Denver Post, April 2, 2006
Filmmakers Beat a path to Colorado's door
The big screen furthers the legacies of Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac and other bohemian icons tied to the state
By Steven Rosen
Maybe it's just coincidence, but all of a sudden Hollywood and independent filmmakers are interested in the sometimes-celebrated, sometimes-obscure Beats, writers, musicians and other artistic rebels who made Colorado their home.
For some, it was a home to escape from. Others found safe haven and security. And for still others, it was a place to die.
The names are a fascinating array of esteemed, Colorado-connected alternative-culture figures: Neal Cassady and friend Jack Kerouac of "On the Road" fame; Dean Reed, a pop star and matinee idol in the Soviet Union; filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Harry Smith; ferociously confessional novelist John Fante; "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Two competing Thompson documentaries are in the works. The Woody Creek resident shot himself to death last year at age 67. Englewood-based Starz Entertainment Group is finishing up "Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride," scheduled for premium-cable broadcast and a possible theatrical release this year.
And Alex Gibney, director of the Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," is preparing a Thompson documentary for Magnolia Pictures. He was present at August's celebrity-packed memorial service, where Thompson's remains were fired from a cannon.
"I think his body was failing him and there was a sense of looking back at other literary figures like Ernest Hemingway," Gibney said of Thompson's death. (Thompson is the subject of two Wayne Ewing documentaries, including last year's "When I Die.")
Director-screenwriter Robert Towne's "Ask the Dust" is playing in Denver. Based on Fante's 1939 novel and starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, it's a downbeat tale of love destroyed by hard living in Depression-era Los Angeles. Such unsentimental subjects appeal to Towne, L.A.- centric writer of "Chinatown."
But its roots are in Colorado, where Fante grew up. "Ask the Dust" is autobiographical. Born in 1909 in Denver to Italian parents, Fante was raised in Boulder and attended Regis College before moving to Southern California to become a writer. His Colorado years made a lasting impression because of the anti- Italian bias he experienced.
At a key moment in the film, a passage from the novel is recited in voice-over. Arturo Bandini laments how Coloradans with names like "Smith, Parker and Jones" tormented him as a boy:
"They hurt me so much I could never become one of them, drove me to books, drove me within myself, drove me to run away from that Colorado town, and sometimes, Camilla, when I see their faces I feel the hurt all over again, the old ache there."
"John was never bitter about anything - irascible, cranky ... but there was none of the bite," said Towne, who knew Fante in the 1970s and early '80s. "Just instant anger, and then he calmed down. No matter how irritated he could be, it didn't have an after-sting."
Fante didn't find fame as a novelist while alive, though he wrote screenplays. His adaptation of his novel "Full of Life,"was a well-received 1956 comedy starring Judy Holliday. His rediscovery as a novelist came when poet Charles Bukowski insisted his publisher reprint Fante's books in the 1980s. Now Fante, who died in 1983, is heralded as an American original.
Harry Smith's legacy
If Fante found oppression in Boulder, Harry Smith found a peaceful sanctuary in his last years. A talented avant-garde filmmaker, he was born in Oregon in 1923 but as an adult mostly lived an intellectually sprightly but financially impoverished quixotic lifestyle in New York City. He also happened to collect old rural folk and blues records at a time when a fast-urbanizing America was forgetting such music in favor of mass-media entertainment.
In 1952, he released his "Anthology of American Folk Music" collection on Folkways Records and triggered interest in folk for a new generation of musicians.
In 1988, friend Allen Ginsberg brought him to the Naropa Institute for a few short years of comparative well-being. While there, he recorded an audio collage of the environmental sounds of Boulder and gave lectures. He returned to New York before dying in 1991 at age 68.
Stan Brakhage, a filmmaker and professor at the University of Colorado, asked student Rani Singh to help monitor Smith's health. A friendship developed that led to her becoming a Getty Institute Research Associate in charge of his archives and furthering his legacy. That includes an upcoming film.
"He (Brakhage) taught (about) Harry Smith in his film classes. I had no idea that he actually existed. I thought he couldn't actually exist!" Singh recalled via e-mail from Paris recently. After years in preparation, her DVD/CD project, "The Old Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music," is set for release in several months.
"It's the story of the history of this influential set of records, the man who put them together and its continuing impact on contemporary music today," she said of Smith's Grammy-winning work.
Iron Curtain Elvis
Meanwhile, Tom Hanks remains committed to playing Dean Reed, the struggling singer-actor from Wheat Ridge who grew radicalized in South America, moved to Europe and became the "Red Elvis" of Iron Curtain countries. He was a pop icon in the Soviet Union and made movies in East Germany, but remained unknown in the U.S. he abandoned.
In 1985 he returned to America to appear at the Denver International Film Festival for the premiere of a documentary about him, Will Roberts' "American Rebel." Amid the sudden celebrity, he spoke of returning to the U.S. But he was found dead in a lake near his East Berlin home in 1986. The authorities originally claimed an accidental death, despite speculation about suicide or murder. His Denver visit has become legendary.
Last year, Hanks purchased rights to Reggie Nadelson's 1991 biography, "Comrade Rockstar." Hanks' company, Playtone Productions, said the film is in development and he remains committed to it.
Ron Henderson, DIFF's artistic director, remembers the tumult when Reed came - there were death threats, and Reed got into a shoving match with radio commentator Peter Boyles. But he played an impromptu acoustic-guitar set with folk singer Buffy Saint-Marie in the hospitality suite. "He was very gregarious, very friendly and struck me as a showman," Henderson recalled. "He was a pleasant guest."
Gloria Campbell, a film-festival employee, recalled driving Reed and festival guests Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis to screenings. "When we got to the Tivoli, all these press people were there waiting for Dean Reed. Jeff Goldblum looked at it all and good-naturedly said, 'Who is this guy?"'
"On the Road," onscreen
Denver is important to Kerouac's Beat Generation classic, the autobiographical novel "On the Road." It was the home of the book's wild-living, exuberant central figure, Cassady (Dean Moriarty in the book). And Kerouac, as Sal Paradise, visits it on road trips that constitute the book's famous journey.
Kerouac, who wrote the manuscript as one long scroll in 1951 - it will be displayed at Denver Public Library next year as part of a national tour - waited seven years to get it published.
That's nothing compared to Francis Ford Coppola's delays in turning it into a film. His American Zoetrope acquired the rights in 1979, the same year he released "Apocalypse Now." He has considered all sorts of approaches to it since then and even hired such esteemed writers as Michael Herr and Russell Banks to attempt screenplays.
Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally said Coppola's efforts were frustrated by "Heart Beat," a 1980 film about Kerouac's relationship to Cassady (Nick Nolte) and his wife, Carolyn.
"It's among the worst films I've ever seen, and it was so unnecessary," he said. "Nick Nolte is a wonderful actor, and if he'd had a script with a clue as to how Neal Cassady really was - the world's most garrulous man - and not turned him into a mute it might have worked."
Last year, Coppola announced he had hired the team responsible for "The Motorcycle Diaries,"director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera, to make "On the Road." Salles since has traveled the country making a parallel documentary about Kerouac while Rivera wrote the script. They hope to begin casting this summer.
"We don't update it. We root it deeply in its time period," Rivera said. "We have specific, detailed scenes in the context of the time period, which none of the other screenplays had.
"It's not going to feel like Hollywood is imposing its vision of the Beat Generation on culture; it's absorbing from culture what it meant to be Beat."