Corso: The Last Beat -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Sicily -- Although hailed by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg as an exceptionally gifted mind and poet, Gregory Corso is, by comparison, the unsung Beat, never achieving the same renown as the movement's three most celebrated icons. But he probably was the most colorful of the bunch, and Gustave Reininger's 10-years-in-the-making documentary, "Corso: The Last Beat," finally brings him to the big screen.

The film's somewhat uneven style -- at once an artistic documentary, home movie and sometimes overly conventional for such an unconventional subject -- might hamper its chances for traditional television platforms. But "Corso" should be seen, not simply because Reininger's respect and love for his subject obviously run deep, but because the film is a moving portrait of an artist of unwavering loyalty to his artistry.

Narrated by Ethan Hawke, "Corso" begins shortly after Ginsberg's death, when Corso decides to travel to Europe in search of his muse. As we follow him from Delphi to Venice, Rome, Paris and beyond, we get a glimpse into the traumatic life of a man whose salvation came from his need to transform pain and fear into beauty and wit.

Abandoned by his mother when he was a month old, Corso grew up in foster homes. As a teenager, he was sentenced to three years in prison for a ridiculously petty crime, an experience of which he speaks with startling appreciation. Had it not been for the prison library, Corso would never have started reading and writing prolifically. Not long after his release, he was teaching at Harvard.

In visiting the poet's old haunts, "Corso" also is a history lesson on American culture of the 1930s and '40s, marked by the death and despair of World War II and the ensuing explosion and disregard for authority that ultimately would be called the Beat Generation -- a term that none of its most famous figures ever welcomed or liked.

Corso does not shy away from his place in the literary world, nor the importance of his creativity or those it influenced, including punk legend Patti Smith.

An open wound that never healed for the poet was the loss of his mother, and he spent his life assuming she had been sent back to her native Italy. Reininger secretly investigates the matter and reunites mother and son in a scene that is both touching and hilarious, as Corso's mother quickly slides into the role of the smothering Italian "mama" with a man she has never known.

Shortly thereafter, Corso was diagnosed with cancer but died a peaceful man, having solved the mystery of his abandonment and finding the muse for whom he had spent his entire life writing: his mother.

Toward the end of the film, Hawke visits Corso on his deathbed, and the moment, which starts poetically, builds to a punch line that shows a mischievous spirit in Hawke, similar to the poet's, and very different from his role as narrator. One wishes the filmmaker had included more such scenes for an even more spontaneous and funnier homage to Corso's playful and profound nature.

Reininger is preparing a fictional feature on Corso's life.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production-sales: Arkwright Ventures
Director-screenwriter: Gustave Reininger
Producers: Gustave Reininger, Damien Leveck
Director of photography: Harry Dawson
Editor: Damien Leveck
No rating, 97 minute