Rating: 3/5For such a seminal artistic movement, the Beat Generation doesn’t get thoroughly explored in education. This is for obvious reasons: the themes that set Beat art and poetry apart from the norm—filth and overt sexuality—make it difficult to teach to teenagers genetically and socially predisposed to snigger at even the slightest innuendo. I remember one of my English classes in college tackling “Howl,” and I could only marvel as people seeking higher education blushed and tittered at its lines, almost everyone failing to engage with the text at all.
This lack of major teaching of the Beat Generation in typical English classes has preserved some of the movement’s anti-Establishment esoterica, keeping much of it a mystery. Ergo, I did not even know of the existence of the titular subject of Alan Govenar’s documentary The Beat Hotel, a rundown inn for beatniks in Paris. From around 1958 to 1963, some of the most famous members of the Beat Generation congregated in this ramshackle, dirt-cheap hotel, skirting American obscenity laws and publishing some of the most renowned pieces of the Beat era.
The film only occasionally mentions the Lost Generation, but it need not say anything on the subject at all to conjure comparisons between this post-WWII collection of ex-pats in Paris and the post-WWI movement of writers leaving their own countries to capture them in unparalleled detail. As the Lost Generation freely drank as their compatriots back home had to sneak around speakeasies, the Beats got away with drug use thanks to lax policing during the more pressing issues of the Algerian War.
Where the two movements differ thematically is also where their living conditions begin to branch off. The Lost Generation, summarizing a way of life that had been shown to be at an end, partied endlessly and, in some cases, enjoyed terribly outdated patronage. The Beat Generation, on the other hand, looked not backward at the end of an era but forward to the start of a new, terrifying one. The Lost writers mourned the loss of life; the Beats feared the total extinction of it. Hence, the photographs of their time at Mme. Rachou’s hotel show floors caked in filth and trash, the artists hunched over dim light bulbs and experimenting with new ways to capture post-atomic reality before the next bomb falls.
The Beat Hotel doesn’t spend too much time, thankfully, trying to delve into each poet and artist’s psyche, but it does manage to reflect some of the anxiety in the hotel guests, escaping puritanical American values and living at the outskirts even of the more permissive Parisian life. Mme. Rachou, who would angrily beat on the door of anyone who used more than their pathetic allotment of 40 watts of electricity, nevertheless emerges as a saintly figure in recollection, a woman who may not have put much effort into her building but did go out of her way to reserve it for the creative and downtrodden. If nothing else, Govenar’s subjects make a compelling case that she should be given a more prominent place in Beat history. In fact, Rachou’s spirit is the most compelling of the film, even over the myriad of oddball, unsettling William S. Burroughs anecdotes.
Like most documentaries about a niche subject remembered by only a few living souls, The Beat Hotel doesn’t offer a deep portrait of its topic. At 80 minutes, it’s already a half-hour too long, spinning its wheels in recounting the same old stories about people finding their way to this grimy haven or of Burroughs stalking the halls like an incoherent reaper. Nevertheless, the film displays the uptick of this myopic focus, in that it displays a more intimate appraisal than critical lecture. Harold Chapman, a British photographer who practiced his craft around the Beats and documented their time in the hotel, is the most frequent on-camera interviewee, and he occasionally meets with other chums from the time. They spend that time charmingly reminiscing the way any old mates do, looking at old photos as if scanning a personal album. The only difference is that they fondly talk over published photography books, laughing with memories over photos of legends.
A recurring element of the film is in the sad irony of the hotel now being a four-star establishment that now cashes in on the legacy of the flea-bitten dive that it replaced. Even without the implications, there’s something vaguely depressing about a place that used to charge a few bucks a week now costing no less than a few hundred Euros for a single night. The neglect shown to this facet of the Beat movement, and the movement as a whole, is most bluntly displayed in a scene where one of the old patrons of Mme. Rachou’s hotel tours the new inn, explaining to a politely nodding concierge what all went on in the nooks and crannies that have now been polished and dusted into pristine condition. The Beat Hotel now practically has a trademark notice attached to it, a development wholly at odds with the iconoclastic voices who made the tiny building an unfairly forgotten piece of history.