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 Europe to see the places that inspired him as a youth: Greece, his ancestral Italy & Paris. In Europe, Corso is not the wasted space cadet living modestly on royalties from a few books that sold in the millions in the 1950s, but a cultural hero to a generation of bright-eyed fawning youngsters amazed to see at last one of the figures who actually lived the romance they envision from the books of the Beats. Where Burroughs (Harvard), Ginsberg (Columbia), Kerouac (Columbia) all came from good educations with all that entails, little Nunzio Corso – Gregory is his confirmation name – got his in the Tombs & especially Clinton State Prison for various acts of petty theft (Corso’s greatest crime appears to have been the theft of a second-hand suit). Clinton was distinguished by the fact that it had, by prison standards, a good library, thanks to previous tenant Lucky Luciano, the original Godfather. The youngest inmate, Nunzio was encouraged in his self-education by the made guys who literally watched the youngster’s back.

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 Clinton State) – there is a great reading of “Bomb.” He comes across very much aware of himself not as a new formalist maudit, but as a satirist.

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 New York had in mind.

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 Italy and is long since dead. His father, clearly a brutal man, farmed the child off to foster care and soon Corso was in & out of trouble with the law. When his father was in prison, Corso spent his days living on the streets & his nights sleeping on rooftops in Manhattan, all at the age of 13. Reininger is circumspect – too much so in fact – about Corso’s own marriages or his own role (or lack thereof) as a father & you don’t even get a sense from the movie that Corso died in Minnesota where he was being taken care of by a daughter.

Instead, we see Corso the son with functionally no parents. When in Italy, Reininger & Corso attempt to track his mother down, to find her grave. But there is no record of her, even tho in Italy all records go back to your birthplace, which should make people easier to find. At different points in the film, this becomes a foregrounded part of the narrative. Eventually, though, Reininger’s various attempts pay off. The trail leads not to some remote Italian village, but to Trenton, New Jersey, and to a small house in which his mother has been living for decades. The film actually captures the son, nearly 70, meeting his mother really for the first time. She is as amazed as he is, and other than insisting that he needs a haircut seems not phased in the slightest to have a Beat poet for a child.

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