imitators, accolades, doctoral theses and anniversary editions have defanged them. The most telling scene in The Beat Hotel is the unveiling of a plaque outside the Relais Hôtel du Vieux Paris. It bears the words “Beat Hotel” and below them, the names of the storied men who called the once-fifth-rate rooming house their home. The Beats became something they would have railed against: a tourist attraction.

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