Movie Review: Beat Angel - A Film About The Spirit Of Jack Kerouac
Written by Duke De Mondo
Published November 27, 2006
On October 21 of 1969, with the grog-battered liver misshapen and warped and slumped around his gallbladder like the folds of a heifer's arse stretched about the head of a fried sparrow, with his skin yellowed and his skull afire, Jack Kerouac let fly his last lilting haiku from atween the sheets in St Anthony's hospital, Florida, or front the telly in his living room, depending on who tells it. Kerouac, who had spent the past twenty years etching the blueprint for an original, spectacular, incendiary, wholly holy form of writing, he died the predictable, depressing, sad, uninspired death of the Renegade Writer.
That this man who dedicated half his life to kicking and pulling and tugging and spitting and lashing and thumping at cliché should die a cliché himself… God above, the irony of it all. Sure wouldn't it have you chuckling something wicked if it didn't break your bastard heart.
But there you go, such is life.
Now, couple nights past I was musing along these lines with my ladyfriend, Beautiful Ms Gillian, debating the ins and outs of Kerouac's life and death and weighing up The Work against All The Other Guff and pondering off and on with regards the shower o' insufferable, stuck-up goons wandering the train stations at all hours high on every click and every other clack of Kerouac's much-mythologized typewriter. "Those individuals" I yapped in-between pulls on a Mayfair King Size, "Those elitist, pompous tools, they are surely The Establishment's revenge for the Beat Generation."
"Have your fun" The Powers What Be done glowered, "But by Jesus you'll pay for it, I tell you that. And your children will pay for it. And their children. And their children's children. Then, it'll take a break on account of the children of those children will most likely be too busy playing with their second willies. But their sprogs, oh boys-a-boys, they'll pay a thousandfold what you paid. And the price? The braying and blowing of a thousand yaps in unison all gibbering wild about how On The Road changed their lives and do you know who you are, I bet you don't and no-one knows nothing 'till they've heard it told 'em through a fugg of stewed 'shroom."
The final victory is that no one will ever again read On The Road or Big Sur or even Howl or Naked Lunch or The First Third and if they do, they won't mention it in public, and why?
"Why?" asks Beautiful Ms Gillian.
"Because one o' them bastards might overhear, and next thing you know it's 'Oh, but you've never read it until you've heard it read, and you've never heard it read 'till you've heard it read on acid, and…' Saint's preserve us, sure it'd turn your head."
She stubbs out her cigarette and through the waft of smoke rising from the ashtray she says "That's a touch bitter for you, that. And anyroad, what are you doin' now, if not talking about it? And thirdly, what's the point of it all, also?"
The Point Of It All, it transpired, was that I had recently come into possession of a DVD entitled Beat Angel, being a film all about Jack Kerouac's spirit comes back to Earth on the thirtieth anniversary of his death for to inhabit the body of a vagrant, hang around at a beat poetry night being held in his honor and also discuss his life and work with a trio of struggling artists; the painter who gave up painting, the writer who gave up writing and the young lass still in awe of the power of a beautiful sentence lain o'er the page like an angel lain touching itself in the shadow of The Lord.
"Is it good?"
"Well that's the thing, I haven't watched it yet. I'm scared. I'm scared it's the work of one of them. I'm scared it'll be full of self-obsessed, pretentious knobs smoking dope and battering drumsticks off of beer-cans whilst a prat in a terrible sweater slurs for hours about some wank they heard their granddad having back when they were a kid."
"I think you should watch it" she says. "You love Jack Kerouac. You dig the purple parpin' of a bop-fried trumpet of an evening. You're pretentious and self-obsessed. Go for it."
"You're right" says I, and she was, and I did.
Now, what happened was this:
Some time ago, back in the coke-scourged haze of the nineteen and eighties, an actor/writer by the name of Vincent Balestri was busy wandering stages left and right and here and there delivering a one man show by the name of Kerouac: The Essence Of Jack. The play, conceived by both Balestri and Kerouac's first wife, Edie, turned out to be a funny, insightful, inspiring account of the fella's life and work and so, as is only fair, it proved right successful.
Around the arse-end of the nineties, Balestri was concerning himself with bringing the show to the screen, discussing the matter at great length with fellow actor Frank Tabbita, a fella who, coincidentally, bears uncanny resemblance to Howard Marks, being another scribbler (although one scarcely fit to wipe the commas from Kerouac's blurbs) right venerated by, y'know, them, on account of he got high a whole lot one time.
Tabbita probably said something along the lines of "Well, now, it's a grand play, but by the friar's o' Culloden, boy, would it be anything a man or a woman might want to sit afore in a movie picture-show for an hour and 39 minutes?"
"It's that and plenty more" I dare say Balestri asserted. "I'd wager they'll do that and they'll also buy the DVD with an excellent writers' commentary and also a 30 minute film of the stage show and a couple deleted scenes, and they'll enjoy it so much they'll forget all about the wanker stood front of them in the queue for Borat saying about the night he got drunk and wrote a novel there and then just nearly like Kerouac, and would've had it published, too, except it was just too personal."
Balestri and Tabbita enlisted the help of director Randy Allred and writer Bruce Boyle and lo and behold, there it is, Beat Angel, A Film About The Spirit Of Jack Kerouac, and also, conveniently enough, The Film About Which I'm Talking.
Beat Angel is a curious affair, and I'll tell you why here and now whilst I remember for I'd be a man fond of a digression if given half a chance. It's a curious affair because it seems to capture with right alarming clarity The Essence Of Jack whilst also being devoid of a good chunk of what that Essence had to do with.
To wit; Style.
Kerouac's writing has plenty to say about this and the other, and both of them articles are often worth a good fourteen or fifteen minutes-worth of contemplation far-side of a read over, but he also marries that substance with an incredible style. You might've heard tell of such things in one of the eighteen million and seven articles written about Kerouac's style in the past week. You might've came away from them with a thought in your head about how right enough, there's no doubting that the man had a wicked style about him.
Beat Angel, as a motion picture, has plenty of substance. A man can scarcely skip from one frame to the next without hitting his shins the fuck off of a great wadge of substance sticking up out the floor-tiles. What it doesn't have is very much style, and what style it is in possession of is that of a trailer for a 1978 Abel Ferrara film about a man who has no style wandering stylelessly about a street nobody can find because it looks like a crap cardigan.
It's oft-times stagey, the performances are somewhat eccentric of occasion, i.e., some of them aren't very good, the sound leaves a lot to be desired and visually, it's none too appealing at all. Whilst some folks, the aforementioned Mr Ferrara there amongst them, have made a virtue of such an aesthetic drought, Randy Allred oft-times seems like he's shrugged his shoulders and figured to blazes with it, the substance'll carry us through.
Which it does, so plenty marks for foresight.
At this point in the proceedings, me sat scribbling in a café filled with Spanish revelers all out their minds waiting for the fuck-club next door to open, a gentleman arrives out the gloom of the late evening and says some things along the lines of the following;
"It's all well and good jerking the knee like yonder knee just jerked o'er that there page" says he, "But is it at all true what you're saying? Is it true, right enough, that from start to end Beat Angel employs none style whatever? I'd be right amazed if that were indeed the case."
"Well" says I, "To tell you the truth, there are some stylistic virtues here and there, wee moments that pierce that veil of inherent… ugliness, for want of a better word. For one thing - and it's a marvel of a thing in itself - it is undeniably charming for to see a grainy, 16mm motion picture in this day and age. Bejeesus it warms the cockles fierce to see an ultra-low-budget independent film that's actually a film, as opposed to a video."
"It is that" says the fella.
"And also, while I'm perched in the coal-hole of this particular train of thought, the scene that intercuts the death of Jack Kerouac with his momentary rebirth via yon hobo protagonist, that's right beautifully handled too."
"And what of the…"
"And then, and then" says I, interrupting with a great flail of the arms, "Now, the open-mic 'Kerouac' performance that serves as the centerpiece of the whole enterprise, a breathless bop-lashed Definition of the man's manners and means delivered by a tsunami-tongued Balestri, that right there is perfectly realized. And so too are the biographical sketches potting the narrative there, wonderful scenes wherein Balestri plays both Jack and, by way of example, for I know you've got a thirst for some examples…"
"By Jesus I have that."
"By way of example, says I, his publisher, or his high-school sports coach, or whoever."
The old fella blows a fistful of nose-muck into a scrunched up wad of pink toilet paper and wipes the yap with the back of a hand. "So for that loose triumvirate of flourishes" he sniffs, "If nothing else, you could almost say that your remark about the film has no style is in itself a terrible fallacy."
"I dare say so. But if'n I'm to give a right proper review of the whole enterprise, which is what I'm set for doing as a matter of fact, it's surely only fair that I must mention the overall sense of none much prettiness nor flair whilst also leaving space aside for a few points the likes of which we've raised here and now."
"I'd be keen to see the state of your tongue after tryin' to wrap it around such a contradictory set of musings."
And me too, I'm soon thinking. And me too.
"But enough of the style" says Beautiful Ms Gillian the following evening, "What of this substance?" She says this to me whilst the pair of us are stood about a pool table in a bar a shit fling's shy of the university. She says this and thank God for that, for if she hadn't I could've spent another twelve paragraphs talking about how much most of the mercifully-brief dream-sequences annoyed me and what have you and afore you know where you are you've got a Negative Review, you've got Three of a possible Nine stars and no, that would be wrong, for I enjoyed Beat Angel immensely.
Principal to my enjoyment was the writing, fittingly enough, but I'll concern myself with that in due course, for first of all a man must rightly applaud the central performance of Mr Vincent Balestri. The central performance of Mr Vincent Balestri is a thing of no small wonder, right enough, straddling that line 'twixt cute caricature and Proper Performance with incredible, assured grace, much like Phillip Seymour Hoffman managed in Capote, a film about, if my sources are accurate, celebrated author Dean Koontz.
The Voice, specifically, is eerily accurate. Thon banter-patterns are spot-on, all monotone stretches all a sudden set upon by manic, 'lectric charges of jiving, evangelistic delirium, and then again with the drooping and the slouching of the vowels and the shit-myself-waddle of the consonants.
"Would you say he's the stand out then?" Ms Gillian enquires as she pots the black for to shame the five red blotches still looming out the green on account of I'm crap at pool. "No, on account of I'm exceptionally good."
"Fair enough. And yes, Balestri is the man the eyes crave and the ears pine for throughout much of every scene. Although, in saying that, the other principals are by no means a pox on the fine profession of the acting. For sure, there's the odd line delivery here and there has a fella pickin' splinters out his ears for a fortnight, but now and then they right blossom, they do. Soon, a fella's noting the sadness in your painter woman's eyes, the flickering of both naivety and uncertainty in the shrug of the young scribbler's shoulders and the curious amalgam of sorrow and resentment and spite and affection all flushing about Tabbita's well-slung jowls."
And then, as I hinted up yonder, there's the writing.
The poetry let loose now and then for to thunder about the screen like a herd o' buffalo afire with rabies and with Christ… the funny, altogether right touching slabs of biographical anecdote related with much color and charm and wit every so often… the grand banter about Kerouac was a God, no, he was a twat matter of fact, no, he wasn't etc etc… All of it, most every syllable, is glorious. Refreshing and thought-provoking and sore beguiling, and by the punctured palms o' Padre Pio it's liable for to leave a man with fierce erection of the brains, or a touch o' cerebral panty-weep, if'n you're perchance a lady.
"It's inspiring, is what it is" I'm telling a fella sat half-asleep 'front a re-run of The Good Life. "Inspiring."
"Oh aye, is that right?"
"It is right, an' all. Inspiring."
For as much as it hollers wild about Kerouac, for as much as it has the man's name in the title and his words running rings around the celluloid, for as much as all of that, Beat Angel is nonetheless a flick less concerned with Kerouac than it is with Inspiration.
At risk of soiling my Review Card beyond any measure of hope however faltering, I'll go ahead and relate that immediately before and after viewing Beat Angel I myself was sat six chapters deep in the scribbling of a grand novel that's been frying my fuck right useless for much of the past seven months. Battering at one sentence in particular, I was, and with the smoke stinging my eyes and the nausea stringing a terrible chorus o'er the stave of my caffeine-scourged gut.
In need of a kick to the stimulation glands, and with none coffee left to my Mother's maiden name, I watched Beat Angel and found myself, far side of it all, with at least five words I'd been lacking hitherto, and if those five words weren't the finest I'd utilized all week then by God they were right close.
It's impossible to watch Beat Angel and not be inspired, is the truth of a case. Play it front a drunk and you'll find he's concocted seven brand new hangovers first thing in the morning. It's like yonder Dream Machine William Burroughs sat staring at for hours of a winter's morn, it sets light the crud all hanging about the thought-chutes and melds the resultant pus into something not a skip and a twirl north of Thoughts Worth Thinking.
And, praise Jandek, Thoughts Worth Writing where I was concerned.
The ashen-chinned crowd, it cries Conclude, and so aye, In Conclusion;
Even here and now in this year of 2024 or whatever the fuck it is, even now when a man can't fart twice in succession without a youngster sniffin' about the arse for to upload the texture of the gas onto YouTube, even now when no one remembers what it was like to see something that didn't clip and stop and start every so often and with the sound running four minutes and 14 seconds ahead of the visuals, even now, says I, Beat Angel could quite possibly appear jarringly lo-fi to some folks.
"The lower the fi the better!" cries a lad wearing a Bonnie Prince Billy armband, and I raise a hand, I say "You'll get no argument from me. But for some of us here it could rightly put us off proceeding much further than the opening two and a half minutes."
But that would be a grand mistake, because whilst Beat Angel is far from perfect and whilst it lacks a bit in the aesthetics, it is nonetheless for all of that a joy to be in the presence of. It's got Heart enough for a thousand and six renditions of What About Love? It has enthusiasm and charm and by God it has a right savage way with the words.
What more could a man ask for with regards a flick concerned with Jack Kerouac?
"Maybe a bit where he points out the myriad myths about his life and work and corrects them, since for a film so preoccupied with Truth, it is right enough well indebted to Fiction."
Well, maybe so, but in the world of Films What Are Indeed Real And Have Indeed Been Made, Beat Angel is as beautifully soulful a picture about Jack and Writing and Time and all that stuff as anyone has yet gone ahead and conceived.
In the still of the wee hours with the sleepers still unpopped from the packet and with the head hung weary on my shoulders, I figured I'd forget about Chapter Seven for a time and watched Beat Angel again, and then the 1986 feature documentary Kerouac. As fine a double bill as I've ever been sat afore, that right there.
I fell asleep with my head on a week-old Guardian.
The Duke (Aaron McMullan to his parents and the clergy) is a Northern Irish writer, performer and insomniac currently residing in County Antrim. He is the creator of Mondo Irlando, wherein his scribblings and hollerings can be found, and is currently working towards completing Chapter One, Paragraph One of The Great American Novel. The twist is that it isn’t very great. Nor American.