By: Gordon K Smith
Alan Govenar is a renowned writer and documentary filmmaker of American music and folk culture. His book Texas Blues is the definitive work on that subject. THE BEAT HOTEL, his latest documentary, is an engaging look at a part of beat generation history that’s been largely neglected – how all the major players (except Jack Kerouac) converged in a Paris hotel in the late ’50s, where William Burroughs held court over Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other ex-pat writers, artists and musicians. The story’s told with personal recollections, vintage photos, and cleverly used black-and-white recreations and animated graphics. Govenar was the first roundtable guest on September 12, and spoke about his entry into filmmaking, STONEY KNOWS HOW.
“When I was a junior at Ohio State, in 1981, I wandered off campus and met this master tattoo artist in a wheelchair…I met Stoney every week for the next seven years. Did a book about his life, then a film. I knew nothing about making documentaries, finally got my first National Endowment of the Arts grant, decided to hire (famous documentarian) Les Blank to shoot it. I ran out of money, so Les and Pacho Lane lent me the money to finish it. In the process I lost ownership of the film. It premiered at the New York Film Forum in 1981…all of a sudden I realized that I was a filmmaker…Stoney showed me that what he could give me of the highest value was his story. That has defined my approach since then. It drew me into the world of the “marginalized”…Since then I’ve made over 24 documentaries and art films, and my 24th book is published this month, called Everyday Music, about the road trip I did in the ’80s, recording traditional music in Texas for NPR.”
“THE BEAT HOTEL was an outgrowth of work I was doing for the Chateau French-American Museum, which looks at 400 years of art, music and ideas. I was making 40 little short videos for this museum. They wanted one short piece on how the American “beats’ were a great influence on the growth of counterculture in France, especially the events leading up to the May 1968 strike in Paris. I found this British photographer Harold Chapman, who lived through it. I did two days shooting with with Harold, and with Jean-Jacques Lebel, whom you can see in the film. Got back to Dallas, and realized there was a great opportunity to do a film on this place, The Beat Hotel, which had been left out of previous films on the American Beats…since most of the people involved were dead, I would have to rely on what others remembered…so many great stories there, the challenge was figuring out how to visualize it all. My editor, Alan Hatchett, had the idea to do the re-enactments. We shot them in my wife’s studio. I met this Scottish artist, Elliot Rudie, commissioned him to do the drawings, then figured out how we could animate them. The re-enactments have been the most controversial part of the movie. Ironically, the people closest to the Beats really like them, it’s what the Beats would have liked or done themselves…I think it kinda takes us into that world in a fantasy.”
Hearing Chapman’s imitations of Burroughs’ whiney voice while seeing an actor portray him makes these vignettes work far better than a straight recreation would.
“Yes. Deadpan excellence”, Govenar agreed, and continued about the meanings of his film, and the era it depicts. “This is not just an American story. Americans tend to be so American-centric. It was really this collision of people coming from all over that were experiencing the same thing. In fact, it’s really about Brits coming to Paris to meet Americans. And they were living it too, with their own story to tell.”
“It’s very tough to make a film about the Beats that really captures the energy of who they were. THE BEAT HOTEL is an honest portrayal, a bit nostalgic perhaps. It’s about how we hybridize and re-conceptualize the past, through our memories of the experiences. For the people who actually lived there, this was the high point of their life, the defining moment, the time they would never forget.
Even in his last writings, Burroughs spoke about how he would never recover that.”
Govenar is currently finishing YOU DON’T NEED FEET TO DANCE, a documentary about Sadiki Conde, a footless cyclist who rides 50 miles a day and coached a blind woman for a 100 mile bike race. THE BEAT HOTEL plays Saturday, September 29th during the 2012 Dallas VideoFest at the Dallas Museum of Art. For the second roundtable that day, we were joined by James Dowell and John Kolomvakis, who are premiering the third film in their 19-year project A NEW YORK TRIPTYCH. THE STAGES OF EDWARD ALBEE is a profile of the controversial playwright of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Zoo Story” and others, who is interviewed while Dowell paints his portrait. Albee’s contemporaries comment while veteran actors of his works, including Bill Pullman, Kathleen Turner and Marian Seldes, perform readings.
“It was the other films (in the triptych) that brought us to Albee”, Dowell began. “We wouldn’t have met him otherwise. It’s a story of serendipity.”
“Ned Rorem gave us a list of people to interview (for his film)”, said Kolomvakis. “One day we’re in the Seventh Avenue subway in New York, and Albee walks right by. Well, celebs in New York City don’t like to be approached by anybody, so we were very cautious. ‘We don’t mean to invade your space, but we’re making a film and need to talk to you. Would you give us an interview?’ He did.”
“We didn’t tell him at first that we were doing a whole film on him,” Dowell continued. “We worked up to that…Albee and Rorem go back to when they were both 20 years old. We had a little dinner party for them. Suddenly Ned says, ‘Well, when are you gonna let these boys start the film on you?’ He didn’t agree right away, but we followed up on it and he did. I’ve spent my life as a painter, and that figures in each film; I used the same motif for Edward. When we showed up in Montauk, he was wearing sunglasses because he’d just had lasik surgery. More serendipity – it’s metaphorical for his work. Although he’s acknowledged in the film by his friends as a warm person, he does have a certain remoteness to him. But at 85, he’s still sharp.”
Kolomvakis discussed how privileged they were to interview so many great talents for the film. “Meeting those people, some no longer with us, was absolutely fantastic. Marian Seldes came to us on the subway. She did the reading from “Three Tall Women” without rehearsing. ‘A Delicate Balance” had a wonderful revival. We were lucky to interview Rosemary Harris. But she resisted doing a reading. Didn’t want to. We tried a number of times…”
“One thing we all realized,” Dowell said, “was how nice these people were, and incredibly generous. We wanted to include Bill Pullman, who most people know as a film actor. ‘Let’s do it out here in Los Angeles,’ he said, and he put us up in his house during the shoot… Albee has played such a role in all their lives. Kathleen Turner’s career was given new life by the revival of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. It brought her back, and she’s been reinventing herself.”
THE STAGES OF EDWARD ALBEE plays Saturday, September 29 at 1:45pm at the Dallas Museum of Art. On October 13, the Museum will present the first two films in the triptych, SLEEP IN A NEST OF FLAMES (about author Charles Henri Ford) and NED ROREM: WORD & MUSIC. For more information on the films, please log on to www.sleepinanestofflames.com. For more about the festival, go to www.videofest.org.