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Friday, July 11, 2014

DVD Review: The Beat Hotel

The Beat Hotel documents the cheap hotel in Paris where from 1958 to 1963 most of the key people from the Beat generation would get together. At the beginning of the film, photographer and former Beat Hotel resident Harold Chapman says, “It was an entire community of complete odd balls – bizarre, strange people, poets, writers, artists, musicians, pimps, prostitutes, policemen even who had a secret mistress there.” Those folks included two of the three most famous members of the Beat Generation – Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (Jack Kerouac didn’t live there).

Though the world has lost William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, several of the residents of this hotel survive and are interviewed in this film. Folks like Harold Chapman, Elliot Rudie, Peter Golding, “Cyclops” Lester share their memories and impressions of this unique hotel and living situation.

Photographer Harold Chapman recalls his time there as the “happiest times of my life.” He tells of how he ended up there, how he’d originally gone to Paris with the aim of writing a very different type of book. The film treats us to many of his excellent photographs of the folks living in the hotel.

The film provides a bit of background on the beats in New York and in San Francisco, focusing on Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the resulting obscenity trials being what led Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky to go to Europe. There is also some material on William S. Burroughs and his novel The Naked Lunch.

Beat scholar Barry Miles says, “The nice thing about the Beat Hotel was that once you got a room in there, you could stay there for a long period, and it was very, very inexpensive, and it gave people the time and space to explore their ideas and not be pressured by money worries all the time.”  Sounds perfect.

There is some interesting information on Madame Rachou, who ran the place and was quite particular about who stayed there. Basically, she let in only the eccentrics. And there is a great and detailed description of the state of the rooms and the bathrooms. Particularly interesting is that she kept track of exactly how much electricity each room was using, and that residents were generally allowed only 40 watts. We also get a tour of the current hotel, which has changed greatly. Madame Rachou retired in 1963, and that was the end of the Beat Hotel. The new owners redid the place, which forced out all the writers and artists.

The film also gets a bit into Shakespeare And Company, including an interview with store owner George Whitman. There is some good information about this book store, and about Ginsberg doing readings there.

Throughout the documentary there are lots of great anecdotes, like about the beginning of the cut-up method which Burroughs employed so well. The film also brings Harold Chapman and Elliot Rudie together again, and there is footage of them reminiscing, as well as footage of Chapman and “Cyclops” Lester getting together again.

The Beat Hotel is a completely enjoyable film about a kind of glorious moment in time. I wish I could travel back there and experience just a bit of what is talked about and shown in this film.

Special Features

The DVD includes some bonus material, including a ten-minute section in which Harold Chapman discusses his photography. He talks about the Zen approach to photography, and about photographing William S. Burroughs. While he talks, his photographs are shown on screen. There is a short deleted scene about William S. Burroughs and Ian Sommerville, which includes more from the interview with George Whitman.

There is also a short film by director Alan Govenar titled The Dream Machine. It’s kind of a beautiful demonstration of the dream machine. The bonus features include an art gallery of drawings by Elliot Rudie and a short written biography of Alan Govenar.

The Beat Hotel was directed by Alan Govenar, and is available on DVD through First Run Features.

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