It’s not too brash a reduction to demarcate two distinct, if not quite mutually exclusive, camps within which the Beat Generation writers remain relevant enough to follow down to the most recently annotated and excavated texts. First, there are cultural children of the 1950s and ’60s who recognize William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac as vague symbols of a new, mystic, and arch decadence—and then there are literary enthusiasts of all ages appreciative of the Beats’ rhizomatic influence on succeeding pop avant-gardists. Following the faux-opiate flecked suit of docs like One Fast Move or I’m Gone, The Beat Hotel can’t quite rise above its obvious desire to appeal to the former demographic in spite of their apparently limited patience for historical exegesis.
Attempting to provide boomers with a veritable tourist’s experience of the titular Parisian lodge where several of the Beats briefly lived and conspired following the scandalous stateside publication of Howl, the documentary’s core is a series of hotel reminiscences by neighbors such as Jean-Jacques Lebel and Cyclops Lester—all of which are accompanied by garishly animated photos, and one of which is even pitifully reenacted by actors who couldn’t be recognized as Peter Orlovsky and Burroughs without ostentatious identifiers. Meanwhile, the film’s other talking heads—the formidable but sadly tamed Beat historian Oliver Harris among them—alight delicately on the significance of each famous tenant’s most representative contribution to the landmark’s salon-like atmosphere. (Thankfully, since Kerouac never resided in the hotel, we’re spared Patti Smith’s typically obligatory input.) In other words, we’re served a glut of useless anecdotes about poems written in the rundown block on rue Gît-le-Coeur (does it matter that audience were “kind of” upset by Gregory Corso’s impressionistic, but not resolutely anti-nuclear “BOMB”?) interspersed with some genuinely crucial digressions that could form the basis for unprecedented scholarship (for instance, an explanation of the 40-watt-per-room electricity cap that enforced near darkness through the hotel’s chambers at all times, or a recounting of Allen Ginsberg and Corso’s prankishly dada encounter with Marcel Duchamp).
Most of these factoids, and many others, were woven into Barry Miles’s book of the same name, the goal of which was less literarily hermeneutical than atmosphere-humping, and it’s admittedly difficult to shake off the same mainstream-marketed aftertaste provided by this film’s sketchiness and its tinkly jazz soundtrack. Painter Brion Gysin’s impeccably recondite influence on Burroughs is given a mere footnote before the entire hotel is typing out Naked Lunch two weeks before its press deadline; and when Eddie Woods, visiting the rue Gît-le-Coeur in the present day, belts out a poetic tribute, the whole Beat movement feels lugubriously dead. Still, the movie’s breezy tone and historical casualness are indicative of the Beats’ resistance to contemporary art appreciation. Too big to be saltily fêted by niche groups, but too protean and cryptic to be readily interpreted into mass culture properly, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and their contemporaries maintain the frustrating suppleness of uncrackable walnuts. The Beat Hotel was but one of many domiciles, too small to possess anything but their ephemeral bodies.