Rejection of the Status Quo Saturates Beat-Era Movies
Filmmakers portrayed a tragic-romantic view of life
NEW YORK — THE films in the Whitney Museum's ambitious ''Beat Culture and the New America'' hail from the experimental rather than the Hollywood end of the moviemaking spectrum. This is appropriate since Hollywood and the beats had thoroughly suspicious attitudes toward one another.
On one hand, the big studios of the 1950s era had no desire to antagonize their audiences by condoning the offbeat views and provocative behaviors of the bohemian fringe. But they were paradoxically eager to capitalize on the new ''youth culture'' that was turning rebellious types like James Dean and Marlon Brando into major stars.
On the other hand, the beats opposed most of the social and aesthetic values the studios stood for, condemning formula-bound stories that upheld the middle-class status quo - although such beat figures as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were not above dreaming of earning Hollywood renown while somehow purifying Tinseltown of its bad habits.
The Whitney steers away from Hollywood's hostile excursions into beat territory, such as ''The Beat Generation'' and ''A Bucket of Blood,'' which portray beatniks in highly unflattering terms. However, the exhibition's programmer Ray Carney has done a splendid job of showing how the beat spirit inspired a wide range of independent screen artists from the early '50s through the middle '60s and beyond.
Some of these filmmakers, such as Ron Rice and Ken Jacobs, consciously aligned themselves with the beat sensibility, turning works like ''The Flower Thief'' and ''Blonde Cobra'' into antic assaults on the mainstream American mind-set.
Others, such as Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner, avoided the beat label but shared the beat fascination with spontaneity and a tragic-romantic view of the human condition.
Still others, such as Shirley Clarke in ''The Connection'' and John Cassavetes in ''Shadows,'' united feature-film storytelling with unconventional aesthetics in ways that carried beat-style ideas beyond the subcultural arena.
Although the best-known beats were famous primarily as writers, the Whitney program recognizes the role played by other art forms in the beat movement.
Jazz is prominent in such important films as ''The Connection'' and Conner's poignant ''White Rose,'' set to a Miles Davis composition; modern dance is at the heart of Clarke's early work; and Abstract Expressionist painting has been a steady influence on Brakhage's career.
Other films capitalize on the beats' own literary talents. These include the great ''Pull My Daisy,'' with a narration improvised by Kerouac as he listened to bop music, and ''Towers Open Fire,'' concocted by Anthony Balch from William S. Burroughs's manic science-fiction musings.
Additional offerings range from Hollywood's remarkable ''Rebel Without a Cause'' to rarely seen masterpieces like Jonas Mekas's documentary ''Lost, Lost, Lost'' and Christopher MacLaine's uproarious ''The End,'' among many others. Not often has beat cinema been so ably illuminated.
* More films touched by the beat sensibility are on view in ''Robert Frank: Moving Out,'' another current Whitney show. Although he is best known for his still photographs of the American scene, Frank co-directed the key beat movie ''Pull My Daisy'' and has made numerous other films on various quirky subjects. This exhibition continues through Feb. 11.