Off The Road and into Hollywood Ideology

Michael Green

Professor Bergland

UNST 254

29 May 2014

Off The Road and into Hollywood Ideology

In American society, there is a dichotomy between authors of poetry and popular culture’s canon of a “poet.” As a poet, and as one that is interested in keeping poetry enfranchised, the stereotypes of modern poets perpetuated by Hollywood are deeply unsettling. The films Kill Your Darlings, Barfly, and Big Sur each followed the primary literature of the poets they rendered. While being set decades apart, and focusing on different poets, these films all characterize poets as misogynistic in their use of women as sexual objects for personal gain. When in the past, there were stereotypes of poets being romantic or inaccessibly esoteric, the Beat Generation and its decedents have gained enough media attention to completely redefine the way that people look at the authors of poetry. This change is good in the sense that it is representative of reality; I cannot write non-skewed formal poetry and have it published, nor can I compare women to flowers anymore. However, popular culture has become fascinated with the exaggerated “alternative” lifestyle of these poets, rather than their literature, which is exemplified in directors taking liberties with texts, and giving acute attention to the poets’ treatment of women. While the Beat Generation was not known for its gender inclusiveness, the fact that this movement in particular has gained so much attention in film recently represents the perceptions that the consumers of movies will have in relation to male poets. Sex sells, and pop culture artifacts honing in on poets that exemplify this ideology are more likely to do well. This has an adverse affect on the way in which poets are seen in America, being that women are objectified in movies about male poets, and because of this, poets are stereotyped as misogynists rather than as creators of poetry.

The film on male poets that is the earliest chronologically is Kill Your Darlings. This

movie chronicles the early life of the Beat Generation, and renders the creation of their “new vision” of literature. While writing is central to this movie, there is very little direct text from the Beats, and there is almost nothing verbatim from And the Hippos Boiled in their Tanks (the book written by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac retelling the same story as the film). As such, the perspective is entirely determined by the director and the writers of the film. This allows for a great deal of screen time to surround the sexual exploits of Allen Ginsburg, who is focalized because he is played by the popular actor Daniel Radcliffe. Also, a movie will draw more viewers if the movie is centered around the famous author of Howl, rather than the now unknown Lucian Carr. While Ginsburg was homosexual in the film and in reality, this did not stop the rendered version of him from sexually using a woman as a means to an end. There was a scene where the characters wanted a library key, and to get it, Ginsburg seduced a librarian while his friends stole it. This woman was created to be unintelligent, linear, and basically just moved the plot along. During this scene, the characters do steal the key, which was a step towards their expulsion. Also, Carr watches this sexual act, furthering the homoerotic gravity between Ginsburg and Carr. What it overlooks entirely though, is the fact that this woman is a representation of a human being, who is created in a way that is blatantly sexist.

The Beats’ “influence still lingers,” and has “always been in view somewhere on the social horizon” (Sterrit ix-x). This quote is exemplified by the fact that there have a good deal of films being created in the last few years surrounding these poets, each taking on a slightly different aspect of the generation. One issue with turning these texts into films is the fact that the original texts are often nonlinear and avant-garde. The cowriter of the primary text that Kill Your Darlings draws from, Jack Kerouac, is described by fellow Beat John Clellon Holmes as “‘recording the movie unreeling in his mind’” (Sterrit 57). This is often called a stream of conciseness, which Sterrit explains that low budget filmmakers like Andy Warhol can represent to a smaller audience, while mass audiences want movies that are more linear (70). This is likely a good part of the reason that Kill Your Darlings is somewhat conventional in its treatment of storytelling (i.e. regular conversations, suspense, climax), as well as its treatment of women. If there are not the expected number of sexual events in the film, viewers might become bored or lose the disbelief normally associated with movies. Something that exemplifies Kill Your Darlings’ need to meet a sexual quota is the scene where Carr and Ginsburg enter a party, and rather than greet friends or discuss literature, Carr grabs a woman he doesn’t know and kisses her. He then goes on to insult her behind her back in a manner that is degrading. This scene was something that the writers of the film inserted to represent the sexual freedom that they wanted the film to convey, as well as excite the viewer. However, it does this in a way that is misogynistic and dehumanizing to the already uncharacterized female character.

The second film in the chronological list is Big Sur, which is set when Beats were winding down, and the “king of the beatniks” (said ironically) was descending into alcoholism. Unlike Kill Your Darlings, this movie is based on the actual words of Kerouac’s novel Big Sur. This movie, while using a great deal of verbatim text from the book in the form of narration, does not correspond entirely with the original text. The scenes involving the female poet in the Kerouac’s group of friends embody this conflict between narration and the events in the film. While Kerouac states that she is an interesting writer and person in the film’s narration, her character in movie is ditzy and sexualized. Rather than being a character with dialogue or multitudes like the other poets, she is used to represent the same kind of sexual freedom that Kill Your Darlings attempts to render through its uncharacterized females. Another person that does not have any of the characterization that she deserves is Caroline Cassidy. While the love triangle  between her husband Neal and Kerouac brought up in the film is interesting, Caroline is still not given enough airtime to make her more than a housewife. Neal Cassidy’s mistress is also a complex character, who in the film is overly-sexualized and underdeveloped. She becomes important as a plot-point, when she causes Kerouac to be introspective by calling him out, but is not much more than that. The director and writers decide to represent women in Big Sur through Hollywood’s sex-sells ideology, which omits the true nature of the female characters in Kerouac’s novel. This continues the idea that American male poets are sexist and use women for their own ends, rather than viewing people as an end in themselves.

The Beat Generation used “poetry, jazz, myth, personality, and scandal to help make” themselves the “sensation of the San Francisco Renaissance” (Whaley 13). Big Sur is a response to what appeared to be fame that was unexpected and mentally tumultuous to Jack Kerouac. This emotional turmoil incited not only a breakdown, but a troubled relationship between him and the women in Big Sur. These relationships were overlooked or downplayed in the movie in order to save time in the film, as well as put the films focus on the intimates of Kerouac’s character. The compelling aspect of Kerouac’s difficulty of connection with people is removed by not developing the female characters, which is a missed opportunity to build pathos and interest from the viewer. However, Big Sur is a vast improvement from the pop-culture artifacts of the past. The movie The Beat Generation made in 1959 had no verbatim text at all and followed a caricatured Beat rapist; the film adaptation of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans’“dramatic form occlude[s] serious cultural issues in the book” (Whaley 85). While being an improvement from the treatment of women in movies in the past, Big Sur is still an artifact that perpetuates sexism and the related cultural stereotype surrounding male poets.

Barfly is the last chronologically, and as each movie was set around 20 years apart from one another, this film is set the closest to the present. That being said, it treats women as badly as the films set decades before. The screenplay of this film is written by the poet Charles Bukowski, and the protaganist Henry is a semi-autobiographic character. Despite the author being present in his rendering, Henry takes advantage of the women he makes relationships with. His girlfriend is at a bad moment in her life and desperately needs emotional support, but he lets a love triangle full of adultery exist, and is emotionally indifferent to both woman. The second woman in this triangle is a female editor, who shows Henry kindness only to be sexually used. This woman helped the plot along, being that Henry’s dealings with her represented his resistance to the publishing industry and ivory-tower authors, but she was treated with blatant sexism and was used as a means to an ideological end. It makes sense that because Bukowski can be interpreted as a decedent of the Beat Generation, there will be a similar treatment of woman in his films. However, as he is representative of counterculture in America forty rears after the Beats met, his character is closer to representing the way that the masses view contemporary male poets.

While Bukowski’s screenplay is not great in regard to its treatment of women, there is still the intention of the director. Things like focusing on a woman’s legs for too long, or having the actresses present themselves as sexual objects, is perpetuating the stereotype that male poets are misogynists. Both the film crew and the poet himself are collaborating to create sexism in Barfly, which exemplifies the stereotype of male poets being misogynistic, and being that Bukowski is one of the most recognizable recent figures in American poetry, this kind of ideology (helped along by Hollywood) will persist. As a male poet, I find almost no likeness between myself and Bukowski. While some of the sentiments of the Beats, like their earnestness or idealism, are universal, everything about Barfly is inaccessible. While poets in the past were seen as separate from the masses because of their language and class, poets now are viewed in an inaccessible manner because of Hollywood’s rendering of their regressive sexism and anti-establishment ideologies. This stereotype is helped along by Bukowski himself, and the machine behind Barfly. 

Despite rendering different eras, Kill Your Darlings, Big Sur, and Barfly all have the consistency of women being treated as sexualized objects that help the plot of their stories along. If these artifacts are representative of American Culture’s idea of male poets, there is a good chance that authors of poetry in contemporary society are stereotyped. The figure of the poet in America is something that is shaped by the media that Americans consume. The films coming out on somewhat modern poets are not about the esoteric contemporaries of the Beats like Barbara Guest or John Ashbery; what is being presented in pop culture is a canon of a poet, part of which involves misogyny and sexism. While the better part of the Beats as well as Charles Bukowski are deceased, they are resurrected by Hollywood in a way that furthers prejudice. Hollywood often exaggerates or misrepresents the poets, and in Bukowski’s case, helps his sexism along. In a country where popular poets can hardly sell a thousand copies of a book, the effect of Hollywood’s constructed canon of poets is detrimental to an important American art. Poetry is an art-form that is universally inclusive, and because I write poems, it is important that people are able to deconstruct their notions of what Hollywood says a poet is, so that literary creation can continue.

Works Cited:

Barfly. Dir. Barbet Schroeder. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Charles Bukowski. Warner Home Video, 1988.

Big Sur. Dir. Michael Polish. Perf. Jean-Mark Barr. 3311 Productions, 2013.

Kill Your Darlings. Dir. John Krokidas. Perf. Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan. Sony Pictures   Home Entertainment, 2013. Film.

Sterritt, David. Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.

Whaley, Preston. Blows Like a Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the Transformation of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.