The Beat Goes Off

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I confess to a certain fascination for the Beat generation.  Not because I belonged to it, mind you (I'm getting old but I'm not that old: the Beats belonged to my parents’ generation), but because of their profound influence on America's cultural revolution, a revolution that continues to roil, and divide, Americans to this day.  In other words, if you want to understand what is happening in our society now, knowing something about the history of the Beats is a good place to start. Please understand that when I say this, my purpose is semiotic, not celebratory.  In fact, as far as I am concerned, the Beats, and their Boomer descendants, all too often equated personal freedom with hedonistic pleasure, leading America not away from materialism (as the counterculture originally claimed to do) but to today's brand-obsessed hyper-capitalistic consumerism.  What the Frankfurt School called "commodity fetishism" has morphed into what Thomas Frank has called the "commodification of dissent" (you can find his essay on the phenomenon in Chapter 1 of Signs of Life in the USA), wherein even anti-consumerist gestures are sold as fashionable commodities, while money and what it can buy dominate our social agenda and consciousness. But what interests me for the purposes of this blog is the fate of three recent movies that brought the Beats to the big screen.  The first is Walter Salles' production of Jack Kerouac's signature Beat novel, On the Road (2012), a story that had been awaiting a cinematic treatment ever since Marlon Brando expressed an interest in it in 1957.  Another is John Krokides' Kill Your Darlings (2013), a treatment of the real-life killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr—a seminal figure in the early days of the Beats and close friend of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.  And the third is Big Sur (2013), a dramatization of Kerouac's novel of the same title. What is most interesting about these movies is their box office: though On the Road enjoyed a great deal of pre-release publicity and starred such high profile talent as Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Garrett Hedlund, its U.S. gross was $717,753, on an estimated budget of $25,000,000 (according to IMDb).  International proceeds were somewhat better (about eight and a half million dollars), but all in all, this was a major flop. Kill Your Darlings did even worse.  Starring the likes of Daniel Radcliffe (as Allen Ginsberg?!) and Michael C. Hall, it grossed just $1,029,949, total (IMBd). Big Sur, for its part, grossed .  .  .  wait for it .  .  . $33,621 (IMDb).  Even Kate Bosworth couldn't save this one. Can you spell "epic fail"? As I ponder these high profile commercial failures, I am reminded of another recent literary-historical movie set in a similar era, which, in spite of an even higher level of star appeal, flopped at the box office: Steven Zaillian's 2006 version of Robert Penn Warren's classic novel All the King's Men.  Resituating the action from the 1930s to the 1950s, and boasting an all-star cast including such luminaries as Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, and the late James Gandolfini, the movie grossed $7,221,458 on an estimated $55,000,000 budget (IMBd). Now, it is always possible to explain commercial failures like these on aesthetics: that is, they simply could be badly executed movies.  And it is true that All the King's Men got bad reviews, while On the Road's reception was somewhat mixed (Wikipedia).  Kill Your Darlings, on the other hand, actually did pretty well with the reviewers and won a few awards (again according to Wikipedia).  But the key statistic for me is the fact that Jackass Number Two was released in the same weekend as All the King's Men and grossed $28.1 million dollars (Wikipedia), four times as much King's, twenty-eight times as much as Darlings, and about forty times (US box office) as much as Road.  I don't even want to calculate its relation to Big Sur.  So I don't think that aesthetics explains these failures entirely. Especially when one considers how just about any movie featuring superheroes, princesses, pirates, pandorans, malificents, and minions (not to mention zombies and vampires), draws in the real crowds.  Such movies have an appeal that goes well beyond the parents-with-children market and include a large number of the sort of viewers that one would expect to be interested in films starring Kristen Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe, and Jude Law.  But unlike the literary-historical dramas that failed, these successful films share not only a lot of special effects and spectacle but fantasy as well; and this, I think is the key to the picture. Indeed, you have to go back to the 1970s to find an era when fantasy was not the dominant film genre at the American box office, and since the turn of the millennium fantasy has ruled virtually supreme.  While it is not impossible to attain commercial success with a serious drama (literary-historical or otherwise), it is very difficult. The success of movies like Glory, The Butler, and The Help demonstrates that movies that tackle racial-historical themes resonate with American audiences, so I do not think that the failure of these Beat films can be attributed simply to America's notorious disinterest in history.  And, after all, The Great Gatsby (2013 version) did well enough.  Perhaps it is nothing more than a disinterest in movies that are made by directors who are so personally enamored with their material that they forget that they have to work hard to make it just as attractive to audiences (I get this impression from some Amazon reviews of the DVD of Kill Your Darlings).  Artistic types tend to identify with the Beats (the original hipsters), but apparently today's hipsters aren't interested in hipster history.  Given the failure of On the Road, Kill Your Darlings and Big Sur (not to mention All the King's Men), I would be surprised to see any future efforts in this direction, however.  If nothing else, today's youth generation appears to be uninterested in the youthful experiences of their grandparents—spiritual and actual.  In all fairness, I suppose that one cannot blame them.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.