Monday, March 10, 2008
[Warning: There is a “spoiler” below, tho only if you don’t know Gregory Corso’s history or have never read his entry on Wikipedia.]
My very first thought, the instant I began watching Corso: The Last Beat, which opens literally on Mount Parnassus, was to wonder what Michael McClure, Gary Snyder or Lawrence Ferlinghetti must think of that subtitle. Ninety minutes later, sad to see this sweet movie end, its subject, Gregory Corso, now buried literally at the feet of his beloved Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, I realized that just like Kerouac’s tossed-off phrase that got taken over & caricatured by the media, the term Beat in the title here means many different things, only one of which – and perhaps the least important – would be beatnik or even beat poet.
Gustave Reininger’s documentary is many things – a partial history of the Beat Generation, an account of a particular school of poetics, a travelogue of important sites for poetry that ranges from the Acropolis to the Beat Hotel, San Remo Bar & Clinton State Prison, a partial history of the last four years of Gregory Corso’s life, even a mystery story with a remarkable ending – but most importantly it’s the tale of the end of life & watching a man summing up his victories & losses over the course of 70 years. So what I hear in that title now is the suffix that comes after Heart-.
The story is in fact framed by two deaths – that of Allen Ginsberg, right near the film’s start, which has some amazing footage of the entourage surrounding Ginsberg’s bed in his Lower East Side apartment as Allen lay dying from the after effects of a stroke in April 1997, monks proceeding through a death ritual, Patti Smith pacing, Corso literally draping himself over Ginsberg’s body as if to protect him, and that of Corso’s own death at the film’s end, told in a far more circumspect manner, even as we see him carted in a gurney to the hospital & watch family & friends all come to say farewell.
The “core circle of the Beats” in the telling here consists of just four people: Ginsberg, Corso, William Burroughs – who dies just four months after Ginsberg – and Jack Kerouac. Brion Gysin is mentioned, but only in passing. None of the western poets turn up at all. Instead, the gut of this film consists of following Corso as he returns to
The teenager who emerged from prison was a poet well before he first met Allen Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in the Village. Indeed, Corso somehow managed to get Archibald Macleish & others at Harvard to let him audit classes & even had his first book – The Vestal Lady in Brattle – published there before Howl & On the Road changed his publishing life forever (Lady was later incorporated into Gasoline, one of the best-selling books of poetry ever). In the film, Corso is presented reading from the same few canonical poems again & again (including “Sea Chanty,” written at
There are any number of genuinely magic moments in this movie, perhaps the first of which is Corso’s visit to Clinton State Prison where he talks to a group of young inmates, every one of them black. You can see their suspicion in their body language as Corso begins talking, trying to figure out why this character, who looks just one step removed from being a street alcoholic pushing 70, should be talking to them. But you can see their body language change as it becomes clear that Corso’s own experiences there parallels their own, and what begins as a painfully awkward moment turns into a real dialog. As he walks away from the institution, Corso has nothing negative to say about prison – it was literally his education, tho I don’t think that was exactly what the state of
Even more profound is the story of Corso’s childhood. His mother abandoned him on the steps of Catholic Charities and disappeared when he was only an infant. His first poem, the aforementioned “Sea Chanty,” focuses on this primal experience. Corso imagines that she’s returned to her native
Instead, we see Corso the son with functionally no parents. When in