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The Heart of a Beat

Gustave Reininger's documentary is a personal look at a revered poet

By Jason Gargano · February 4th, 2009 · Movies
Gregory Corso was a motherless Greenwich Village street kid who transcended his troubled childhood — including a transformative three-year prison stint at age 17 — to become a revered Beat Generation writer.

Gustave Reininger’s documentary, Corso: The Last Beat, confirms the poet’s immense impact on his fellow Beat writers — the inner circle of which included William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — and is an incisive, highly personal look at Corso’s tireless search for truth.
Narrated by actor/author Ethan Hawke, Reininger’s verite-style film follows Corso as he embarks on an exploration of his creative muse following the death of Ginsberg, a lifelong friend who would be among the first to champion Corso as a poet of singular talents.

A Greater Cincinnati native best known as the creator of the acclaimed television drama Crime Story, Reininger recently answered some questions about his documentary, which gets an advance screening Feb. 6 as part of the University of Cincinnati’s multimedia festival celebrating Corso’s life and legacy.

[See Matt Hart's tribute to Corso here.]

[See Matt Morris' story about the Corso Festival at the University of Cincinnati here.]

CityBeat: Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Cincinnati? Did you have a background in the arts?
Gustave Reininger: I grew up in Lakeside Park, an idyllic middle-class neighborhood in Northern Kentucky. The postwar Eisenhower boom was on. Middle-class conformity was the cliché, but everyone seemed to have been fused by the fear and trauma of World War II and the Korean War. I went to high school at St. Xavier in Cincinnati. My dad was a manufacturer who had eight children. My grandfather, Larry Vincent, hosted one of the first television shows on WLW. He was a pianist and songwriter and entertainer who the Crosleys — WLW — had hired away from CBS. He also was the Master of Ceremonies and produced the first-class entertainment at the Beverly Hills Supper Club and Casino in Newport. He was my pre-school in a way. He would take me out to breakfast at noon with national entertainers who were at this club: Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, Tony Bennet. And when I went to watch him do live television it was astonishing. Plus there was a vibrant talent development in Cincinnati: Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and Nick Clooney, they were all incubated in the WLW talent development. And my grandfather was part of that.

CB: Were you always interested in the Beat writers?
GR: It’s bizarre, but the Trappist monk Thomas Merton was the way I learned of the Beats. He was a literary and spiritual titan, an Englishman who lived in a monastery in Kentucky. As a child, he visited my grade school, and he had a lasting impact. He was also a poet. He published a poem along with Corso and Ginsberg in New Directions, the vanguard magazine. I wrote Merton and he wrote back a nice letter about the new writing that embraced the broad American experience of African Americans, and Latinos, all influences he’d experienced as a student at Columbia University in New York.

CB: How did you come to know Corso, and how did you come to direct this film?
GR: I suggested to Allen Ginsberg that there needed to be a feature film about the nucleus of the Beats — him, Kerouac and Burroughs.

And he shot back, “And Gregory Corso, he’s vastly underappreciated, unheralded.” A friend, Peter Kirby, happened to be doing a vanity video of Corso. I tagged along on a shoot and conceived a much bigger film. Ginsberg then introduced me to Corso, who did not like the idea of a film about him. But he interviewed me in his curmudgeonly bark: “What’s the first book?” “Gilgamesh — but it’s written on tablets,” I said. Corso liked my answer. “Who’s Gilgamesh’s best friend?” “Enkidu.” Corso smiled. “What happens to their friendship?” “A girl gets between them and screws it up.” Corso laughed hysterically and said maybe I could do a film about him.

CB: The film is a nice balance between Corso’s and the Beat writers’ past and his current search for the origins of his muse. What was your strategy in balancing the present and the past — which could have easily turned into a parade of talking heads discussing how it was back in the day — in the film’s narrative?
GR: First, I made the film for a younger generation that may not know so much about the Beats, much less Corso. So I needed to do a quick exposition of who the Beats were, hence the historical material. Corso in person was fascinating, funny and sometimes overwhelming. I knew I could “hang” a film on him in verite style, but he was unpredictable and I had no idea what I’d get. I was determined not to have “talking heads” like (Martin) Scorsese’s Dylan doc No Direction Home, where it’s mostly historical footage and talking-head interviews, including Dylan himself.

So that meant committing to following him and putting him in emotionally charged environments — going “on the road” and out of his comfort zone — in hopes he’d self-disclose. So I took him back to Europe where the “inner circle” of the Beats had emerged as young artists. And he came alive again. He wanted me to know everything. Then taking him back to prison, to his cell, that was a big opening. And meeting for the first time his mother who abandoned him. The point is that I had to find a narrative in the verite.

CB: The film has a kind of Don’t Look Back feel. Was that an intentional aesthetic choice or was it more of an organic process?
GR: Obviously, (D.A.) Pennebaker’s portrait of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back was a strong influence. But it’s unpredictable and is just a snap shot, not a narrative. But you get an intense sense of who Dylan might be, or who he wanted you to think he was. And so, too, with Corso. He had these mythologies I thought were rich and might reveal themselves. Like being abandoned by his mother.

CB: Despite living longer and being just as talented, Corso is probably the least well known of the big Beat writers with Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Why?
GR: He was the youngest of the inner circle of the Beats, so he lived later. But he’s less celebrated much because he was adverse to publicity. He just wanted to be a poet and explore truth. He was an introvert. He’d been abandoned by his mother, lived in foster homes and in the streets of Little Italy. He read his way through prison. Ginsberg knew the value of publicity and engineered it; Kerouac’s On the Road caught his entire generation’s attention; and Burroughs was bizarre. Couple that with Corso’s loathing of publicity or any “scene.” And yet to the other writers he was the most revered and profound. They saw Gregory as the real thing. Both “beat,” as in worn down, and “beat,” as in angelic or beatitude. Kerouac got a football scholarship to Columbia; Ginsberg’s father taught at Columbia; Burroughs went to Harvard. Gregory read his way through prison.

CB: I was somewhat surprised by the intensely personal nature of the film. Why do you think Corso gave you so much access to his personal life, especially the reunion with his mother and the scenes of him on his deathbed?
GR: It’s a personal film because I began to see that something profound was happening to Corso after Ginsberg died. He was going through a self-examination, a personal re-appraisal. He had never done an autobiography and had defeated several biographers. He hated all the Beat mythology yet played it to his advantage. I think he wanted to use the film to reveal the person behind he myths, the poet. So I structured the experiences, like going back to the Beat Hotel in Europe, revisiting prison and finding his mother — which took a year — and they were adventures for him. After a while, he began to trust the experience. In retrospect what I captured was a man facing his own mortality with pluck and aplomb and with the courage to look back at the same time. Neither of us knew where the film was going as it unfolded. We both were surprised at the richness of experience in the last years of his life.

CB: One of things that came to mind while watching the film is that Corso was not just the last Beat but also the last poet with a certain type of cultural relevance. Writers of all stripes just don’t have the same impact they once did.
GR: Writers don’t have the same impact because reading isn’t as important to many as it once was. We have enormous technological distractions which enhance the fundamental experience of listening and watching. The Beats made poetry culturally relevant. They got it out of universities and put it in the streets, where they drew their influences. Ginsberg and Corso, who traveled together doing readings, wrote of African Americans, Latinos, Jazz, Bebop, India. They were the first popular voices on the environment, on dignity for gays and lesbians, on the arms race, on the bomb. They were social activists, and they had a profound impact on American spirituality.

CB: How did your view of Corso change over the course of filming?
GR: I knew he was a great poet at the onset. But when we hit the road for a while I thought Corso was one of the greatest con artists I had ever met. He boasted of great accomplishments, like reading Egyptian Hieroglypics, and when I took him to the Louvre he translated Egyptian tomb writings. I was astonished. I started to realize what a remarkable life Corso had lived. And I discovered that Gregory never had a choice: Poetry was his only way in life.


CORSO: THE LAST BEAT screens 5:30 p.m. Friday in room 4400 of UC’s DAAP building. Reininger will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.

THE HARDEST NIGHT is a reading honoring the poetics of Gregory Corso at 7-9 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Reed Gallery at UC’s DAAP building.


 
 
 
 

 

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