The Beat Hotel: Film Review

Impressionistic documentary about the temporary Parisian home of the Beat writers fails to justify its full-length running time.

Filmmaker Alan Govenar misses the mark in his attempt to document the historical French dwelling of once famous beatniks.

A European equivalent to New York’s famed bohemian Chelsea Hotel, the cheap, rundown residential hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris’ Latin Quarter was the temporary home to such Beat Generation writers, poets and artists as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky during the years 1957-1963, when their works were running afoul of obscenity laws in the United States. The Beat Hotel, Alan Govenar’s disappointingly shallow documentary about the fabled establishment, provides only scattershot illuminations about its famous residents. 

The film alternates between hewing to standard talking-heads/archival footage documentary tropes and aping the unconventional literary style of its inspirations via such devices as animations and cut-outs, all accompanied by a freewheeling jazz score that might well have been composed in the ‘50s. Along the way, we hear excerpts from such landmark works as Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, both of which were partially written at the hotel.

Less successfully, it also makes unfortunate use of dramatic reenactments, with actors portraying Burroughs, Corso, and others to highly unconvincing effect.

The film certainly recounts some fascinating episodes, such as Burroughs developing his “cut-up” writing method; his presentation of a magic act in which he made himself disappear; Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin’s invention of the stroboscopic “Dreamachine”; and Ginsberg and Gregory Corso’s amusingly dada-like encounter with the master himself, Marcel Duchamp.

The principal figures are sadly all gone, but eyewitness accounts are delivered by various friends, colleagues and neighbors, including British photographer Harold Chapman, who lived at the hotel during the same period and whose evocative photos are on ample display.

Like so many recent documentaries, The Beat Hotel feels padded and undernourished, failing to provide enough substantive material to justify its full-length running time. Diehard fans of the Beat Generation writers will certainly find enough here to interest them, but otherwise the film mostly succeeds as a promotional vehicle for the recently renovated hotel, which naturally has been upgraded to an expensive, four-star status.


Director: Alan Govenar

Production: Documentary Arts

Directors of photography: Didier Dorant, Bob Tullier

Editor: Alan Hatchett

Music: Daniel M. Cavanagh, Daniel Cicourel Hanley

No rating, 82 min.