Ginsberg has grown up in New York, in a very dysfunctional family; non-practicing Jews where mom, Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is either paranoid or crazy or both, and dad, Louis (David Cross), is either patronizingly dismissive or a hovering caretaker or both. The sensitive teen Allen, caught squarely in the middle of his parents’ constant emotional wrangling, is more than happy to go off to the university where he happily indulges his love of writing and literature, ironically following in his Dad’s poetical footsteps.
Allen soon meets Lucien (Dane DeHaan), who introduces him to David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), all of whom would later make an impact on the American literary scene. Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen) was Kerouac’s girlfriend, and she was part of the crowd, also, but there were some definite homosexual overtones among David, Lucien and Allen. Sexual liberty was part of the original theme of “The New Vision,” as they then called themselves, along with freedom of expression, not to mention liberal imbibing of drugs and alcohol. Yes, they were the precursors to the beatnik/hippie/punk/goth/grunge/slacker/hipster counter-culture. But rebellion against “The Establishment” always comes with a price.
Ginsberg becomes estranged from his own dysfunctional family, but Lucien’s family is no less complicated. Their manic adventures with their intellectual friends were their “highs,” but their own inter-relationships, determinedly non-conventional, ensnared them in unexpected ways. Lucien’s ex-lover and current stalker, David, confronts him in Riverside Park, and challenges him to stab him with his Boy Scout pocketknife. Lucien, in a fit of rage and frustration, complies. Lucien throws the body into the Hudson River, but is soon jailed for murder, which, ironically, is reduced to manslaughter because of an arcane law, then still on the books, that allowed the “honor slaying” of an assaulting homosexual.
Ginsberg is devastated by all this, not only because he had personal designs on Lucien, but because he’s now without his muse, and must find inspiration on his own, which he does, but not without further turmoil.
This film contains some rather provocative homosexual scenes, which leave little to the imagination, and also cavalierly chronicles drug use, profane language, group grand larceny (of Columbia University’s most valuable old manuscripts), and a cold-blooded murder. So these are not exactly heroic figures. But they help explain the persistent counter-culture undercurrent, constantly morphing, now into its seventh iteration, which re-defines cultural rebellion for every new generation.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.