Pull My Daisy and This Song For Jack
Friday, January 24, 2003
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA

Thanks for assistance: Oliver Smith, Robert Cheatham, Neil Fried, Richard Gess, Jeff Hunt, Matthew Jeanes, Adam Overton, Stan Woodard

Pull My Daisy
(16mm, 1959, 30 minutes)
"Early morning in the universe" - in this case, 4th Avenue and 12th Street Manhattan, painter Alfred Leslie's loft, where Pull My Daisy was filmed in January 1959. According to Leslie, he directed and his then-friend Robert Frank was the photographer. Frank had already published his famous book of photographs The Americans, for which Jack Kerouac had written an introduction ("To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.") In any case, Leslie and Frank soon began a decades-long battle over who actually directed the film (direction is presently credited to both men).

The film is based on the third act of Jack Kerouac's unpublished play The Beat Generation, Or the New Amaraean Church. As with so much of Kerouac's writing, the events in this film came directly from events in his life. In August 1955, Kerouac's friend and Beat icon Neal Cassady was living with his family in Los Gatos, California, with Kerouac visiting and Allen Ginsberg living in nearby Berkeley. Cassady set up a meeting between his friends and one Bishop Romano, ordained in the Liberal Catholic church, and a figure whom Cassady admired for his openness of thought. As recounted in Carolyn Cassady's autobiography Off the Road, Cassady peppered the Bishop with questions about Zen; Ginsberg asked "What about sex?"; and a drunken Kerouac sat on the floor, leaned against Romano's leg and repeatedly proclaimed "I love you, Bishop!" Eventually the beleaguered Bishop and his entourage departed.

In the film, the Neal Cassady character is named Milo and is played by the painter Larry Rivers. Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso were signed on to play versions of themselves (Corso's character seems to be an amalgamation of himself and Kerouac). Figures from the New York art world rounded out the cast: art dealer Richard Bellamy plays the Bishop; Alice Neal plays the Bishop's mother; David Amram, who composed the score and theme song, plays a jazz musician whose arrival at the party signals its collapse into chaos. Milo's son is played by Robert Frank's son Pablo and Milo's wife is played by Delphine Seyrig (the sole acting professional in the cast). The story takes place entirely inside the apartment of Milo's family, except for a brief outdoor scene in which the Bishop is seen (but not heard) giving a sermon, while a disproportionately large American flag dominates the frame, even occasionally blocking out the Bishop - a scene uncannily reminiscent of the very first photograph in The Americans.

Shooting took six weeks and went relatively smoothly. Leslie banned Kerouac from the set in fear of the chaos that would inevitably ensue, but according to Barry Miles' biography of Ginsberg,

Allen, Peter, and Gregory thought it was wonderful to be paid eighteen dollars a day to clown around. They just sat drinking wine, pouring water on each other, taking off their clothes, juggling, and performing circus tricks. Allen refused to put his clothes back on during one of the scenes...Rivers began to march around the studio playing his saxophone. Al Leslie stood in the middle of the room, shouting futilely at the top of his voice.

Upon completion of shooting, Leslie took the film to Jack Kerouac, and played it for him three times. Each time, Kerouac improvised a narration. Leslie took the three tracks of narration and edited them into a cohesive whole. According to an interview published in Jack Sargeant's book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, Leslie kept the microphone on between takes in order to capture anything Kerouac might spontaneously utter. This practice resulted in the inspired bit of visual/verbal play near the end of the film, when Kerouac says, in a little child's voice, "Up you go, little smoke..." as Milo picks up his son to take him to bed.

Pull My Daisy
received its theatrical premiere on November 11, 1959 at Cinema 16, on a double bill with John Cassavetes' Shadows. In his introduction to Parker Tyler's book Underground Film, J. Hoberman says it was at this moment that "the Underground announced itself." Jonas Mekas praised the film as a "free improvisation" and Jerry Kallmer perceived in it a cinematic movement "toward 'pure film', spontaneity, freedom." No doubt a significant amount of what we see on screen was improvised; however, it's clear watching the film now that the composition of the shots - and, of course, the storyline itself - were carefully planned. It's a measure of the filmmakers' achievement that the feeling of spontaneity comes through even today.

And the film's title? In the late forties Ginsberg and Kerouac had composed an erotic poem somewhat in the manner of a Dada "exquisite corpse" game: one person writes the first line, the other writes the second, and so on. They called the poem "Pull My Daisy," after the first line - slang for the act of removing a stripper's g-string (hence the name of Leslie's production company). As published in Ginsberg's Collected Poems, the poem reads as a flirtatious wordplay, mainly remarkable (in Ginsberg's oeuvre) for its lightheartedness. As set to music by David Amram and sung by Anita Ellis at the film's opening, it sounds like the most bizarre piece of cool jazz ever recorded. In any case, the film was to have been called simply The Beat Generation - 1959 being the height of this term in the national consciousness - until it was discovered that MGM had already copyrighted the title for a B-movie also to be released that year. So the theme song was added, and the title changed (though currently available prints retain the original title).

This Song For Jack
(16mm, 1983, 30 minutes)
In 1982, the major living figures of the Beat movement gathered at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the "Buddhist University" where Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman had co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The occasion was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Kerouac's On the Road. Robert Frank set up his camera on the porch, and filmed writers ruminating on Kerouac's achievement, or simply reminiscing. All kinds of characters show up - college-age post-hippies hoping for a glimpse of idols, bikers (one of whom is a Rolling Stones fan and recognizes Frank as the director of Cocksucker Blues, the Stones' notorious, never-released backstage documentary), Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, a typically acerbic William Burroughs and David Amram, whose appearance (and performance of a "song for Jack") triggers an elegiac revisiting of footage from Pull My Daisy, before a climactic benediction from Ginsberg. The film suffers slightly from technical limitations, particularly in the sound recording, and it is perhaps a less eventful film than Pull My Daisy - certainly it's much more off-the-cuff (Frank was recovering from illness while shooting it). But by the end of the film, the affection that these fellow travelers retain for their departed friend makes for a touching companion piece to Pull My Daisy.

The film and video of Robert Frank is distributed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Program notes: 2003 Andy Ditzler

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Andy Ditzler  08/31/2016