This excerpt is from Iain Sinclair's "American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light"
I played the Beat DVD I found in the Croydon charity pit.
The replay of a double-death memoir was hypnotic. Much truer to source than Cronenberg’s respectfully overimagined account of Naked Lunch or any of the implausible translations from Kerouac into Hollywood. A palpable lack of budget pared Gary Walkow’s film down into rigorous close-ups, brown rooms with low ceilings, a script made from quotations. And postcards from Mexico: an empty road, a river, the distant volcano.
Walkow’s Beat was my passport to the Land of the Dead. A slim plastic wallet with a pixilated portrait of a man in a hat, who looked about as much like Burroughs as I do.
The actors, none of whom resemble their originals, sleepwalk with listless conviction, repeating lines they appear to have received under a general anaesthetic. Kiefer Sutherland makes a pass at that cryogenic Burroughs voice of world-weary cynicism, hot ash in the throat: a man who has come back from the abyss with grumbling haemorrhoids. The tapeworm of raw meat sex stays at the bottom of the Mescal bottle, untasted. Too much human flesh at the end of the fork.
Here is a narrative framed between the formal austerity of Bresson and the rum psychosis of Jim Thompson. Lucien Carr, the blond boy of New York, stabs and kills his stalking predator, Dave Kammerer. A paradox frames my sense of America: impossible spaces, claustrophobic cabins. Kammerer is actively on Carr’s tail (rubbing him with cash money, booze), while Burroughs, implicated in every action, plays witness and confessor. I’m back again in Gloucester, staring at Leon Kroll’s painting of the two women and the sun-drowned man. A configuration in which the rape or betrayal or act of liberating violence has not yet happened.
Two deaths. Kammerer as he tries to mount Carr. And Joan Vollmer, the glass on her head, challenging Burroughs to accept his fate and become a writer.
‘Do they have ruins in Guatemala?’
‘It’s all ruins.’
Sutherland’s pastiched Burroughs likes a drink, but he’s not Malcolm Lowry. He suffers the same tick, the compulsion to find the right word. ‘Did you see the flock of vultures?’ But is flock the best collective noun? Bevy, covey, flight, gaggle, brood, hatch, litter, shoal, swarm? Like Lowry he is on the Mexican bus with the chickens and the people.
Burroughs, his boyfriend (a version of Lewis Marker, with whom he visited Ecuador in search of the hallucinogenic drug yage), Joan Vollmer: eternal triangle. Vollmer, Carr, Burroughs: ‘Too bad you’re not a man.’ Ginsberg, Burroughs, Vollmer: dry hump. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady: poetry. Cassady, Kerouac, Carolyn Cassady: confession. And on. And on. Until one of them strikes out for Mexico. Walkow’s budget version has the mathematics of catastrophe absolutely pat. Maya plus Los Alamos. The pyramid of black smoke.
‘No Mexican really knew any other Mexican, and when a Mexican kills someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend.’
The miracle of Beat is Courtney Love who is nothing like the febrile Joan (who had two small children and was too smart to write). Love is embedded in her performance, emboldened by sofa lips, harvest of hair, the supreme physicality. At moments she looks like a shire horse in scarlet lipstick and a wig. She’s better than Kim Novak in Vertigo – where awkwardness of performance reaps dividends. She should be painted by Kroll.
‘Lucien can write a song about anything.’
‘Why don’t you write us a volcano song?’
Walkow references everything from Malcolm Lowry to Billy Wilder: ‘nobody’s perfect’. Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, visited Burroughs in Lawrence. There were rumours that he spent his last seventy-two hours staring into the flicker and strobe of a Burroughs/Gysin dream machine. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Seattle.
Beyond the dust of the Mexican road, as the Ginsberg actor and the Carr actor carry Courtney Love towards the cone of the distant volcano, is the shadiest, coolest river. They strip, plunge, drift. Love vanishes. She is sitting in her damp underwear in a wood. All the good Westerns have a version of this scene. Peckinpah liked nothing more than crossing the border; a respite in a green place, before red death.
That was it, I thought. Walkow had summarised it for me, broken the complexities down. I couldn’t imagine where this DVD came from or why it could be found in Croydon for £1.50. And then the name rang a muffled bell. Alongside the director/performer Andrew Kötting (who had the look of Lowry and a major swimming habit), I was invited to talk about our project of taking a swan pedalo from Hastings to Hackney. We were in Trinity Buoy Wharf at the mouth of the River Lea, the precise point at which, months later, when a budget had been secured, I would come ashore, quitting the swan before she completed her voyage by disappearing into the tunnel in Islington. The swan reminded me of somebody: Courtney Love. White lady of destruction, shredder of myths.
After the event, a man approached. He knew my work and said that, if I were willing, he’d like to present me with a DVD. It was a film he made in 1995, a version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I remember sending this person a note of thanks and I tracked the email down.
At first I found the shift from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century California disorientating, but all that soon settles. Sometimes limited means (budget) does create a useful tension. It was good to meet at the river’s edge.
The man’s name was Gary Walkow.
by Dan Sallitt
Published in 24fps, Vol. 5, Issue 2.
(Full disclosure: I’ve become friends with Gary Walkow over the years, and I even receive a thank-you credit on this film, though I’m not quite sure why.)
Gary Walkow’s third feature Beat, based on incidents from the lives of the Beat writers in the forties and fifties, premiered at Sundance 2000 to hostile reviews that killed its chances of theatrical distribution. Why? Certainly the film has flaws, and some of them are prominently placed; but are its extraordinary virtues really that hard to spot?
Perhaps the critics weren’t expecting to see a story about the Beats play out amid the urban and rural landscapes of Mexico.... Oh, well, no point in trying to figure it out. Beat opens with a flash-forward to the infamous “William Tell” incident that cost Joan Burroughs her life in 1951. Then it reconvenes in 1944 New York, where the poor but exuberant young Beats are partying with a case of benzedrine inhalers that Joan (Courtney Love) has scored. The social fabric is rent when Dave Kammerer (Kyle Secor) is knifed and killed by charismatic, irresponsible Lucien Carr (Norman Reedus), with whom he was sexually obsessed. Seven years later, Joan and Bill Burroughs (Kiefer Sutherland) are married with two children, living in Mexico City, coping with their separate chemical dependencies, and not writing much. Bill’s homosexuality has pushed the marriage to the breaking point; after he leaves for a jaunt to Guatemala with a male lover, Lucien, carefree as ever after a two-year jail sentence, shows up with Allen Ginsberg (Ron Livingston) for a visit. Attracted and repelled by Lucien’s wavering attentions, Joan hovers on the edge of love, or mere infidelity, or a fresh start back in the U.S. But despair may have taken root too deeply in her....
Beat doesn’t find its center immediately; the brisk exposition seems to drive Walkow into overstating the characters. Sutherland’s impersonation of Burroughs’ lockjaw growling swamps the characterization at first, and Reedus tends to overplay Carr’s callowness. Most conspicuously, Kammerer’s hysterical obsession, the dramatic linchpin of the New York scenes, is hammered home both by the script and Secor’s exaggerated performance.
As the action shifts to Mexico, however, the overheated drama gives way to reverie. The Burroughs’ impossible marriage is portrayed with delicacy: unhappiness has made Joan bitter and Bill remote, but alongside the weariness there is mutual respect, the last vestiges of concern, and the occasional lapse back into camaraderie. The couple’s unorthodox parenting techniques are suggested only in a few throwaway shots: their eldest daughter helpfully tapes rejected pages of prose to the living room wall, then ducks as Burroughs ritualistically destroys them with a slug from a handgun; the children sit mutely in the background, never getting their closeup, as Bill and Joan speculate about their desire to fuck their parents.
It soon becomes clear, however, that this is Joan’s movie. Burroughs’ humiliating sex holiday with his contemptuous young lover is an unrewarding, one-dimensional digression that Walkow gives short shrift to, the better to follow Joan, Lucien and Allen as they set off to visit the volcano at Paracutin, circling each other endlessly with words and feelings of regret, faint longing, and nameless dread. Lucien’s seductive behavior toward Joan is sometimes mechanical, sometimes heartfelt; he is awed by Joan, in fear of the commitment that she and her children represent, intimidated by his friendship for Bill. Joan, more down to earth, sees Lucien’s fickleness and is appalled at how lightly Dave’s killing weighs on him; but the animal attraction between them inspires in her dreams of a better life, even as her destructive mutual dependency with Bill seems to be dragging her beyond the pale. Allen is by circumstance and by nature an observer, committed to an affection for Lucien that he’ll never act upon, seeing Joan’s trap closing on her but only able to visualize her salvation via the unreliable Lucien’s heterosexual bond with her. The three watch each other from distances, overhear each other’s intimacies, pair off in all combinations to discuss the absent party; time and again one person withdraws from a conversation, and the camera lingers for a moment of contemplation with the one left behind. The few actions that do occur change nothing; in this metaphysical Mexican standoff, the will to act is swallowed by the voluptuous mood of time standing still.
No small part of the film’s power is due to Courtney Love’s superb performance. Actresses like Love, who always bring aspects of their own personality to their roles, tend to be underrated; but she has the gift of existing persuasively on camera, and it’s hard to think of another actor today who conveys intelligence so forcefully. Walkow is at pains to convey that Joan is the intellectual equal of her more famous peers, but all his literary allusions and snappy dialogue might not have turned the trick without Love’s sly looks of appraisal and her fleeting, amused reactions to her own emotions. Some of Joan’s dialogue is witty banter that could easily have come across as brittle, but Love keeps a low flame of anger burning under the repartee: when Joan sarcastically says of Lucien’s murder, “I think it’s perversely attractive,” Love conveys a quiet challenge, not a breezy superiority. Even as Joan’s fate closes in on her, Walkow preserves her lucidity and composure, and Love’s bemused, wry distance from her own pain brings out the pathos in the uninflected narrative.
To this viewer’s eye, Beat is one of the most visually beautiful films in recent years. Walkow’s modernist widescreen compositions are gloriously old-fashioned, reminiscent of the look of Vincente Minnelli or Nicholas Ray’s fifties melodramas. Partial to slightly elevated or depressed camera angles, Walkow maps out the spatial tension in even the shallowest set, composing around triangles of characters and using short lenses to open up the space between foreground and background. And Ciro Cabello’s rich, primary-color, high-contrast lighting is an infinitely more exciting and romantic evocation of period than the dreary reduced color schemes that Hollywood and Indiewood alike seem to favor. The visual highlight of the film is an idyllic river swimming scene worthy of Murnau, shot mostly from above to emphasize the expanse of glistening water, broken into a series of discrete downstream movements separated by dissolves, turned melancholy by Ernest Troost’s beautiful score, starting with the promise of sex and ending with Joan peering into her own private hell.
Todd McCarthy's "Variety" review of "Crashing" (March 2, 2007):
There's nothing like a little menage a trois with two foxy college girls to cure a middle-aged author's writer's block, but the fix works both ways in "Crashing." A follow-up, but not a sequel, to the 1987 Sundance dramatic competition prizewinner "The Trouble With Dick," writer-director Gary Walkow's insidiously engaging low-budgeter employs a literate sensibility, breezy tone and warm performances to put across an amusing story about three fiction writers self-consciously using their intimate relations for material. A nice fest ride could lead to modest theatrical exposure prior to more robust cable and other home market distribution.
All of Walkow's films, which also include "Notes From Underground" (1995) and "Beat" (2000), possess elemental literary roots. "The Trouble With Dick" was about a struggling sci-fi writer who becomes distracted by a mother and daughter competing for his attentions. Same format applies in "Crashing," in which good-looking but graying onetime boy wonder Richard McMurray (Campbell Scott), whose bestselling first novel (which just happens to have been titled "The Trouble With Dick") now is seven years old, finds his follow-up getting worse with each successive draft.
Kicked out of his Malibu house by a fed-up wife, Richard agrees to speak to a college writing class taught by former flame Diane (Alex Kingston), who's still sore about how unflatteringly Richard portrayed her in "Dick." After Richard casually mentions to the class that he has nowhere to sleep that night, the use of a couch is proffered by cute blond student Kristin (Izabella Miko) and seconded by her sultry roommate Jacqueline (Lizzy Caplan), much to the consternation of Diane.
Predictably, Richard doesn't spend all his time alone on the sofa in the coming days and nights, although it's the girls who provoke the situation. While Richard initially gets enough stimulation to reignite his creative juices just from hanging around these saucy young ladies and prying into their personal lives, the girls have their own creative agendas; they are both aspiring writers and, in lieu of rent, request that Richard service them via "literary consultations."
Pretty soon everyone's busy writing in ways variously influenced by the interactions, fantasies, suspicions and suggestions that flow among them. While the refreshingly forthright Jacqueline states her ambition is to become the "postmodern Jacqueline Susann," Kristin's work runs more toward the schoolgirl poetic.Richard, finding his rhythm again in more ways than one, ruminates on the layers of literary awareness wafting through the small apartment, where no secrets can be kept from anyone.
Performances are uniformly sharp, with Scott lightly conveying both the strengths of insight and the weakness of imagination that conflict Richard. Both suitably luscious, Caplan and Miko hold their own in the sometimes highfalutin, otherwise casually suggestive banter with their older willing captive.
Given the confined quarters, Walkow keeps things visually nimble with unjittery mobile camerawork and fleet editing. Limited nature of the conceit makes itself felt toward the end, and the film proper is wisely wrapped up in well under 80 minutes.
Scott Foundas's article in "LA WEEKLY" about Gary Walkow and "Crashing," Jan 17, 2007: