Friday, June 02, 2017

The Subterraneans (1960)

Jack Kerouac's novella The Subterraneans came out in 1958. It tells the story of a short love affair Kerouac had with Alene Lee (1931–1991) in New York in the mid-1950s. Kerouac is portrayed as Leo Percepied while Lee is Mardou Fox. This story becomes the frame for an exposé of the so-called Beatnik culture of the time, with the bars, cafes, pads and characters of the time moving through the lens of Percepied (Latin for "Pierced Foot", a reference to the piteous suffering and Christ obsession Kerouac followed throughout his life) and Fox's love. As a studying in emotional self-absorbed passion it is exemplary.

This 1960 film adaptation changed the African American character Mardou Fox, Kerouac's love interest, to a young French girl (played by Leslie Caron) to better fit both contemporary social and Hollywood palates. While it was derided and vehemently criticized by Allen Ginsberg among others, for its two-dimensional characters, it illustrates the way the film industry attempted to exploit the emerging popularity of this culture as it grew in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, New York.

A Greenwich Village beatnik bar setting had been used in Richard Quine's film Bell, Book and Candle (1958), but Ranald MacDougall's adaptation of Kerouac's novel, scripted by Robert Thom, was less successful.

The Subterraneans was one of the final MGM films produced by Arthur Freed, and features a score by André Previn and brief appearances by jazz singer Carmen McRae singing "Coffee Time," and saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, as a street priest, and Art Pepper. Comedian Arte Johnson plays the Gore Vidal character, here named Arial Lavalerra.

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