By Steve Provizer
You can go home again, daddy-o, but you’re not the same person you were the first time around.
Pull my daisy
Tip my cup
Cut my thoughts
– Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg
(Entire poem here)
Oh, so long ago, when I first saw the 1959 film Pull My Daisy I was, like any aspiring bohemian, enamored of the Beats. Of course, I recognized the mainstream “Beatniks” trope for the dross it was — berets, bongo-laden coffee shops, and Maynard G. Krebs — and felt my revulsion vindicated by Pull My Daisy. At last, I’d been given a glimpse at the real deal: Ginsberg, Corso, and company in situ in the Bowery, living out the musical and intellectual freedom that I craved.
Now, watching the film 60 years later, I still consider it a cultural touchstone, but buried beneath the high jinks, the fine score, and the good looking black and white, Pull My Daisy spins a tangled Freudian-Jungian web; a web that reveals as much about how women were seen and treated as it does about the rebellious spirit of the Beats. You can go home again, daddy-o, but you’re not the same person you were the first time around.
The film was produced, written, and directed by Alfred Leslie, artist and filmmaker, along with the great still photographer Robert Frank, who recently died, on September 9. The title Pull My Daisy was taken from the poem of that name written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassidy during the course of the 1940s and ’50s. They wrote it using the “exquisite corpse” Surrealist approach, each one taking turns adding to the poem’s creation.
The myth surrounding the film was that it was shot documentary style in a loft in the Bowery; that the camera just happened to be there while the crowd was living out the bohemian high life. None of the participants chose to shatter this myth until 1968, when co-director Leslie gave an interview to the Village Voice and confessed that, although done on a relative shoestring ($15,000), the film was shot in a photography studio, and was scripted and rehearsed.
The premise of Pull My Daisy was adapted from Kerouac’s uncompleted play, Beat Generation. All the dialogue in the film comes via a voiceover, which was created and spoken by Kerouac. Another part of the Daisy myth asserts that Kerouac watched the film once and — boom — his words sprang out of him full blown, unspooling like the 120-foot spool of paper On the Road was typed on. Well . . . yes, there is a spontaneous quality to the narration, but it was written out in advance, performed four times, and mixed from three separate takes (Kerouac was not happy that his narration had been edited). In the end, the onscreen visuals align well with Kerouac’s words, a testament to the acuity of his writing and to the editing of the film.
It’s hard to believe that anyone could have watched Pull My Daisy and thought it was an example of documentary-style shooting. The lighting is excellent and the shots are composed with skill. The film, as noted, is in black and white and was recorded with no sync sound. There are sound effects and a fine musical score created by David Amram, a musician/composer with three feet: one in jazz, one in “classical,” and one in World music (before it was called that).
Here’s the plot: A woman is getting her child ready for school (actually Pablo Frank, the son of Robert), when Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso come in. She deals with breakfast while they drink beer, riff on poetry, and share a joint (Kerouac’s voiceover calls it tobacco). The husband, Milo, returns from his job as a railroad brakeman. Then a man known as the Bishop arrives with his mother and sister. Kerouac’s voiceover runs constantly underneath, moving through various riffs — “Who are poets? Are we all poets?” “Is baseball holy?”
We have a scene where the Bishop does some sidewalk evangelizing, with a giant American flag blowing in his face. A long slow pan around the kitchen accompanies a riff on “cockroaches” (shades of William Burroughs, who published Naked Lunch in the same year, 1959). More members of the Beat mob come in, with musical instruments. The Beats talk with the Bishop about Buddhism. Bishop’s mother starts playing modal pseudo-religious music on a parlor organ before jazz suddenly breaks out among the Beats. This motivates the Bishop, mom, and sister to depart the soiree. Milo’s wife entreats them to stay. She’s unhappy that the Beat mob forced them out, although Kerouac’s commentary beneath is that each had to do what they had to do and that the Beats were not being rude.
Amram plays a haunting melody on French horn while the poets play cowboy-wino-preacher. The Beats leave and, from the steps, they try to get Milo to join them. Milo and wife argue with each other. He kicks a chair and leaves to join the others. “She’ll get over it,” Kerouac says in his voiceover. The group claps and scats their way out of the apartment.
Filmmaker Jonas Mekas claims that the film shows things the way they were: “There is no lie, no pretension, no moralizing in it.” But I disagree. First of all, two of the characters — Ginsburg and Orlovsky — were lovers and the rest, including painter Larry Rivers (who played Milo), were experimenting with homo- and bi-sexuality. Not portraying that sexual perspective is not a lie — but it may be a sin of omission.
More telling is the way the women in Pull My Daisy are dealt with. As far as the filmmakers are concerned, there is, in fact, a moral: women are a drag.
Relegating talented women to the status of “partner of [insert Great Man here]” has been a common trope in American cultural history, as it is here. None of the female characters are given a name. They are “wife of,” “mother of,” “daughter of,” and “girl in bed.” All of them are portrayed as bad sports; their attitude is antithetical to the free spirit of the Beats. Females represent the washed-out Apollo to the Beats’ vivid Dionysus.
Of the wife, played by the well-known actress Delphine Seyrig, Kerouac informs us, “She’s a painter.” But her most dynamic action in the film is nagging her husband. The Bishop’s sister is played by accomplished dancer/choreographer/ teacher Sally Gross, and the Bishop’s mother is played by Alice Neel. Both characters are prigs and are pretty much unvoiced by Kerouac. Neel’s story is an interesting one. She was a painter, whose first husband, painter Carlos Enríquez, deserted her, taking their daughter with him. Neel suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized. She made her way back into the scene, but her work remained relatively obscure for decades, before she was finally recognized as one of America’s foremost painters. “Girl on bed” was played by Sally Parker, an actor who conceived and organized “Artists for Amnesty.” Her role in the film is solely composed of lying in bed and cringing at the jazz.
I found and still find much to admire in the Beat movement and the photos of Robert Frank, an innovative and, to some degree, subversive photographer. The Beats were far more open about sexual experimentation and drugs than any American subculture had been before. They were conscious of the need to find spiritual alternatives to the American obsession with the holy dollar. They looked a number of social prejudices in the eye and even spit in that eye. Their artistic sensibility is evident. Frame by frame, Pull My Daisy pulls you in and brings pleasure.
However, the movie is a collaboration among filmmakers who had a script to follow and used (mostly) nonactors who were only half committed to following the dictates of preconceived scenes and dialogue. Given this lack of internal aesthetic cohesiveness, it’s not surprising that the project turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. And, as far as the film’s sexual and gender mores: disentombed from its 1959 time capsule, Pull My Daisy is a fair exemplar of its time. The fact that the whole business is sprinkled with some engaging bohemian fairy-dust doesn’t change that hard fact.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.