The Beat Hotel

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2

Do the names Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and William Burroughs set your heart aflutter? (My upstairs neighbor runs the other direction when he hears the roster.) For some, these are/were the kind of guys you love to read but wouldn't want to live with. You get the chance to do the latter, possibly as closely as you'd care to, in the new documentary The Beat Hotel that takes us back to the beatnik/bohemian Paris of the period between 1957 - 1963 and to the shabby (but hardly chic) little hotel where they, and others of their ilk, resided.

Directed by Alan Govenar and with some smart animation by Blas Garcia and Alan Hatchett (who also edited the film), and some even funnier drawings from Elliot Rudie (like the one of Burroughs, below), the documentary is a lot of fun and remarkably alive. This is due in no small measure to the wonderful photography by Scottish shutterbug Harold Chapman (who lived in the hotel during this time and to a large extent narrates the movie) -- bringing back the shadow side of the "city of lights" from a half-century past. Chapman's moody, lovely, on-the-fly photos capture the people and the time with artful, seemingly artless ease, and one of the most interesting (even to a non-photographer like me) sections of the film involves Chapman's explanation of how, first step to last, he created what he calls, quite charmingly and rightly, his highly original kind of "dustbin photography."

Probably but a very few readers will be old enough to recall the era of Europe on $5 a Day (Arthur Frommer's series of wildly popular travel books that actually began in 1957, the same year as does the history shown in this film). If it seems impossible to imagine now -- what with inflation, the Euro and the exchange rate practically reversed from the time in which it favored Americans traveling abroad rather than Europeans coming over here -- one really could do Europe in this affordable manner. So when the movie tells us that the "beats" who stayed at this cheap, no-name hotel paid but 10 francs per day (then, the equivalent of about 50 cents), we can only marvel. Of course, this got you a very tiny room. (The small hotel had but one bath for everyone and hot water maybe two-to-three times per week.)

The hotel's proprietress, Madame Rochou  -- who served sandwiches to the local police, mostly to keep them off track of the drugs and local prostitutes (some of whom the police themselves made use of) -- appeared to have an appreciation of artists but no interest at all in their art. She did have the need to create, the narrator recalls, "a little resistance movement against all authority," which fit perfectly with the needs of her hotel's occupants. Chatty and all-over-the-place, the movie sometimes seems as discombobulated as were the hotels' residents. But it is always interesting.


Along the way we get a slice of these artists' works -- the poem by Ginsberg to his Aunt Rose, a history of Burroughs' Naked Lunch (or, as we learn, due to a Freudian typo, "Naked Lust") and lots more. I usually resent "re-enactments" in documentaries (unless like James Marsh, one does them so well that they fool me). Here, the re-enactments are done with enough wit and charm -- plus black-and-white photography and actors who look like their subjects -- that these engage us surprisingly well. One, in which Burroughs and his associates put on a "magic" act, using light and film to make the writer disappear, is a real delight.

While some critics dismissed the movie as yet another tired attempt at nostalgia, this is hardly the case. It’s too alive for that. Perhaps the real audience for this documentary are senior citizens like myself, who remember this time, and its people, and its artistic protest with some fondness, even if we ourselves were nowhere near the creative front of the avant-garde. Thanks to the work of Govenar and his crew, and to the photos and narration of Chapman, we can understand this time/place/cast from a point of genuine nearness and the kind of personal angle that, until now, we've never experienced.

The Beat Hotel, 82 minutes, from First Run Features and which opened theatrically last March, should see a much larger audience via home viewing. Its DVD has a nice selection of extras, including two short films (Harold Chapman on His Photography and The Dreamachine), some additional Elliot Rudie drawings and a deleted scene featuring William S. Burroughs and Ian Sommerville.

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