Travel isn’t quite the remedy I’d hoped it would be, though it rarely is. It rained — and I was still working throughout the day grading papers. Plus the laws, the policies of the state, make it hard to conduct Dadaist and surrealist walks. Urban excursions. Those are the practices that thrill me as a traveler: resolutely following a lack of itinerary. The surrealists called these practices déambulations, their results appearing in works like Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928). Strange encounters: a kind of “weird fiction,” though infused more with romance than with horror. An experimental approach to cartography and cosmology, becoming revolutionary (at least in the everyday of a collective reality — tiny, temporary, but at least not boring) with subsequent groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International. These groups amp up the emphasis on “scientific study” and “rigorous analysis.” There was not among Debord’s circle enough dancing and loving, not enough romance in the group’s theory of the dérive. I prefer the surrealist emphasis on the authorial agency of the unconscious. Prior to all of these figures stands the original urban saunterer, the Parisian flâneur. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the Beats reinvented this practice for the postwar era, the art of flânerie set on the road, flâneurs now palling around with one another, driving, hitchhiking, freight-hopping: the artist-poet as ecstatic world-tourist and pilgrim.
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.
The Ray Smith character in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums uses his Beat Zen Buddhism as a cover, an intellectual veil behind which to hide a misogynistic fear of women and of post-WWII white heteronormative domesticity. What is the source of this fear? He seems torn throughout the novel between desire for solitude and desire for something like family or companionship or community. The novel’s great utopian figure for this desired community is the “floating zendo,” a network of mountaintop monasteries strung across the Americas to sustain the wandering bhikkus of the coming “rucksack revolution.”
The Dharma Bums at its very least furnishes its readers with new prayers, word-patterns one can recite and insert daily into consciousness. Modeled after Kerouac himself, the book’s narrator Ray Smith sings brief improvisations with words like “Raindrops are ecstasy, raindrops are not different from ecstasy” (105). The character invents these songs while sitting and meditating in the woods behind his mother’s home in North Carolina. There is no difference, he knows, between what we do and what happens to us. There is only tathata, or “suchness,” and comparisons are odious. And yet, as I re-read the novel for class, the quality of my life seems vastly improved when, after a day of laboring with cut-backs and ‘Marie Kondo’-style purgation, I run myself a bath.