Notes on “Pull My Daisy” (1959)

Robert Frank (b. 1924) is a Swiss-American photographer and documentary filmmaker, best known for his 1958 book of photographs, The Americans, for which Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction. Pull My Daisy, released in 1959, was Frank’s first film and stars Beat writers like Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, with Kerouac supplying narration. The film was actually codirected by Frank and the American Abstract Expressionist painter Alfred Leslie (b. 1927). Leslie is the one who decided to shoot the film silent and rely on Kerouac’s voiceover. “You can’t act out Kerouac’s characters,” he realized, “because they’re all poetry…They’re not independent people, independent characters. Each person he writes about is another aspect of himself.” Regarding Kerouac’s performance, George Kouvaros writes, “With a rough cut of the film playing in front of him, Kerouac recorded the voiceover narration three times. Each time he varied not only the tone and intonation but also the content. The version that is used on the film’s soundtrack is an amalgam of material from the three versions, spliced together by Frank and Leslie” (9).

The first public screening of Pull My Daisy occurred at Cinema 16 in New York City on 11 November 1959, a year after the publication of Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums. The film was lauded by critics, including independent filmmaker Jonas Mekas, and is sometimes regarded as a founding work of the “New American Cinema.” This was an experimental, avant-garde movement radically opposed to mainstream Hollywood fare. In one of the movement’s initial statements, it asserted, “The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring. […]. We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films—we want them the color of blood.” To fans of the New American Cinema, Pull My Daisy’s apparent spontaneity seemed to represent an ode to freedom and improvisation, values reinforced by the Beat actors and their anarchic tomfoolery.

The program notes distributed on the evening of Pull My Daisy’s premiere contain one of movement spokesperson Jonas Mekas’s most important statements, a short essay titled, “A few notes on spontaneous cinema.” In this essay, Mekas writes, “Art as an action and not as a series of plots, facts, still-lives, moving collages and pastiches. It is a direction intimately linked with the general feeling in other areas of life and art, with the ardor for rock-and-roll, the interest in Zen Buddhism, the development of abstract expressionism (action painting), the emergence of spontaneous prose and New Poetry—a long delayed reaction against puritanism, Aristotle, and the mechanization of life.”

Despite Mekas’s reading of Pull My Daisy as an example of “spontaneous cinema,” careful planning went into the staging and shooting of the film. Much of it, in fact, was carefully rehearsed. After all, improvisation doesn’t have to mean total disorganization or abandon. Rather, as Blaine Allan notes, it means establishing shared rules or limitations or protocols “broad enough to permit and encourage free play in production.” The film’s actors certainly engaged in free play of this sort on the set, and Kerouac’s narration revels in “goofing” and zany verbal excess—but as Allan argues, “in terms of pictorial quality, editing, structure, and performance, Pull My Daisy demonstrates control, not loss of control.”

This is the great mystery of Beat literature and beat cinema: the way it models a new mode of organization, one that balances preparation and spontaneity, liberty and control.

The song that we hear during the film’s opening credits is called “The Crazy Daisy” by Anita Ellis, and it uses the phrase, “Pull my daisy, tip my cup, all my doors are open. Cut my thoughts for coconuts, all my eggs are broken. Hop my heart on, harp my height, seraphs hold me steady. Hip my angel, hype my light, lay it on the needy.” Or something along those lines. The lyrics were written by Ginsberg and Kerouac, inspired by the 17th-century “Tom o’ Bedlam” songs, or songs that celebrated the wisdom of madmen (as “Bedlam” was an institution for the mentally ill).

What, I wonder, is the meaning of the phrase “pull my daisy”? It sounds pretty sexual, no?

B&W, a slow pan left across a dirty urban apartment. “A loft in the Bowery on the Lower East Side of New York.” Kerouac receives credit as the film’s screenwriter and narrator, the screenplay adapted from the third act of his unproduced play Beat Generation. We see a painting and an easel leaned against a door, followed by an unpeopled shot of the kitchen observed from above. The scene remains unpeopled and still until a woman in a robe pulls open a set of long, nearly floor-to-ceiling shutters to reveal the light of a tall window, nearly double the height of the woman herself. The narrator’s voice enters after the song’s fadeout and we learn that it is “early morning in the universe” and she is “the wife.”

“She’s a painter and her husband’s a railroad brakeman.” The story is apparently based on an incident in the life of Neal Cassady (the real-life friend of Kerouac’s on whom the characters of Dean Moriarty and Cody Pomeroy are based). Cassady’s wife, the painter Carolyn, invites a respected bishop to dinner, but Cassady’s Beatnik friends crash the party, and hilarity ensues.

Her son enters the kitchen, a young boy named Pablo (played by Pablo Frank, the director’s son).

How does Kerouac’s narration affect our experience of Frank’s B&W moving images, each image “composed” like one of his photographs?

Kerouac slips into the voices of his characters, becoming high-pitched and whimsical, for instance, when performing the lines of Pablo. Suddenly Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg enter the apartment in their hooded parkas, gesticulating beside beer cans and a jug of wine. These two pairs of characters occupy separate spots spliced into a sequence. Are the two pairs occupying the same spacetime? Will they enter each other’s frames?

All of these separate streams of thought and experience are made to seem products of a single disembodied consciousness.

Kerouac’s narration establishes an initial connection between the characters, followed by images of Corso and Ginsberg waving out a window down to Pablo, who reciprocates from the street below. The poets exchange “secret naked doodlings.” “Secret scatological thought—that’s why everyone wants to see it.”

We do hear some “diegetic” or story-generated sounds alongside Kerouac’s narration: car horns, a flushing toilet. Timing and synchronicity are central to the film’s charm. Kerouac’s narration has a slightly precognitive quality to it, the words ever-so-slightly anticipating the actions or events as they occur onscreen. Yet at other times, it tricks you with its goofy, humorous seeming spontaneity, the narrator working with no more than us when interpreting narrative imagery. As film scholar George Kouvaros notes, “part of the pleasure of the film is in listening to how Kerouac directs our eyes to the existence of the people, places and objects on screen, while also filling in just enough of the dialogue to maintain a sense of the story” (10). For Kerouac, spontaneous prose is linked with the mental discipline of haiku: “pointing out things directly, purely, concretely, no abstractions or explanations.”

The result, in Pull My Daisy, is a kind of echo effect: or as Kouvaros says, “Writing as deferral, as embodying the always-already past nature of apprehension.”

Anyway, back to the narrative. Ginsberg and Corso trade opposing wisdoms of optimism and pessimism as they discuss New York and poetry. Next to enter the apartment are Milo (“The Man of the House”) and Peter (“The Saint”). Milo, played by the famous painter Larry Rivers, informs the poets that The Bishop is coming, and that they therefore better behave. A fairly strict gendered division of labor: Milo works the railroad, and The Wife cleans the house and sees that the boys are fed. Yet, on a more positive note, this arrangement frees The Wife to pursue her art.

A change in style of music marks the arrival of the Bishop and his mother and sister.” Corso sits on the floor and pumps the Bishop with questions about Buddhism, about which the Bishop is said to know something. After a weird nonsensical first attempt, Corso reassures the Bishop he’s merely goofing. (“Goofing means I’m playing around with words,” he says, then asks with seriousness, “Is it true that we’re all in Heaven now?” Corso concludes by asking for affirmation that Buddhism allows one to do anything one wants. “Yes, when not thinking,” the Bishop replies, “we sit in quiet bliss.”

Mez McGillicuddy arrives, a hepcat organ player. When the Bishop is asked by Peter if baseball is holy, the film cuts to a narration-less montage where the Bishop delivers a sermon on a sidewalk with an American flag waving in his face. When we cut back to the face of the Bishop in conversation again in the apartment, we realize that the montage must have been a dream sequence. Kerouac returns as narrator to add, “The angel of silence has flown over all their heads.” He then launches into a bizarre, improvised, stream-of-consciousness gibberish containing references to the atom bomb. Suddenly a young girl’s voice recites “Humpty Dumpty.” As the camera rotates on its axis at the center of the circle, it’s as if Kerouac, using his multiple voices, narrates for us the telepathically overheard content of each character’s thought-stream.

Kerouac also models for us a playful, spontaneously interpretive relationship to one’s environment, showing us how we might find pleasure amid the existential crisis of an otherwise meaningless world. Ginsberg’s inner thoughts, interestingly, seem to be a set of wordless images of him dancing and performing for others.

“Strange thoughts you young people have,” says the Bishop. The Bishop’s Mother walks to the organ and plays some inspirational church music. Suddenly Mezz picks up a fluegelhorn or French horn or something and starts jazzing things up. Ginsberg and the others start asking the Bishop whether or not ordinary objects are holy, using language similar to the fourth section of “Howl.” The film thus stages a confrontation between the Bishop’s ideas and the ideas of the Beats. As the jazz gets underway, the Bishop nervously stands to leave. “Doing something and saying goodbye are both the same,” Kerouac notes. It’s now 11pm, we learn. Pablo, woken by the noise, joins the others and blows his horn. Milo picks him up and Kerouac sings wistfully, “Up you go, little smoke.” When Milo returns, he performs his impression of a cowboy, eventually pointing his fingers shaped like a gun at Corso’s forehead. The Wife enters the room and yells at him for behaving aggressively toward the beatniks. Realizing they’re no longer welcome, however, the Beats up and leave. But then they call up to Milo and he joins them on the street, the Wife left behind looking like the meanie.

And with that, the film ends.

Monday January 21, 2019

I wrote a letter to a cousin of mine ten years into serving a seventeen-year sentence in prison. I try not to dwell in sadness over my own condition for his sake, given his condition, nearly impossible for me to imagine, let alone endure. I loathe and despise my society’s appetite for imprisonment and detainment, yet writing this letter is one of the few things I’ve done to try to comfort a prisoner. “Better late than never?” asks the ego in hope of absolution as it lies on a couch reading about “Moloch the incomprehensible prison,” “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery.” Reading “A Supermarket in California,” one of the “other poems” in Howl & Other Poems, I hear Ginsberg evoking Walt Whitman as a Virgil, leading him through the neon-lit inferno of the American Century.

Tuesday October 23, 2018

By referencing movements like Dadaism in his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg situates his actions and the actions of his circle of Beat contemporaries as an Americanized continuation of the radical political-aesthetic projects of the European avant-garde. Each of these figures — the “great minds” referenced in the poem’s first line — appears by the end of the poem’s first section as a Jesus, a savior or Messiah “destroyed” for living free, brains and imagination sacrificed to the bloodthirsty demiurge Moloch. The key to Moloch’s true identity appears midway through Section II when Ginsberg reveals its more common alias, “the Mind,” i.e. dead labor, A.I., the practico-inert: “consciousness without a body” (22).

Monday October 22, 2018

Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.

Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.

Monday June 18, 2018

I feel intensely the privilege of my ability to live closely with Sarah, my beloved, as disgraceful American fascists round up and imprison undocumented asylum-seekers, parents and children, brothers and sisters, each one like us, each one a struggling messiah. How might we rouse ourselves from this nightmare? The “psychedelic partnership” of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg that Peter Conners chronicles in his book White Hand Society rigorously tested a lived utopian politics and practice centered around use of psychedelics as tools to effect transformation of American society into a loving, joyful, peaceful, compassionate, East-meets-West, anarcho-communist paradise. Part of the work of this utopian project, the way it builds itself, is through distribution of LSD, a revolutionary new means for the production of consciousness. In his book High Priest, Leary proposed as a “first ethical rule” for the emerging society: “Do what you want, explore, experiment, probe your own internal and external environment however you want—but don’t force your will on someone else. Don’t fuck up their trip so you can take yours.” This makes “evangelism,” or the spread of the psychedelic gospel, a process that demands great care in the winning of consent from those still held hostage. Those who remain in the Cave. For more on the politics of the psychedelic revolution, check out Octavio Paz’s Alternating Currents.

Saturday June 16, 2018

I enjoy jotting notes to myself on my phone these days, particularly when relaxing beside a pool. Sun, water, people, thought: a perfect combination. “Bertrand Russell on mysticism,” I remind myself, playing to a future self as its stern parent. “C. S. Lewis: did he, too, die on 11/22/63, the same day as Aldous Huxley and JFK?”—a question I type onto my screen and then promptly set aside. (The answer is, quite remarkably, as I learn afterwards, “Yes.”) In his book White Hand Society, Peter Conners claims that Timothy Leary was the person who, two days prior, supplied Laura Archera Huxley with the 200 micrograms of LSD that she administered to Aldous on his deathbed. Registering the sun’s warmth, I redirect awareness toward a swim, the pool’s rippling blue-and-white surface performing a lovely hypnosis. The lower part of me submerged to just below my chin, my thoughts grow fish-like—and then with another stroke, frog-like—consciousness of the entirety of my evolutionary past remaining stored, it seems, in some code-form akin to DNA. “What are the defining characteristics of contemporary existence?” I wonder after contemplating Western modernity’s imperfect approximation of a past garden paradise. This Shanghai noon. In all observable effects, however, the pool beside which I sit is still a healthy, therapeutic spot: Blake’s Sunflower’s “sweet golden clime.” Pool-going diminishes aggression, serves as a pleasureful release from some of the neuroses of the encircling regime. The optimist under present circumstances rejoices by noticing a parallelogram formed by the play of sunlight upon a tiled surface. The machinery of capitalism, I remind myself, threatens to extinguish even this. The White Hand Society gives me hope, though. I glimpse a row of ice cream cones printed on a towel and feel myself assured again of the all-rightness of existence.

Friday June 15, 2018

I begin to wonder about the role played by sexuality both as influence upon and content within psychedelic literature. Allen Ginsberg was gay, of course, as was Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), as were Huxley’s closest friends during his years in Hollywood, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood. As for Philip K. Dick, prior to entering a chain of unsuccessful heterosexual marriages, Dick roomed with two gay poets central to the San Francisco Renaissance, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (By all accounts, however, Dick’s relationship to Duncan and Spicer remained strictly platonic.) What, if anything, can we intuit from this pattern? For an ecologically-attuned articulation of Psychedelic Utopianism, a kind of blueprint, in fact, for the creation of Acid Communism, see “Four Changes,” the essay that concludes Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. Snyder lists there as some of his allies “Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, [and] Alchemists.”