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DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS SERIES: BEAT NIGHT

Pull My Daisy
(American, 1958, 30 minutes, b/w, video)
Directed by Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank

The Last Clean Shirt [Excerpt]
(American, 1964, 39 minutes, b/w, video)
Directed by Alfred Leslie

Lowell Blues
(American, 2000, 27 minutes, color and b/w, video)
Directed by Henry Ferrini

Note: HENRY FERRINI, director of Lowell Blues, will present film commentary and answer questions immediately following the screening.

The following is a review of Pull My Daisy that appeared in The New York Times, July 12, 2000:

"A splendid entertainment for the entire family—no sex, no violence" was how Alfred Leslie archly plugged his new film "Pull My Daisy" in Variety in 1959. "And then I quoted a line of Jack’s: ‘Doing something and saying goodbye and saying goodbye and doing something are both the same,’" he said. "Which means, I think, living a life is enough to be able to get through life, and you don’t always have to be enormously active or a great star."

The Jack in question is, of course, Jack Kerouac. That many of the Beats went on to achieve a potent stardom is almost beside the point…. A sort of wry social commentary, the film is at once about nothing and everything. There is no plot, no story, no action or drama. Photographed in grainy black and white, a band of urban troubadours enter a loft on the Lower East Side and wreak merry havoc on the lives within. Slouching on a sofa, flasks in hand, the men spout poetry and ponder spirituality, their voices sounding oddly the same, their mouths not quite in sync with the vocal track, which scats along to a loose, bluesy beat. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Larry Rivers are doing what they did best: hanging out, kicking back, taking it all in. As the narrator, a coolly ebullient Kerouac makes his words their own.

Directed by Mr. Leslie and the photographer Robert Frank, the film was based on an act from Kerouac’s unproduced play "The Beat Generation" and named for a poem by Ginsberg and Kerouac. The play, in turn, was inspired by an incident in the lives of Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s partner on the road, and Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, who aspired to suburban respectability in Northern California….

"‘Pull My Daisy’ in 1959 looked like an insane work to people," Mr. Leslie said. "It looked chaotic and unstructured, and people didn’t know how to deal with it. But the film had a very, very wide influence because it opened up a way for people to think of being more independent in their vision."
"It was a formal film, quiet in tone and movement," he continued. "It had a strong subtext of subversiveness, a Samuel Beckett, Chehkovian kind of quality in which nothing happens. Like a Seinfeld incident of nothing. But I thought in that you could see the naturalness of all of the lives of people.…."

"‘Pull My Daisy’ came about largely from a group of painters and writers who wanted to make a movie to show their children and grandchildren what we were really like," said Mr. Amram, 69, who also appeared in the film. "The image of a beatnik had become so horrific that it was something we couldn’t identify with anymore."

"In ‘Pull My Daisy,’ nobody looks like a beatnik," he said of the cliched turtlenecks, berets and goatees that Kerouac likened to a Roman Catholic school dress code, and the movement’s subtext of drugs and malaise. "We all shared a joy of life, the ability to work hard at what we were trying to do artistically, at having fun."

"The film is so lighthearted and joyous and funny, it’s the antidote to the Beat label," he added. "That was the albatross around all our necks."

Note: Because we received a defective copy of The Last Clean Shirt from the Museum of Modern Art, we will be showing only the middle third of the film.


The following appears on the website of the New York Underground Film Festival:

The Last Clean Shirt is a rarely-screened film that has become even more intriguing and thought-provoking with the passage of time. A young black man and white woman get in a car at Astor Place, tape an alarm clock to the dashboard, and start driving around as the woman yaks in an unknown language. This action is repeated three times, each segment featuring a different subtitled stream-of-consciousness narration by poet Frank O’Hara. Predating the rise of structural filmmakers like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton by several years, Leslie’s film anticipates later avant-garde interest in the limits of cinematic form.

Snubbed by critics and booed by audiences on its premiere at the 1964 New York Film Festival, The Last Clean Shirt was considered audacious and excessive in its day. During a run at the New Yorker, one crowd hounded the owner of the theater so badly that he was chased out of the building and hid in a dumpster.


The following is excerpted from a review of Lowell Blues that appeared in The Boston Herald, December 20, 2000:

Jack Kerouac’s prose has a melodious, rhythmic quality. Reading "Doctor Sax" or "On the Road," you can feel the beat of so many introspective days and searching nights.

In "Lowell Blues: The Words of Jack Kerouac," Gloucester filmmaker Henry Ferrini captures the vividness and musicality of Kerouac’s writing. Premiering tonight at 8:30 as an installment of WGBH’s "Greater Boston Arts," the half-hour documentary sets early chapters of Kerouac’s "Doctor Sax" to music, specifically the lilting alto sax of Lee Konitz, while also providing a stunning visual tour of Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell.

With voiceover readings by Beat writer Gregory Corso, Beat enthusiast Johnny Depp, poet Robert Creeley, David Amram, Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady, wife of the late Neal Cassady, "Lowell Blues" succeeds in revealing Kerouac’s reverence and love for his birthplace. Walking in Kerouac’s shadow, Ferrini explores the majestic landmarks and obscure corners of Lowell, all of which had a profound effect on one of America’s most original and misunderstood modern writers.

Taking his cue from Kerouac, Ferrini presents Lowell as a tapestry of brick factories, wind-ravaged trees and rain-slicked streets. Through Ferrini’s lens, a gritty, blue-collar mill town is rendered achingly beautiful in the red-blue glow of the intense New England light. A nun strides purposefully down the street, her habit seemingly swaying to the beat of Konitz’s bluesy riffs. The Merrimac River pounds the rocks that line its banks as Kerouac’s words spill forth: "The thunderous husher of our sleep at night. I could hear it rise from the rocks in a groaning wush ululating with the water . . . By moonlight night I see the Mighty Merrimac foaming in a thousand white horses upon the tragic plains below."

Attempting to capture that fleeting moment when nonchalant youth gives way to intellectual self-awareness, a black-and-white photograph of a smiling Kerouac dressed in his high-school football uniform blends into an image of the Lowell Public Library where Kerouac discovered the writers who would exert an indelible influence on him: Goethe, Hugo and William Penn. " . . . I used to cut classes at least once a week, to play hooky that is, just so I could go to the Lowell Public Library and study by myself at leisure such things as old chess books with their fragrance of scholarly thought . . ."

Ferrini presents Kerouac not as a tragic figure or martyr of the Beats whose final bitter years were spent in an alcohol-induced oblivion, but as hopeful and in awe of the world around him. With "On the Road," which Kerouac wrote in 1951 (it was published in 1957), Kerouac became the Pied Piper to alienated youth. But "Doctor Sax," which Kerouac wrote in 1952 (published in 1959), presents a different portrait of the artist. It is an homage to nature and spirituality, and "Lowell Blues" is a sublime visual companion.
Bio of Henry Ferrini, director of Lowell Blues:

Henry Ferrini has worked on a number of acclaimed and prize-winning documentaries, many of them about historic Massachusetts communities. His film, WITCH CITY (1996), co-directed with Joe Cultrera, examined Salem’s modern-day relationship with its historic witch trials, featuring interviews with Wiccans, Christians and playwright Arthur Miller. Other films have included POEM IN ACTION, a portrait of his uncle Vincent Ferrini, the poet laureate of Gloucester, MA; RADIO FISHTOWN, the story of the last one-man radio station operator in the nation; and THE LIGHT, THE QUALITY, THE TIME, THE PLACE, a meditation on environmental responsibility in Gloucester. He also served as Director of Photography for LEATHER SOUL, a portrait of the tanning industry in Peabody, MA, which aired nationally on PBS.

Ferrini is presently developing a feature film based on a script written by himself and K.M. Riaf. KNOW FISH is a contemporary David versus Goliath parable, set in Gloucester against a backdrop of dwindling natural resources, greed and the forces of nature. It was a finalist in the Massachusetts Film Office’s Script writing Competition and the Nantucket Film Festival.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.