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.

Wednesday January 16, 2019

Life unfolds in installments of day and night. For work I review the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, a film I’ve watched and taught many times over the years. The first section of the film is titled “Confronting the University.” Berkeley President Clark Kerr appears before an audience attempting to rebrand the public university as an appendage of the “knowledge industry” and a focal point of fiscal growth for the state economy. Against him rise students like Jack Weinberg and Jackie Goldberg, young people who arrived to the university looking for truth and meaning. The university came to operate for them and for the other members of the Free Speech movement as a site for live, immediate, direct, hands-on transformation of society. As viewers we watch with some surprise as the movement succeeds in growing and repeatedly mobilizing a large coalition of members. The “children of affluence,” the future managers of the society realize in the thousands that their education has been designed to ruin them. The battle over free speech evolves into something more generalizable, something much more meaningful and appealing: a battle against dehumanization. The war of humanity against unchecked bureaucracy. Students at Berkeley made the radical choice to live, to revolt, to actively push back and participate in co-creation of the future through occupation of buildings. They gather in the agora of the auditorium and laugh and boo at and surround and confront the bald head of the head of the university, President Kerr. They talk about sitting down together and re-planning the whole structure of the university with a new conception of the purpose of education. They realize that the mechanisms that the Free Speech movement attempted to change are mechanisms operating throughout the society. As audience members, we realize the same is true today. Their story thus confronts us with the question, “What would WE say, how would WE behave, if we abolished hierarchy and suspended authority? What if we did that, here and now, in our classrooms?”

Tuesday January 15, 2019

Listening closely, entertaining a variety of interpretations as possibilities running simultaneously beside one another, I wander, first among the hallways of David Bowie’s “Memory of a Free Festival,” already a bit distant and nostalgic, the gathering recalled in past tense: “It was…It was…It was.”

Bowie’s lyrical persona sings from Milton territory — trying to reconstitute hope amid summer’s end, paradise lost. By song’s end, distant festival-goers join voices in a chorus of reconciliation, animated by the sentiment, “The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.” Afterwards, I re-watch Easy Rider, noting the semantic riches of the film’s opening shot of a trompe l’oeil mural of pre-Conquest Mexico on the side of a pit-stop called La Contenta Bar in Taos, New Mexico. The scene depicts US-Mexican relations in terms of the black-market capitalist exchange-relation of the drug deal. The Captain and Billy are just small-timers, their counterculture a mere cargo cult, the film notes in the next scene, where the two men crouch defensively as the planes of the global techno-capitalist superpower fly overhead. Look at Peter Fonda loading his bike’s American flag embroidered fuel tank with rolls of dollars as Steppenwolf sings “The Pusher.” He and Hopper walk like natives of the space age among desert farmhouse ruins. They seem as alien to these landscapes as their motorbikes — products of a different stage of development. The bikes make the horses of white settler-colonialist ranchers skittish. The Captain pays respect by complimenting the ranchers on their “spread.” “You do your own thing on your own time: you should be proud.” Hippies appear here as mere nouveau riche speculators eyeing potential property on the frontier. The montage sequence that accompanies “The Weight” is an ode to the magic of the deserts of the American Southwest. Passing a joint back and forth with a paisley-bandana’d hitchhiker, Captain and Billy learn of the disrespectful nature of their colonial heritage. After soaking it in, the Captain asks the others if they’ve ever wished they were someone else. The same theme reemerges later in the film. After smoking his first joint around a campfire on the way to Mardi Gras, Jack Nicholson’s character George Hanson comes alive with far-out tales of aliens from a more advanced civilization living among Americans since 1946. Both he and the Bowie of “Memory of a Free Festival” refer to these figures as “Venusians.” By the end of the film, though, I’m left wondering: Are Captain and Billy victims of a Faustian bargain, as J.D. Markel argues, following the path of Dante’s Inferno?

Friday January 11, 2019

Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), co-edited by a young Martin Scorsese, overlays sounds and images, especially in its use of split-screen, in order to represent the crowd as a cooperative beloved community. The collective intelligence of audience, performers, and crew is astounding, comparable only to that other collective intelligence, the US military. With the walkie-talkies and the helicopters and the ever-present talk of food and supplies, the festival was clearly the War in Vietnam’s deliberately inverted double.

Friday January 4, 2019

I have long been a fan of the American independent filmmaker Jem Cohen, so it was a source of some pleasure to watch his recent film “in fifteen chapters,” Counting.

Early on, the viewer is made to wonder, Why is Cohen’s relationship to the city (like it is for so many of us) that of a silent, alienated, spectating/observing bird-watcher? What conditions have stripped life of joy in common? Why do the citizens of the twenty-first century global metropolis live as burdened, isolated monads? Is it, perhaps, because of the way we’ve organized our relations with others? Cohen intervenes in this reality about ten minutes in with the emotional intensity of Dirty Three’s “Furnace Skies.”

The film’s second chapter, titled “A Day Is Long,” takes us to a drab, lonely post-Soviet Moscow where statues of dead labor rot amid cars, ads, litter, lonely pedestrians on cellphones. Bring back the culture war, the cultural revolution, styles of radical will exercised in speech, hair, and fashion. It will be my duty this semester to recall for students the shapes and horizons of political action during what Michael Denning called “culture in the age of three worlds.” I’ll present Abbie Hoffman’s “talk-rock album” Woodstock Nation as the hippie modernist equivalent of a blog. Topical writing, filled with a sense of immediacy. Nowadays it’s tear gas and pepper spray for protesting in a park, as it was then. A dog stares up at the sky, sad and confused, in a city in Turkey. There is at least a dense, lively quality to Istanbul’s streets, a bustle, at least in the shots Cohen includes in Counting. Cats, birds, people eating outdoors, street markets. Of the film’s cities, the ones in the US and Russia are the most miserable. Like The Evens song featured on its soundtrack, the film asks us to stop repeating defeated being. Thus afterwards, to welcome a new dawn, I listen to Jefferson Airplane performing “Volunteers” at Woodstock. As Sly Stone says on the track that follows, “Time to get down.”

Sunday July 29, 2018

Among Hollywood’s various failed attempts to cash in on the LSD craze of the late 1960s, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) stands out as quite possibly the strangest of the bunch. Imagine a zany Peter Sellers comedy about organized crime, featuring psychedelic visuals and bits of Marat/Sade done up in hippie garb, starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith, and Mickey Rooney, with Groucho Marx playing a character named “God.” They even got Timothy Leary to appear in the trailer, telling “every young person in the country” to “turn on Mom and Dad by taking them to this movie.” “Dated” doesn’t even begin to capture the marvels of this trainwreck.

Wednesday June 13, 2018

To prepare myself for the new CBS Jack Parsons show, Strange Angel, I dedicate my evening to avant-garde occult cinema. The evening’s programming begins with feminist experimental filmmaker Suzan Pitt’s surrealist animated short, Asparagus (1979), after which I watch two counterculture films starring Marjorie Cameron: Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

To my surprise, however, a pattern forms among these films as the night proceeds, as all of them can be interpreted as frightening sex-magical critical revisions of the myth of Adam and Eve. The Anger film took as inspiration for its title the opium-influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “Kubla Khan”—a poem that begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree.” Very very nice. Pan that. Quality never in doubt. Wax comma hex comma spells. I barely have a boat, big chump, where’s the boat, where’s the lawyer. Here’s the thing, man. I got family. I’m not lively, nor am I adventurous. I don’t just jump right in, I step in and enter gently, in stages. “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a mythographic film,” argues P. Adams Sitney, “in its aspiration to visualize a plurality of gods” (Visionary Film, p. 107). To Sitney, however, the myth revived in Anger’s work is not the Eden myth, so much as “the primary Romantic myth of the fall of a unitary Man into separate, conflicting figures, a myth that dominates the prophetic writings of Blake and finds expression in the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley” (110). If there is to be an intervention, I conclude, if there is to be a resistance against present conditions, it will have to be countercultural, it will have to be by way of magic. Consciousness will have to draw a circle around itself, spin an imaginary wheel, and select from this wheel a provisional belief system for itself as if at random. As soundtrack for this ritual, happenstance recommends Mount Everest Trio’s Waves From Albert Ayler.