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Beatniks and bishops

Woody Guthrie Center will host ‘Tarantula on Film,’ a three-part summer series

Bob Dylan

The Bob Dylan Archives

The Bob Dylan Archive will present the first installment of a three-part film program June 24 at the Woody Guthrie Center. These films will coincide with an ongoing exhibit at the Center on “Tarantula” (1971), Dylan’s only published book of poetry. The first program, in conjunction with “Tarantula,” makes apparent the major influence the beat generation had on Dylan’s transition from New York City folksinger to electric international superstar.

“Pull My Daisy” (1959) is the directorial debut of American photographer Robert Frank, with co-direction by Alfred Leslie. Adapted from the third act of Jack Kerouac’s unpublished play “Beat Generation,” Kerouac comically narrates a bishop’s visit to an apartment where beatniks overwhelm him with questions of the holy. Acted out by poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, among other prominent beats and artists, the film captures the tone of their generation. Frank’s tight photographic framing sets up and contrasts the improvisational waxing and revelry of the partygoers—scenes that subsequently resonate with Dylan haranguing reporters and asking enigmatic questions in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back” (1967). (For the first time, audiences will be able to view a short outtake from “Dont Look Back,” taken directly from the hours of video footage in the Dylan Archives.)

Two short films written and directed by William S. Burroughs and Anthony Balch will be shown: “Towers Open Fire” (1963) and “The Cut Ups” (1965). In “Towers Open Fire,” Burroughs narrates and acts out a strange story of witchcraft and media control. His harrowing voice recalls sci-fi radio dramas and spell casting, spoken over scenes that mirror his literary cut-up technique—a technique which Dylan demonstrates in the outtake mentioned above.

Michael Chaiken, curator of the Bob Dylan Archives—who selected the programming of the films series—described Dylan’s “Tarantula” as “a MAD Magazine version of Burroughs.”

More experimental, “The Cut Ups” uses repetitive footage and audio cut-ups to achieve a frantic meditation on ordinary life and conversation. “Yes, hello,” and other common phrases are repeated by Burroughs over street and interior scenes shot in a mock cinéma vérité style by Balch.

At just over 30 minutes long, Peter Whitehead’s documentary “Wholly Communion” (1965) is the longest piece. Whitehead captures the gathering of 7,000 at the Royal Albert Hall in London to watch the first meeting and reading of U.S. and English beat poets. The explosive nature of the poets’ words is presented as equally as the audience’s passionate reactions. This documentary might be the closest to the heart of Dylan’s “Tarantula”—which should be considered both a response to beat poetry as well as a part of it.

These films are concerned with shaping one’s own artistic reality, and that of an entire generation. Even if their control had been taken away, or surrendered, they would reclaim it with words and images. That same generational reckoning is ever-present in “Tarantula.”

Catch these five short films at 2 p.m. on June 24 at the Woody Guthrie Center. The second and third installments are on July 29 and August 26. Visit woodyguthriecenter.org for more information.

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