Beat Girl, Gilliam Hills, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, 1960
Forget “king of the literary ‘beats’”, Jack Kerouac. Forget beat down, beat up, up-beat, listen to the beat, be-bop beat, holy of holies beatitude, intoxicatingly sweet-incensed high-massed (catholic high-massed) beat. Forget the one hundred and one other words that old Jack used to describe, or try to describe, that great unquenched hunger, that beast-like hunger of the young, or at least the non-G.I. Bill, Levittown, sell-out for a mess of pottage, close your eyes and let Harry or Ike or Jack do it, post World War II, reds under all the beds, your mommy is a commie turn her in, great American night highway young. And forget “high priest of the literary ‘beats’”, howling trumpet angel, Allen Ginsberg. Forget “high Buddha”, "high om", high-candle lighting, high-flying, high song and dance man, high ganja high, high pre-hip-hop, hip-hop social poet prophet of that great American “beat” night in the cafes and garages of high art. Hell, forget even ironic, sardonic, moronic, “mass media king of the boob tube “beats,” television'd Dobey Gillis-"beat", Maynard G. Krebs. Forget bomb shelter, better dead than red, every mother’s favorite bedraggled, goateed, slightly rank, quirky, jerky, smirky black and white television “beat”, if she had a favorite beat and if she knew enough, which she probably didn’t for she was “square” and squares never knew enough. and she was anyway heavily-invested in that great “luxury” Leavitt town American night to know that it was all put on to stanch the terror of the mid-century, mid- 20th century night at the invasion of the “hip”. (Read: international, jewish, communist menace, or pick some variation of that theme.)
Yes, I say, forget all of that. They all had it wrong, even those who invented blessed “beat”. For until one see the film, the strictly low budget, English, black and white B-film, under review, Beat Girl, that all that was said above was merely eyewash. You see it had nothing to do with the great American highway night, or of hunger, beast-like or otherwise, even if only hunger for meaning but it was merely another in the endless, endless I say, ways that youth tries to assert itself in a world that it had not choice making and had not been asked about. A mere condition on the way to well-adjusted middle class respectability. A lark. No, that “cautionary tale” moral seems a little too pat for me.
A short summary is thus in order. Said titled “beat girl” (named in film but I will not name her, oh, okay, Jennifer), schoolgirl, blonde, of course, heavy mascara'd eye-shadowed , beautiful, curvaceous, upper-middle class, rebellious, slumming, double-life dregs of society-seeking, alienated, forlorn, fed-up, freaked out, sexually frustrated, sexually disoriented, incest-driven (maybe, in the post-Freudian age, who knows, I will throw it in anyway)is on a tear. Did I mention also vacuous, silly, vain and somewhat monosyllabic?
She has been, in any case, left alone, apparently pouting, in splendid early 1960s London isolation (except for the servants) by good old boy (English-style, not American) divorced father. A divorced father, moreover, out to conquer his worlds on his own terms, a thoroughly modern man, a man trying to do good whether asked to or not. Ms. Beat Girl (aka, Jennifer) amps up her aforementioned virtues and vices when “Pa” brings home a new “trophy” wife. A French trophy wife no less, and young to boot like all trophy wives, or most anyway, and blonde, although they are not always blonde. Now said trophy wife tries to make nice but “beat girl” being alienated, forlorn, fed-up, freaked-out and, who knows, maybe, incest driven (poor "Pa") is having in her hard teen age-honed years none of it. Not only that she is out to expose, come hell or high water, said “Ma” (trophy Ma) if for no other reason that to prove that she is “cool” and not “square” (or cubed, octagonal, or any kind of n-gonal existence) to her also alienated, freaked out, fed-up “beat” band of brothers and sisters, middle class, to the teeth (and teeth, good teeth, had a social meaning in that early 1960s England). Moreover, “Ma” has a shady, a very shady past as a night club stripper and as …., (you know what else just in case any one under the age of about eight is around) that cries out for exposure and ruin.
So you can see where this thing is heading, although I can barely keep my hands to the keyboard at this point. The problem is, more apparent in real life, “beat” real life or “real” real life, than in the film that “slumming” among the lower depths of society (here the stripper life) is risky business, very risky business whether for “kicks” or for compulsion. Thus, as our “beat girl” meets with the strip club owner who tries to seduce her (played by Christopher Lee, who as far as I can remember, has never, never, played anything but sinister, if not down right perverted roles, right?) she finally confronts, after his timely murder (not by her, of course) the fact that life with father (and “Ma”) is better, far better, than being alienated and perhaps “fresh meat” for those hoary-eyed, mean mamas who populate the women’s gaol (our jail, okay).
Now, after this admitted fluffy, sketchy, little summary one can ask, as I did, what in the name of sweet jesus does all of this plot line, except the alienated, freaked-out, trying to make sense of a world not of one’s own making, post World War II, declining British Empire, clueless youth have to do with “beat”, with Jack Kerouac thumbed-road, shoe-leather worn, endless diner/gas station-seeking, gong bong dope-smoking, Allen Ginsberg poem- wailing, hipster, dipster, tipster , Charlie Parker be-bop, smoke-filled cellar café night. Well, for that you have to go back to one Maynard G. Krebs. Or rather the idea that the mainstream media, including the makers of this film, had about what “beat” was all about. This film is just the other side of the old Maynard caricature. That “beat” leads straight to immorality, communism, warts, or worst sex, and other forbidden fruits and thus in need of this little parable to cry, cry in the wilderness, and it turns out for social order and those “little boxes” that Malvina Reynolds wrote about in a song by the same name.
So pretty good of me, right? To be able to take a second-rate, maybe, even third-rate B-film when you take into consideration the threadbare dialogue that I refused to mention and the, at times, bizarre facial expressions of the main characters as they “emote” their alienation, and turn it into a polemical beating over the head of those who would denigrate our sacred youthful “beatness.” Oh, well, all in a day’s work, however, there is more though. I am an “avenging angel” today.
Look, I do not have a feel for the pre-World War I Greenwich Village bohemianism that attracted the likes of John Reed, Louise Bryant, Mabel Dodge and Max Eastman. I do not have a real feel for the Paris-exiled, lost-generationness of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their crowds. I do not have a feel for the jitterbugging, sweet “swing is king" clarinet man Benny Goodman, big band with brass and reeds, Great Depression grope-through to keep body and soul together, of my parents’ generation, and, maybe, of yours. I do, however, have a feel for the 1950s red scare, Cold War, atom bomb (or worst, H-bomb) is going to get us, live for today so live well, or at least live it up, this old world is too big for me to understand and I did not make it anyway, look over the hill for the next mountain to climb break-out, or just a small get out of the “square” house break-out, alienations of the “beats”. And I tried, tried like hell, to live it out a little, young and silly as I was. In short, being “beat” while being political.
And that feel is where I have issues with the “beats” presented here. Of course, like lots of things, social things, the middle class, or rather a small, disenchanted (or don’t fit in), sometimes dismissed, or declassed element of it drive such new movements. Fair enough. And it is almost ABCs that in the early stages, at least, that exclusiveness by dress, language, mores, style, what have you, drive the thing. That is what happened in this film. The alienated youth, including their jazz-background'd (but also budding rock and roll, classic Elvis, Bo Diddley, blue-influenced rock-driven), smoky cellar café, all night-partying caught the last flashes of “beatness.” Faux “beatness.”
As I pointed out earlier the moral of this thing was that “beat” was just another aspect of teen alienation. Hardly unusual, at least since about the 18th century, when teenagehood became more of a human condition (if for no other reason than people lived longer and needed a niche between babyhood and the work-a-day world). But what about those, like me, who took “beat” for good coin, at least as far as I understood it.
Beat was not just bongos, banjos, guitars, sitars, drums, rums, oms, roams, highways and byways but a way of looking at middle class life (admittedly, on my part from the edges of the working poor) and flipping the finger at it , for good. Whether that was done wearing three piece suits (hard, very hard to do, granted) or thonged-sandals, hot rod roadster-driven or on sore, worn-down, shoe-leathered feet, as bohemian or Bolshevik, flipping that finger for good, was the real deal when the deal went down. I have taken old brother wind Kerouac to task for many things, mainly political, but not for that. That flip of the finger. That is what is missing here. Hey, on second thought, don’t forget Jack Kerouac. Or Allen Ginsberg either.