Film Review: The Beat Hotel

Likeable documentary about a Beat Generation hotspot that makes you want to pack up your laptop and write away in some cheap garret with a shared toilet.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, one of the epicenters of true Bohemianism was located at a hotel in Paris, at 9 rue Git le Coeur. Grubby, lavatory-challenged and forever permeated with the odor of hashish, it nonetheless housed the expatriate likes of Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and a host of other arty misfits, many of them gay, who had all come to escape their primarily American, stiflingly conformist middle-class backgrounds. It was run by the redoubtable Madame Rachou, who, as long as you were some kind of artist, only charged a pittance for these lodgings, enabling many to pursue their talents in relative comfort.

Alan Govenar’s documentary The Beat Hotel gives an ingratiating picture of this raffishly bustling place, and he has managed to round up enough survivors to provide vivid first-hand recollections, like Harold Chapman, who compulsively photographed the residents in iconic images which now hang in museums, and the delightful artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, who memorably recounts a meeting between surrealist Marcel Duchamp and these young Turk poets, at which Corso threw up on the great man’s shoes and scissored his tie. A real sense of the joyous energy of the time emerges, bristling with creativity, never more so than when seemingly the entire hotel helped Burroughs type up and piece together his manuscript for Naked Lunch in time to send it to a publisher, formerly known primarily for pornography. It sounds almost like a much more dissolute version of Mickey and Judy putting on that show.

The salutary artistic conditions helped these men produce seminal works like Bomb (Corso) and Kaddish (Ginsberg, to honor his dead mother), but, of course, such little paradises can never last. The hotel was sold and transformed into its present-day incarnation as the five-star Hotel du Vieux Paris, but a plaque installed on its now-posh premises pays tribute to the memory of what it once so febriley was.

I would have liked to hear about some of the less famous inhabitants of the hotel—certainly, women must have lived there too—and definitely could have done without actorly reenactments of certain past episodes with stiff performers trying to embody the likes of these literary legends. (“William Burroughs” is especially unfortunate.)