At one point in my “music and counterculture” class this semester (now done) I showed Pull My Daisy, a half-hour film from 1959 by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie based on an unpublished theatrical scenario by Jack Kerouac called “The Beat Generation.” Music people will be interested to know that David Amram, who composed the title tune, makes an appearance as “Mezz McGillicuddy.” The awesome UBUWEB — the “Youtube of the avant-garde,” as it calls itself — has an Italian-subtitled version of this never-in-print, hard-to-find film here.
There was a film-studies student in my class whose interest was piqued by this film, which is an example of “alternative film” long before the term the was coined. That is, it is not only “alternative” in the way it was funded and distributed (i.e., outside mainstream networks) but also in its overall aesthetics. (For one thing, all the sound and music is non-diegetic; aside from some musical interludes, which might be called quasi-diegetic, the only sound is Jack Kerouac’s slightly drunk voice as it narrates the story we see played out on screen.) Anyway, my student wanted to know if there are any films like it from the same time, and I rattled off a couple: Shirley Clarke’s film version of Jack Gelber’s The Connection and John Cassavetes’s Shadows are the obvious ones.
There’s another, more obscure one worth mentioning, though — a film called The Savage Eye. Like the others, the film has a documentary feel: it’s never entirely clear if what you’re seeing is staged or not. The Savage Eye follows a bitter, recently-divorced woman as she travels through the nocturnal underworld of 1950s Los Angeles in search of an experience intense enough to leave a mark on her numbed soul. The camera takes her point of view; it is the “savage eye” that records everything she sees. From a strictly musical point of view The Savage Eye is interesting for its rather strident 12-tone score. But for my purposes the film is interesting for the light it throws on the idea of hip perception — the idea of being a discrete, critical outside observer of the rat-maze in which we are all condemned to run. The hipster doesn’t necessarily imagine that he’s found a way out of the maze, but he is at least hip to the fact he is in a maze,* unlike the squares whizzing around him, trying to get the cheese.
As a sensibility, hipness places a heavy premium on perception: after all, to be hip to something is to be aware of it. So while The Savage Eye doesn’t have the hipster pedigree or subject matter (jazz, drugs, etc.) of the other films I’ve mentioned, it shares with them a fascination with perception and consciousness. The Savage Eye is an aptly-named film. Its principle is pitiless observation: people are shown from the outside, their actions are stripped of the sense they gain from inner motivation. The camera does not do the human eye’s ordinary job sifting and sorting. It is a documentary eye, not a loving eye. It does not seek the features that please, but alights on everything in equal measure. It does not stay with its subjects for a decorous length of time, but gawks for long after it is seemly. In fact, it doesn’t know what’s seemly. It doesn’t’t know anything at all — it only records. It transforms objects of desire into sickly things. The camera stares at the bodies of women in a health spa, at the bodies of burlesque dancers, at the spiritual ecstasy of Sunday worshipers at a revival meeting, at items stocked at a department store, at gamblers and drinkers and wrestlers, without lust, without envy, without any fellow feeling at all. At one point the woman says “the touch of human skin makes me sick” — what she wants is to kill the humanity inside her, to turn herself into a pitiless recording angel, to make herself into a machine, into a camera.**
And yet the outcome of The Savage Eye is Whitmanesque acceptance. The heroine (anti-heroine?) suffers a devastating car wreck and learns, perhaps too late, the beauty of life, a beauty manifest in all things, even in the repulsive things she has seen. And this, too, is one of the ways the Savage Eye works. It refuses to edit, to pull away from the gross, but it thereby also embraces everything in its field of vision. Alienation of perception and total acceptance of the objects in a field of perception are perhaps the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing. I’ve always thought that Allen Ginsberg was the odd man out in the generally pessimistic, skeptical cold war dialect of hipness, because his tone of lyrical all-embracing acceptance is so at odds with the icy, clinical observation of, say, William Burroughs. But Ginsberg’s embrace of everything is not so very far from Burroughs’ cold unreflecting eye. What is different is not the method but the motivation.
*At least he consoles himself in thinking so. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m skeptical of the hipster image of society.
**This is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s oft-voiced desire to be a
machine. Mary Woronov, one of the more louche denizens of Warhol’s
factory in the 1960s, wrote of her own disgust of human beings — what
she called “the human skin-package.”