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Friday, March 30, 2001

'THE SOURCE' / 'BEST IN SHOW'

Howls of poets and poodles


Old beatniks may die, but it doesn't look like they'll fade away anytime soon. Nearly half a century since the Beat Generation's heyday, the artistic and philosophical legacy of the Beats remains a massive mother lode of countercultural inspiration. Chuck Workman's documentary "The Source" traces the birth of cool through a stream-of-consciousness collage of period footage, recent interviews and readings of some of the Beats' best-known works.

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in "The Source"

"The Source" (Japanese title: "Beatnik") is enormous in its reach. While primarily focusing on the trio of poet Allen Ginsberg and writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, it touches on other leading lights (Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Michael McLure, Ken Kesey, etc.) as well as the salient cultural features of the time, from the Cold War through hot jazz. Cameos run the gamut from Jerry Garcia to J. Edgar Hoover, Dizzy Gillespie to Henry Rollins.

Much of the film's remit is to break through the various myths and media cliches of "beatniks" to present a vision of what the Beats were really about. Workman dredges up loads of period TV and film footage showing the derision with which the Beats were regarded, as stereotypical bongo-banging, black-bereted hipsters spouting nonsense like "cool, daddy-oh." Even the term "beatnik" was an epithet, a Russian-derived diminutive tarring the Beats as un-American (and hence, communist).

Kerouac was driven to drink and depression (footage of a particularly painful interview with arch-conservative William Buckley is included here), Ginsberg was dragged before Congress and Burroughs saw "Naked Lunch" banned. Yet, as this film makes clear, they triumphed. Many never did understand what the Beats were about, but for those who did (and do), it changed their lives.

"The Source" is a great scrapbook for Beat aficionados, but only partly useful as a guide for beginners. The speed with which it flies through several decades of American literary and cultural history will leave the uninitiated a bit baffled. Names like Peter Orlovsky, Paul Krassner or Tom Hayden are thrown about, their significance unclear to younger audiences in the absence of context. And one could question the countercultural catch-all that Workman engages in: The inclusion of Timothy Leary is a bit of a stretch -- if anything, he distanced himself from the Beatnik acid fringe of Kesey and Cassady and the Merry Pranksters.

Still, Workman does know how to catch his breath, and he opens up space for inspired readings of significant Beatnik works by an all-star cast: Johnny Depp, John Turturro and Dennis Hopper reading "in character" as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs respectively. The casting here is so brilliant and obviously right that you can't help but wish that they'd made a feature. (Although Hopper, as good as he is, can never match the real Burroughs' sardonic drawl.)

Moving from a documentary to a dog-umentary, we come to "Best in Show" (Japanese title: "Dog Show"), a hilarious look at the, ahem, dog-eat-dog world of competitive pet shows. "Best in Show" is directed by Christopher Guest, best known for starring in and co-writing the hard rock parody "Spinal Tap," and he takes a similar mockumentary approach here.

Christopher Guest in "Best in Show"

Where recent comedy films routinely go for over-the-top situations and lazy scatology, Guest finds the ridiculous in the real. His skill is in taking people and situations that seem entirely plausible and then tweaking them just a bit. The brilliance of "Spinal Tap" was that you could all too easily imagine Keith Richards really talking about amps that go up to 11.

The same with "Best in Show": When childless Florida couple Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) serenade their friends with a tune called "God Loves a Terrier," it's so believable, it's scary. Ditto for when bloodhound owner Harlan Ellison (Guest) starts talking about how his dog has telepathy. Or the gay couple (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean from "Spinal Tap") who call their pampered Shih-Tzu on the phone to sing it a lullaby. (The only off-note is the yuppie couple played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, who are a bit too close to caricature.)

"Best in Show" follows this handful of pure-bred owners as they usher their dogs through the smugly elitist and highly competitive Mayflower Dog Show. The idea of staking all one's energies and emotions on walking a dog around an arena to win a blue ribbon is slightly silly to begin with, but Guest finds enough killer details to score some real howlers.

Stealing the show is Fred Willard (a Second City Comedy vet) as a clueless ex-jock TV commentator who infuriates his posh Brit co-host with his endless, thoughtless banter. Referring to the dogs, he asks, "Do you think they know the championship is on the line?" and "If you put 'em on a football team, who'd be the tight end, who'd be the receiver?" (To which his co-host dryly replies, "Actually, I don't know any dogs that play football.") Anyone who's ever sat through a long dull Saturday afternoon of American sports television will be dead from laughter by the time Willard scrapes the bottom of his cliche barrel ("It's the bottom of the ninth inning, the goal-line stand, the . . . ").

Guest has a very interesting and effective way of working. Like a real documentary, he shoots cheap and in real-time. This allows him to create his characters and situation, and then shoot literally hours and hours of improv, culling all the best bits in the editing room. Call it disciplined self-indulgence, but the result is the freshest, funniest flick you're likely to see this spring. Best now showing, by far.

"The Source" opens from April 7 as the late show (9:20 p.m. daily) at Cine Amuse, Shibuya. "Best in Show" opens March 31 at Cinema Rise, Shibuya.


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