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Directors dig into Beat era

New films tackle Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs

If a handful of filmmakers get their way, they’ll soon convince audiences the real Birth of the Cool predated punk music, the Summer of Love or even Elvis. Yes, the Beats are making a comeback in a spate of movies that summon the spirits of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

These writers and other key figures of the Beat Generation play prominent roles in three upcoming movies: “Howl,” a narrative film from documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk”); “Kill Your Darlings” from Christine Vachon’s Killer Films; and what could turn out to be the ultimate road movie: the long-awaited adaptation of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” by Walter Salles and Jose Rivera, the director and screenwriter behind “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

While films about literary lions and counterculture icons have faced uphill struggles in the past, the current projects fall outside the bongos-and-berets school of beatnik exploitation seen in films of the era like “The Beat Generation” and “The Subterraneans.” Later efforts like 1980’s “Heart Beat” and David Cronenberg’s 1991″Naked Lunch” stand as alternately offbeat and wildly inventive footnotes in the attempt to resurrect a literary revolution that inspired artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith.

The most recent crop of pics summon a period of postwar conformity associated with Truman and Eisenhower, but the undercurrents of rebellion against the military industrial complex, censorship and repression of the time could be viewed as reflecting the current zeitgeist.

In this way, these films not only hope to attract older Baby Boomers for whom the Beats were formative influences, but also younger viewers who might warm to movies that recall the last great literary revolution in America after the Lost Generation of the ’20s, and viewed by many as precursors to the hippie movement.

Christine Walker, a producer on “Howl,” which stars James Franco as Ginsberg, says the Beats were “romantic and sexy, led dramatic, compelling lives and tackled sexual freedom and drug use and all those issues that resonate throughout our culture today.” Given their history of gay-themed projects, Epstein and Friedman’s take will undoubtedly tackle Ginsberg’s sexuality head on, which could extend the project’s niche appeal (Gus Van Sant is also exec producer).

To help lure desirable demos, the Beats are being depicted at the height of their youthful appeal.

“Some people have a problem wrapping their minds around James Franco playing(Ginsberg) until we show them pictures of a young (Ginsberg), and then it becomes more plausible,” Friedman says. A mixed-media biopic that combines live action, animation and archival footage, “Howl,” which is in post and aiming for a late 2010 release, focuses Ginsberg’s formative years as a writer finding his voice, the landmark 1955 public recital of his epic poem and the obscenity trial that resulted, which the filmmakers describe as “the first battle cry of the culture wars.”

Epstein and Friedman cite their non-fiction background as a way of capturing a pivotal moment in history with more than the usual cinematic accuracy.

“We started out with documentary material: transcripts of the trial, transcripts of interviews Ginsberg gave, of which he gave many, and constructed history of the writing of the poem,” says Friedman.” “I think our years of editing documentaries has given us a certain facility with manipulating real-world material into dramatic form,” Friedman says.

“Darlings” touts even younger actors, with 25-year-old Jesse Eisenberg signed on as Ginsberg, 27-year-old Chris Evans as Kerouac, and 28-year-old Ben Wishaw as Lucien Carr, another key Beat figure whose murder of spurned admirer David Kammerer forms the movie’s central drama. The episode was recounted in the book “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” co-written by Burroughs and Kerouac back in 1945, but just published last November, and also was depicted in the straight-to-vid title, “Beat” (2000).

Wishaw stars in another ode to literary genius, as 19th century poet John Keats, in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” which was well-received in its Cannes debut.

“Darlings,” with a full cast and crew in place but short of full financing, is aiming for a late summer shoot; while “On the Road,” in the most optimistic of scenarios, could go before the cameras as early as fall. Still, this road traces back to 1980, when Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights.Coppola’s American Zoetrope is still producing, with financing from Pathe.

Regardless, Mike Zakin, Zoetrope VP of production and acquisitions, is “excited about the pieces of the puzzle that we do have,” and assures that this is definitively Salles’ next directing project.

In a way, Salles is also taking a nonfiction approach to his subject by making a documentary about finding the movie in “On the Road,” a book that has confounded several screenwriters, including Michael Herr, Barry Gifford and Russell Banks.

Like many iconic works of fiction, the challenge will be capturing the rhapsodic quality of Kerouac’s language, and lassoing an unwieldy narrative into poignant cinematic drama. In this regard, Zakin asserts that to those who’ve read Rivera’s screenplay “it’s pretty clear that we’ve cracked that nut.”

A sad, sprawling work filled with hardship and heartache, the book “On the Road” is based on Kerouac’s thinly veiled experiences in the late ’40s with cohorts Neal Cassady (Moriarty), Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) as writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac) — inspired by the adventures of Hemingway and Jack London — criss-crossed the continent in a wild journey of self-discovery and sensual pursuits.

Anne Waldman, co-founder with Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colo., who was consulted by both Epstein/Friedman and Salles, says, “We all have our own experiences with ‘On the Road.’ I just hope the language is respected.”

She describes Salles, who interviewed her for his documentary at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder. Colo., which she co-founded with Ginsberg, as “a very intelligent man — he was a philosophy student in France and has thoroughly digested the work and the ancillary material and (followed) the real-life trail.”

Waldman — who also appears in Christopher Felver’s recent documentary “Ferlinghetti,” about Bay Area poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Bookstore published “Howl” — also visited the “Howl” set. “What impressed me about Franco and his rendering of Allen’s speech was that he seemed to be deeply citing it,” she recalls. “He was somewhat scholarly about it.”

Filmmaker Gustave Reininger, whose “Corso: The Last Beat,” narrated by Ethan Hawke, premieres at the Taormina Film Fest in June, says the Beats’ relevance continues to reverberate. “Students know of (Ginsberg and Kerouac) but haven’t read them,” he says. “But when they see (‘Corso’), they realize, ‘oh, this is why I wear jeans’ or ‘that’s why this whole thing changed.’ They see these guys as archetypes and icons.”

Elizabeth Redleaf, one of the producers of “Howl,” points to the film’s political ramifications as being particularly salient in this day and age. “After this point literature could actually open up and people could write whatever they wanted,” she says. “First Amendment rights issues are part of our modern-day life. Censorship is rampant now and this was a very brave thing that people in the 50s took care of.”

Adds Epstein: “We’re all hungry for voices of authenticity. And because (the Beats) are authentic, their works have lasted through the ages.”

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