From the Beats to the Beastly

By Jay Clifton

shadows-john-cassavetes.jpgShadows, 1959

Jack Sargeant works as a writer, festival curator and lecturer on underground film. Two books in particular, Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression (1995) and Naked Lens: Beat Cinema (1997) have become key texts on this subject, often to be found on film studies booklists. Deathtripping has recently been re-published in the United States by Soft Skull Press. I caught up with the film-writer while he was on a temporary sojourn in his original hometown of Brighton in Sussex before returning to Australia, where he has made a new home for himself with his wife and daughter, and is involved in various underground film festivals and lecturing work.

Jay Clifton: Jack, like me you’re in your late thirties, which means you weren’t alive during the Beat era of underground filmmaking you cover in Naked Lens, and were only in your teens during the 80s era of underground filmmaking you cover in Deathtripping. And these films are not easy to seek out, even now. How did you come to discover underground cinema, and what made it become your grand obsession?

Jack Sargeant: I find those kinds of questions so hard to answer. But I think it was when I was 16 or 17 I was very into music – putting on bands and so on – so I was always aware of what was referred to as ‘alternative music’ back in the early 80s. So it was like I was always drawn to that stuff, but I was drawn also to film, literature and art. So I naturally gravitated to things that had, for want of a better phrase, the same ‘attitude’ that I liked in music. And then when you find out that Lydia Lunch is doing films with Richard Kern you think, ‘well, what’s that going to be like?’ – you search it out because it has – or you hope it’s going to have – the same kind of attitude as the music. Some people… I don’t know if it’s culture, or genealogy, or physiology or what, but you’re just drawn to alternative things, you know? And I think if you’re drawn to alternative things, you’re searching out for voices that aren’t part of the homogenized media, or the homogenized culture in which we’re living. And I think if you start searching out for those voices, then you start learning things. You start from where you are. Where I was, as a young teenager back in the early 80s, you’d hear a band like Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV and they’d start talking about William Burroughs, and you’d wonder who that was so you’d find out about things that way.

JC: Where did you see your first underground film, and when?

JS: That gets complicated, because then you have to define what’s ‘underground’. But I remember seeing my first Warhol film as a kid. I remember seeing (Brighton-based underground filmmaker) Jeff Keen’s films in around ’81 or ’82. I remember the Duke of York’s cinema in Brighton around that same era used to have late-night double-features every Friday and Saturday and I used to go there from the age of about 15. I used to see everything, and they used to show everything. It’s not like now where they have late-night films but it’s just the films that they show in the day screened late at night. They’d show Eraserhead and Night of the Living Dead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Midnight Cowboy – obviously these aren’t necessarily ‘underground’ films, they’re more ‘cult’ films, but for me it was the start of an awareness that there was a world out there beyond the awful films of that era like – what was that awful film where the kid’s parents go away and he throws a sex party or something? – Risky Business, that’s it, absolute trash. Or films like Pretty in Pink and that kind of sophomoric shit, that were supposedly about slightly alternative people, but always turned out to be the most dire, pro-family-values, pro-mainstream-culture films ever…

JC: The terms Underground cinema and Independent cinema seem reasonably familiar to us these days, yet the distinction between them at times seems hazy. For example, John CassavetesShadows (1959) is cited in Naked Lens as a key film in the beginnings of underground cinema, yet Cassavetes is also often called ‘the father of American independent cinema’. How would you distinguish between these two terms? 

shadows-john-cassavetes-2.jpgShadows, 1959

JS: I don’t think it matters, on one level, but on another level what became ‘indie’ cinema was narrative-driven feature films, and ‘underground’ films – though they can be narrative-driven and feature-length – more often than not they’re shorter, their narratives are quirkier and more experimental… The other thing is that underground films are normally made by just one or two or at any rate a handful of people, whereas with independent film you usually have a crew of people working on the film – somebody for sound, somebody for lighting and so on… independent films aspire to the aesthetic, maybe, of mainstream films, whereas underground films follow the director’s vision. Although these are broad generalizations, you know. The other thing is that now ‘independent film’ is a genre. I mean you go and see an independent film now it’s always the same thing: you have your post-Sonic Youth rock song, your hero who wears a plaid shirt and has a bit of a weird problem, and they’re shot in the Pacific Northwest and they’re ‘quirky’. It sounds like I’m joking, but take a film like Garden State as an example – it’s a bit quirky, a bit weird – but not too weird because the filmmakers don’t want to threaten anyone. Indie cinema has become this genre. People are encouraged to think films released by Fox Searchlight are independent – they’re not, they’re Fox films. Just because they’ve got a weird indie song on the soundtrack doesn’t mean they’re independent films.

JC: One of the distinguishing features of underground – as opposed to independent – films that seems to emerge from your books is that they are representative of a collective artistic movement, as opposed to a single author or auteur – like independent writer-directors Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley, for example – a relatively small and well-acquainted group of artists with a shared language and values and an ‘outsider’ perspective: in Naked Lens the 50s Beats, and in Deathtripping the so-called ‘No-Wave’ movement of 80s New York…

JS: On one hand I agree… certainly groups banded together in order to produce work, screen work, and even distribute work, so there is this sense of collaboration – obviously filmmakers cooperatives and so on are part of this. But on the other hand many of these filmmakers are exceptionally individualistic and pursue their own creative path regardless of the dictates of fashion or whatever. Also, you have to remember that people like Jim Jarmusch came from a scene with links to bands around New York City and filmmakers like Eric Mitchell and so on, so a narrative about, say, late 70s filmmaking in NYC could construct an idea of a community, and of course, group identities are often a retrospective gesture by art historians.

JC: One such example of an underground film that is the work of a collective sensibility, or at least a plurality of voices, dealt with at length in Naked Lens is the film Pull My Daisy (1959), directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, based on a scenario by Jack Kerouac, with a spontaneous voiceover provided by Kerouac and improvisational performances by Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers, and other friends in that circle. As you document in your interviews with Frank and Leslie, the two directors later fought and fell out over questions of authorship and copyright of the film, though your description of the film and the various contributions of the participants seems to go against the idea of their being a single author or sensibility to the film, except perhaps for a collective ‘Beat’ sensibility…

pull-my-daisy-robert-frank.jpgPull my Daisy, 1959

JS: A film like Pull My Daisy has to be defined as a collective work. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie had a really strong vision, but Kerouac had the voice, so you have to recognise the three of them, and then there’s the David Amram soundtrack – that soundtrack’s an important part of it. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – all those people involved were talented but you put them all together and you get something really interesting. I think one of the things underground film does is recognise the power of collaborative filmmaking in a way other filmmaking doesn’t. (80s No-Wave filmmaker) Richard Kern knows how to hold a camera and make a good image but he needs Lydia Lunch to write the script and Jim Thirwell to create the music. Often you need that collaborative edge. There are some underground filmmakers who can work alone but that’s rare – the only example that comes to mind is [50s New York-based filmmaker] Harry Smith, who hand-painted the actual film stock, frame by frame, of his early works. I would say that often though the collaborative process is an essential part of underground film.

JC: It seems the main source of inspiration for underground cinema in this Beat era was literary – the poetry of Ginsberg and Corso, the novels of Kerouac…

JS: I don’t know if it was literature, so much as what literature was saying, about spontaneity, about listening to the spontaneity of your own voice. If the work of the Beats had to be pared-down to one paramount value it’s their sense of the importance of finding your own way and form of expression, or ‘voice’. The Beats were saying, ‘your own voice matters’. Obviously there were other aspects the Beats contributed to culture as well, to do with structure, subject matter, politics, sexuality, jazz music, whatever… but the main thing is, the Beats emphasised creativity – being true to your own spontaneous creativity above everything else – and not spending hours and hours mediating it…

JC: During this period of the late 50s through to the mid-60s , poets and novelists like Ginsberg and Alexander Trocchi seemed almost as popular and culturally-important with the younger generation as rock stars, or at least it seems that way from Peter Whitehead’s documentary Wholly Communion, recording on 16mm film one night in June 1965 where poets and writers associated directly or indirectly with the Beat movement, including Ginsberg, Trocchi, Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Christopher Logue and others, read before a full house at the Royal Albert Hall, with more outside ‘clamouring to get in’. The idea seems almost impossible to imagine today, or even in the 80s period covered in Deathtripping…this phenomenon of an outsider literature being able to take centre stage in popular culture seems to me sadly gone forever, and seems also to be the central source of material for the verite-style documentary-makers, for example Robert Frank, Jonas Mekas, Peter Whitehead

wholly-communion-peter-whitehead.jpgWholly Communion, 1965

JS: Yeah… part of what you said there is really sad – that you’ll never have seven thousand people watching – or trying to get in to watch – poetry (being read in a live setting) again. I suppose if you worked for The Guardian you might say a band like Babyshambles are a form of popular poetry. But pop stars writing poetry isn’t really the same thing. That idea that you could create an event like that and somebody could just film it – it’s that spontaneous thing, that unmediated thing that the Beats gave poetry – you know, you could just turn up and film it, and Peter Whitehead did. Jonas Mekas too – in his diary films –was searching for an unmediated truth. In Naked Lens I question whether it’s possible to find an unmediated truth, but certainly the attempts are there. I personally don’t think you can do it, because you choose where to put the camera, and who you talk to, and so on, but the gesture’s important.

JC: This leads me on, in a comparative way, to your book on the extreme underground cinema of the 80s No-Wave, Deathtripping. You say in your introduction to Naked Lens that at the time that Beat-inspired underground cinema was beginning, circa 1959, ‘there was a growth in the American avant-garde’, and that what made these filmmakers Beat, ‘was a sense of being outside of the vast bulk of American society’. This seems true also of the No-Wave filmmakers and participants covered in Deathtripping, but there seems to me a vital difference in that the Beats had a sense of agency, even dispensation – that what they did creatively and personally could have an effect on society both in the States and abroad, and in their own lifetime. And this sense of agency was supported by the literary successes they were already having at that time with works like On The Road and Howl, and the rush by Hollywood to try and get in on the act with pseudo-Beat movies like The Rebel Set (1959) and The Subterraneans (1960). By contrast, the No-Wave group of the 80s seem to have no similar sense of being ‘in synch’ with – or leading – the spirit of their age, or any possibility of engaging with mainstream culture in any sense other than a combative one. Obviously there had been a cultural shift between the eras of the Beats and No-Wave, can you put the extreme underground cinema of the 80s within a cultural perspective?

JS: Ronald Reagan. I think once you had Ronald Reagan in America, and Margaret Thatcher in England, you were dealing with a very different kind of power relationship than you were, even in the 50s. There was an optimism in late 50s and through the 60s, a feeling that things were changing – there was the civil rights movement, and increasing recognition of minorities, a sense that ‘people power’ could work… there was the Vietnam war, obviously, but people were protesting that – there seems to have been a sense of optimism pervading the cultures of America and England, particularly during the 60s… By the 80s, it seems pessimism becomes far more dominant. The other aspect of that was that New York City went bankrupt in the late 70s… if you read, I think, Lydia Lunch’s book Paradoxia, she talks about whole streets being abandoned in the city during that time – you could squat in whole streets! If you watch Vivienne Dick’s films – she’s a late 70s/early 80s No-Wave filmmaker – from the images of her films you realise just how bombed-out-looking parts of New York were, ruined blocks of buildings and very run down – this was before gentrification, and life was a lot harder. So maybe there was a lot of disillusion amongst the No-Wave filmmakers, due to this and the lack of the kind of strong left-wing counter-culture movement of the 60s, and I think that perhaps influenced the kind of films that were made.

JC: One of the things I noticed reading Deathtripping – you may disagree with this – there was drug-taking happening in the Beat era too, but the drug-taking here seems more intense and more… suicidal with a lot of the people interviewed. It doesn’t seem they were taking drugs for ‘mind-expansion’ purposes, as the Beats claimed to be doing, they’re taking drugs to get out of it…

JS: On one level ‘yes’, and on another level ‘no’. I mean, William Burroughs took heroin for years, and Jack Kerouac drunk himself into an early grave. I think there was a lot of self-destruction amongst the Beats individually. Certainly with Kerouac – he died at what, forty-seven? That’s pretty young to die. So I don’t think that was any different, I think what was different was the culture in which they articulated it. So with the Beats, the framework in which they were articulating (drug-taking) was different. I think the other aspect is that most of those people in Deathtripping who were doing drugs – and it wasn’t all of them by any means – is they got through it. It didn’t stop them creating, it was just something they did. But Kerouac died just through drinking. Alcohol screws up your mind far worse than any drugs do. Alcohol burns you brain out.

JC: I know I am going to sound negative in tone when talking about these films – none of which I have seen, I should point out – but gauging by your descriptions of them in your book and the accompanying still photos, it would seem these films by Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Scott and Beth B and Jeri Cain Rossi are deeply negative or bleak in outlook regarding human nature and it’s therefore difficult not to speak about them in those terms. Or am I wrong?

JS: I don’t know, I think they’ve all made optimistic films as well… for example the films of Scott and Beth B, not the ones they made together but the ones Beth subsequently made in the 90s, have a sense of possibility of political change and… I hate to use the word, but a sense of ‘healing’. There’s a sense that that can happen. I mean, even Nick Zedd’s films – they’re hilariously funny, that’s something I think it’s important to emphasise. So there’s nihilism and darkness, but there’s a lot of humour as well.

JC: That’s something that doesn’t really come across in the descriptions of the films in the book, but then I suppose if you read a description of the plot of an early John Waters film it might not sound particularly funny either – 

pink-flamingo-john-waters.jpgPink Flamingos, 1972

JS: Well, that has a very similar sensibility. You look at a film by Waters like Pink Flamingos (1972) and you read a description of it – oh yeah, this woman is kidnapped and there’s these people competing to be the filthiest people alive – I actually screened Pink Flamingos for some of my students in Australia and they were just shock-rocked by it… not all of them, but some of them. And one of them said, ‘you should have warned me’ – or ‘us’ as a group – that there was going to be a rape scene in it. But to me it was just… this is a John Waters film! Obviously you wouldn’t want to be kidnapped and kept in a basement and artificially inseminated and have your child taken away by lesbians but the way John Waters does it is just tremendously funny. But maybe it’s a sense of humour you get at a certain point in your life…

JC: And that’s why it’s an underground film, I suppose? It has a certain humour, a certain aesthetic that only a certain amount of people are going to get, and other people are just going to be shocked by it?

JS: Well… we live in a world where people don’t know who Lenny Bruce is, but they know all about the Carry On films.

JC: But those films of the No-Wave were out to shock, there’s no doubt about it…

JS: Yeah, they’re out to shock but… they’re really funny, and if you want really shocking films there’s stuff out there – Vienna Actionist films, for example, where there’s blood and sex and mutilation and animals are killed and whatever… and that’s a lot more shocking. But if you make it funny and entertaining in a way you shock people more – and that’s especially true of Richard Kern, for taking the cinema aesthetic of (the cheap sex cinemas of) Forty-Second Street and ‘grindhouse’ and screening it in galleries, and he wasn’t doing it with some kind of intellectual justification, and I think that shocked people. If he’d given it some kind of intellectual justification, he probably wouldn’t have, but… I think that’s something that defines underground films, embracing pop culture…for the 80s underground filmmakers it was B-movies and exploitation cinema, for the Beat filmmakers it was jazz and Be-bop…

JC: The cinema of transgression, as you have termed it, seems to have had no interest in luring audiences to their films outside of the No-Wave subculture – even the disturbing poster images the filmmakers designed to promote their films seemed to say, ‘this film is going to be really repellent, don’t come and see it, see if we care!’. I realise that is simply a come-on to your diehard gore-hounds, ultra-hip cineastes, and discerning film historians like yourself, but it is an approach that means the filmmakers are unlikely to have an audience outside of a small group of confederates. I suppose your decision on the question of whether that’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing depends on whether one thinks underground cinema should be trying to get itself ‘above ground’, or not…

jack-sargeant.jpgJack Sargeant photo by Claudia Herwig

JS: Well I sort of make a living writing about underground films, screening underground films and talking about underground films, so on some level, yeah, I think they should be seen. But…it’s difficult, I think it’s important they are seen but then a lot of underground filmmakers don’t go out of their way to be seen by a wider audience. But that’s part of the whole sensibility, isn’t it? It’s like those horror films of the seventies that used to have posters saying things like, ‘to avoid fainting keep repeating the following phrase – it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie’, and of course people start lining up to go in, ‘I’ve got to see that!’. The poster images you’re talking about are maybe like the punk rock version of that.

JC: Finally, does an ‘underground cinema’ still exist these days? Is it still centred in New York City? And if doesn’t still exist, is there still a need for underground cinemas, or have they been superseded by other forms of independent film distribution like the Internet?

JS: There’s still an underground cinema – there’s underground film festivals, for example, in New York, Chicago, Melbourne, Sydney, Calgary, Austin, San Francisco, and there’s screening spaces for underground film all around the world. There’s also young filmmakers out there making films, against the odds. As to whether it’s been moved to the internet… on a personal level I think people often confuse the medium and the message – I don’t think it matters if it’s on the internet or if it’s in the cinema, it’s still… what you see and hear is more important than the medium that you see and hear it on… the one thing about watching films on the internet that seems a bit sad is that it’s not a communal activity, but then, you and me and our friends are in their thirties and forties – if I was a twelve-year-old I’d be downloading all the crazy shit I could – they’re watching stuff in ways we can’t imagine, and that’s great. Why do they have to do things the same way we do? Personally I like to see a film in a good screening room with a bunch of friends, but that’s just me, I can’t be a snob, I can’t say ‘my way is best’… though obviously it is!

Deathtripping by Jack Sargeant" href="" target="_blank">Jack Sergeant is available via Soft Skull. A new, revised version of Naked Lens: Beat Cinema will be published in November.

Jay Clifton is a writer of articles and stories, the writing side of guitar-word duo The Hammett Story Agency, and a deviser and organiser of live literary events, most recently Peripheral Vision at the Barbican Centre.