Heart Beat (1980)

Director/Screenwriter: John Byrum
Cinematographer: László Kovács

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When the hubby and I got together, I was worried that we wouldn’t stick. “I’m too bourgeois for you,” I said. Watching Heart Beat, based on Carolyn Cassady’s memoir of her marriage to and life with Neal Cassady, the real-life inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I thought of these fears anew. Cassady (like the hubby) was a charismatic wild child who, in being immortalized in the jazz-inspired prose of Kerouac, banged the bongos for what became known as the Beat Generation. That he never set out to be a symbol, that he tried to have it all—freedom, sexual and otherwise, and domesticity with Carolyn—when conformity and fidelity were national obsessions, is something that Heart Beat seeks to explore. That its often shallow, underwritten screenplay never really pulls it off, miraculously, doesn’t cripple this film. The poetry and poignancy of the post-WWII generation is created with amazing beauty and clarity by the assured hands of renowned cinematographer László Kovács and production designer Jack Fisk.

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The film begins with the atomic blast at Bikini Atoll and pages through black-and-white stills of typical 50s scenes of tract housing, happy families, television, all to the lushly orchestrated song “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” Carolyn (Sissy Spacek), in the voiceover narration that will punctuate the film, describes herself as a typical postwar American, waiting for Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet. “That was before I met Jack and Neal.” Then we meet them, too.

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Jack Kerouac (John Heard) sits tapping away on his portable typewriter, a cigarette wisping smoke into the air, a print of Edvard Munch’s The Scream a symbolic urging at his back. Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) is shown adjusting his large frame in his brown suit as he walks out of prison and runs off to steal a car to get back to New York. The trio of friends is completed by Alan Ginsberg, called Ira Steiker in this film and played by Ray Sharkey, who, with Cassady, barges into Kerouac’s apartment. Ira heads for the icebox, while Neal swills chianti from the bottle and reads the newest pages from Jack’s book.

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The famous cross-country journey that will become On the Road sees Neal pick up Stevie (Ann Dusenberry), a beautiful teenage runaway who is meant as a fictional placeholder for Cassady’s real first wife LuAnne. The trio pulls into San Francisco and shares a room in a flop house. Neal is acquainted with a rich eccentric (Tony Bill) who invites all three to dinner at a posh restaurant; all wait for Carolyn, his fiancee, to join them. Carolyn enters, a slow-motion vision of tasteful elegance, and the spark is struck.

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Jack loves Carolyn, but Neal steals her away. Heartbroken, Jack goes to New York to try to sell his book, meeting with nothing but rejection. He joins the merchant marines, traveling anywhere but San Francisco. When, at last, he can get no other outgoing ship, he returns to the city by the bay, only to find that the Cassadys have moved to the suburbs where they are raising three children on Neal’s earnings as a railroad conductor. In typical fashion, Neal greets Jack at the door, and takes off with him on an all-night bender. When Neal goes off to work the next day, Carolyn confides what a rough time she’s had with her bridled, but unbent husband. In a previous scene, for example, she came home to find Neal in bed with Stevie and Ira the day she found out she was pregnant with their first child. Jack, still in love with her, takes her to bed. “My best friend and my best girl,” Neal says when he finds out, not really displeased. Share and share alike.

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When Jack finally sells On the Road, he goes off on a publicity tour. Pretty soon the Beat Generation is launched as a bonafide marketing phenomenon. One night, Neal enters a jazz club populated by poseurs in berets asking if he’s got any “boo, mary jane, tea, marijuana, man.” He flees, only to be tricked by an undercover cop into sharing a joint. Neal goes back to prison for narcotics possession, Jack drowns in his celebrity, and Carolyn, thinking to set Neal free, divorces him. We catch a glimpse of Neal driving Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to Mexico. At the end of the line, Jack implores Carolyn, “What did we do wrong?” “We didn’t do it wrong. We just did it first.” Curtain.

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There are a lot of things wrong with this film—the script, for one, though that may have more to do with Carolyn Cassady’s flat, boring writing style setting the tone right at the start. We see the characters do a lot of things, but they don’t really seem to interact. I never really believed Jack and Neal’s friendship, Carolyn and Neal’s love, Jack’s heartbreak. Byrum even inserts a straight-arrow couple named (get this) Bob and Betty Bendix (Steven Davies and Jenny O’Hara), who go from bewildered, to bemused, to vaguely turned on by the changes in the Cassady household. For a minute, I thought my DVD had suddenly switched over to MeTV, and an episode of “Bewitched” featuring the ever-flummoxed Gladys Kravitz was on.

The lack of a substantial script hampered most of the performances, leaving us with types and quirks instead of people. Ray Sharkey is reduced to behaving wildly inappropriately, shouting his anger-filled poetry in public places and cursing the philistine publishers who won’t give Kerouac the time of day. Nolte, strangely uninvolved and almost completely devoid of the charisma that must be conveyed, mainly uses his imposing body and gestures to get his character across. Heard comes off a little better because Kerouac was shy, writery. Unfortunately, the center of the story, Carolyn, suffers from the hopeless miscasting of Sissy Spacek. She is neither lovely nor sensuous enough to inspire such devotion; if she had been given better, more mature lines, that would not have been an issue. But Carolyn starts conventional and stays conventional. She’s as boring as the 50s that bred her. To be fair, however, real people are never what the legend makes them out to be, but there was something special about these people that Byrum never locates.

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The only person in the cast who left a strong, emotional impression on me was Ann Dusenberry, who shades Stevie deeply. When Stevie senses that Neal is about to leave her, her sadness is just under the surface, covered by the rueful shell she adopted when she first laid eyes on Carolyn. She simply gives the best performance in this movie.

There are some good observations in the script, mostly in the second half of the film. For example, Jack goes on a talk show where he is grilled for writing about drugs and free love. This scene seems very contemporary, showing Bill O’Reilly as part of a continuum begun with this unnamed talk show host, nicely played by John Larrouquette. When, however, we see Jack dining with the host, talking on the phone to Neal about how the host is just posturing for the camera and isn’t really that uptight, it seems both true and a sad commentary on how serious our television personalities take their personae these days. The scene in which Neal is duped by the undercover cop (Ray Vitte) shows the generous nature that was part of Cassady’s personality, joyous in his celebrations of music, sex, and friendship, pained and disappointed by this betrayal.

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Luckily, the look of this film takes up the slack. For example, production designer Fisk presents the first of several strokes of genius across three scenes, beginning with Carolyn’s first meeting with Jack and Neal. Spacek is dressed in angelic white and photographed by Kovács in a way that makes her seem to float through the room. In the next scene, she is met by Jack and Neal outside her home and taken dancing. She is wearing a black dress with white polka dots. In the following scene, the three attend an art exhibition. The enormous abstract paintings are black and white, and Spacek wears a black dress adorned with a large white-diamond broach. The black-and-white world of the 50s, from television to lifestyle and attitudes, is slyly suggested in Carolyn’s settings and wardrobe, and communicates Carolyn’s essential nature. Kovács shoots her sandwiched between Jack and Neal, both wearing white shirts and brown jackets, a harbinger not only of the unconventional “marriage” these three people will form, but also of an attitude they represent that will squeeze the pulp out of the conformist 50s.

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In another noteworthy scene, Neal retreats from dinner with the Bendixes to smoke a joint. He sits on the backyard swing intended for his children. In the background are the staggered windows of three homes, darkened save for the glow of three TV sets showing “The Ozzie and Harriet Show.” This isn’t the first film that will show a man trapped by conformity altering his mental state, but it certainly is the most poetic.

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In the scene that dazzled the socks off me, Neal has been part of a lively bacchanal in a jazz club. The scene is alive with movement, Kovács’ camera darting around the room and finally resting on Neal, whose overflowing joy results in a kiss with a woman not his wife—a spontaneous act so reminiscent of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse that appeared on the cover of Life magazine on VJ Day. When the time for celebration is over, the scene moves into the street outside of the club. Neal emerges, crosses into the steep street lit only by a flashing neon sign and a circular pool of light from a street lamp, and climbs haphazardly up the asphalt toward a lapis half-moon of sky. This visual poetry is the epitome of Beat, and satisfaction for people who come to this movie looking for what Kerouac and Cassady represented to a generation. Heart Beat is a poem that barely needs its words.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/06/2009 to 6:46 am

    This sounds well-made if nothing else, but the Beats seem to attract mediocre movies. I recall the pathetic Beat with Keifer Sutherland and Courtney Love as William and Jane Burroughs. Actual dialogue: “What are you looking at?” “I’m staring into the abyss.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/06/2009 to 9:37 am

    Aside from the films of the time that had the obligatory coffee house scene, I haven’t seen other films about the Beats, and can’t really think of others. That’s one of the reasons this film stuck with me from 1980, when I saw it on the big screen. A favorite scene for me is when Jack decides to get serious about writing On the Road and brings home a roll of paper to insert in his typewriter. The single long “sheet” is draped around the S.F. flophouse until, finished, he rolls it back up, wraps it in brown paper, and mails it off to the publishers. “That’s not a manscript. That’s a spare tire,” one of them says. Like the scene in Julia of Lillian Hellman throwing the typewriter out the window–I guess I’m just attracted to these scenes that remind me of what I do.

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/06/2009 to 8:17 am

    My favourite writer-being-a-writer moment in a movie is in Henry and June, when Miller finishes slapping Tropic of Cancer together and immediately gets out his bicycle, steals a potted flower, and goes riding off for a shag. It’s true: when you’re finished a book, that’s about the limit of your capacities and ambitions.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    3rd/07/2009 to 1:10 pm

    I just read an article William S. Burroughs wrote about his visit to the set of this movie, and had never heard about it before. Nick Nolte as Neal Cassady? Sissy Spacek in a movie? She didn’t seem to appear in many after 1980. I was intrigued.
    Thanks for that exhaustive summary, Marilyn. I agree that Jack Fisk and Laszlo Kovacs are major talents. Rock ‘n roll movies usually have the problems you reported this one did. They document semi-historical moments one after another at the expense of character or a story that’s compelling.
    I think that Bound For Glory might be a good double feature with this one.

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