Monday, April 30, 2018

Beats on Film: 1959

by G. Jack Urso

The Beat scene is a frequent hang-out for Aeolus 13 Umbra readers (see The Beatnik Café), and the 1959 films A Bucket of Blood and The Bloody Brood exemplify just about every Beat stereotype possible. Both films were released in October 1959, just two years after the publication of the quintessential Beat novel On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, in 1957, and show how quickly Beats captivated pop culture. Both films are available on the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel and are presented below.

A Bucket of Blood, directed by Roger Corman, is the more noted of the two films. In this movie, the underrated classic character actor Dick Miller plays a dull-witted busboy whose accidental plaster casting of a cat (killing the poor creature in the process) makes him a hit with the hipsters. The café where Morris’ character, Walter Paisley, works makes the perfect venue for a parade of Beat stereotypes complete with a jazz soundtrack, poetry readings, sculpture, berets, and men with beards!  The Beats are presented as narcissistic and self-involved and push Walter into creating more of his deadly masterpieces. At 95 minutes, the action is fast-paced and feels more like a seedy pulp crime novel of the era come to life.
The Bloody Brood is a Canadian film with a young Peter Falk, later better known as the TV detective Colombo, in an early starring role. In this paean to the Beats, the film opens in a Beatnik bar/café with Falk’s character, Nico, musing about what terrible shape the world is in. When an old drunk dies before his eyes, Nico is enthralled and seeks to recreate the experience by lacing the food of an unsuspecting young man with ground glass. The young man’s brother sets out to solve the murder by entering the underground world of the Beats. While Beats get a hard rap in this film, they ultimately help bring Nico to justice — with a special poem of course!

Like A Bucket of Blood, much of the action in The Bloody Brood centers on a Bohemian bar/café filled just about every Beat stereotype. Poetry, art, sculpture, jazz, bongos, hot chicks dancing with wild abandon —The Bloody Brood enthusiastically plunges into the Beat scene. Like Corman’s film, murder is at the center of the film, but whereas A Bucket of Blood has its tongue planted firmly in cheek, The Bloody Brood tackle’s its subject matter with the seriousness of a Perry Mason episode. The opening credits montage is among my favorites examples of photo collages of the period. At 98 minutes, it clocks in only three minutes longer than A Bucket of Blood.

A Bucket of Blood and The Bloody Brood are both examples of the film industry feeding off pop culture simultaneously. Both films have similar crime-related Beat plots, similar running times, October release dates, and an alliterative use of words beginning with the letter “B” in its title. While I have a great love for these films as Beat-related oddities, they are also blatant attacks on what society at the time saw as a threat. Mainstream pop culture took the Beat identity presented in On the Road and transformed it into an exaggerated stereotype that diluted the potency of an important post-war arts and literary movement. In doing so, however, they leave us with snapshots of the era and give us insight into how society viewed the Beats, and itself, on the eve of the 1960s countercultural revolution an era that the Beats themselves helped birthed.

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