Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 18, 2020

Ruth Weiss, the Beat Goddess; Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

The two films under review are valuable as social history. “Ruth Weiss, the Beat Goddess” premieres tonight at the Romford Film Festival in UK and will hopefully be available as VOD before long. Ruth Weiss is a 92-year old poet who was part of the San Francisco jazz and poetry scene but never achieved the fame of her friends like Jack Kerouac. As the film points out, there was a patriarchal element to the beat generation that prevented women writers from getting their due as both Hettie Jones (LeRoi Jones’s wife) and Joyce Johnson (Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend point out in “How I became Hettie Jones: A Memoir” and “Minor Characters”.

Available for rental on Amazon Prime for $3.99, “Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity” recounts the story told by the two principals about hitchhiking across the Sahara in February, 1971. Rather audaciously, the film consists mostly of the two men, now in their seventies, speaking into the camera while black-and-white photos from their trip are superimposed while they speak. It is the only film I have ever seen that defies documentary conventions like this except for Jonathan Demme’s filming of Spalding Gray behind a table as he performs “Swimming to Cambodia”. While Dick Russell, a journalist, and Steve Ewert, a photographer, are not performance artists, their tale is spell-binding and a reminder of how my generation lived on the edge.

When you first see Ruth Weiss, you are taken aback by her hair dyed green especially since she was in her late 80s when the film was being made. She didn’t get the idea from female punks in San Francisco, where she has lived since 1940. Instead, it was watching the film “The Boy With Green Hair” in 1948. Directed by Joseph Losey, a close associate of Bertolt Brecht, it is about a young war orphan whose hair mysteriously turns green. Everybody interprets this as a sign that war is evil. Considering the triumphal mood of the allies at the time, this was a bold statement.

Born in Berlin in 1928, Weiss fled Europe with her parents just one step ahead of the concentration camps. From a very early age, she decided that she wanted to be a poet and was drawn to cities that had a literary panache. The first was New Orleans, where she hung out with jazz musicians. One day, as she sat typing up a poem, a saxophonist spotted her typing away (she has continued to use a typewriter to this day) and grabbed the sheet of paper off the machine. As he began reading it, he found himself playing a melody to accompany the words.

When she got to San Francisco, Weiss began working as a waitress deep in the heart of beatnik territory close to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore. When poetry readings began to take place at the club where she worked, she decided to line up some musicians to play behind her. The rest is history. While by no means as important a poet as Allen Ginsberg, who was part of the circle she ran with, her work is considered important. What’s even more important is the example of the kind of life she led, which was part of a stream that fed into the great river of rebellion as the war in Vietnam began.

In “Single Out,” Weiss describes her family’s 1939 escape from Austria — on the last train permitted to cross the border — in words that evoke the terror of their flight, but that also reflect her lifelong interest in the music of words:

one woman slips in the mud . . .
shots singing above our heads
not really meant to hit us (the swiss sharpshooters) —
the warning real enough —
go back we can’t take any more.
we couldn’t either.
the three of us penniless in the Innsbruck trainstation —
obvious un-Aryan.

I should mention that Weiss died on July 31, just 18 days ago. This San Francisco Chronicle article is a good review of an extraordinary life.

Dick Russell and Steve Ewert were best friends back in 1971, who grew up in Kansas. Like most men and women born in the late 40s and early 50s like me, their life was plain-vanilla, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. However, the beat generation, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and drugs melded together to turn us into either cultural or political rebels.

Dick and Steve had feet in both worlds. As a young journalist, Dick offered his skills to the Black Panther Party in Kansas City. As for Steve, he comes across as more of a hippie but definitely tuned into politics as well.

Sometime in 1971, Dick got the idea for a story that could help the two of them make a breakthrough as writer and photographer. They would hitch across the Sahara and submit the story to the National Geographic. Back then, hitchhiking was much more common than it is today.

In the summer of 1965, I visited my ex-girlfriend in Dallas to explore the idea of getting back together. When she (rightly) said no deal, I asked her to drive me to the outskirts of the city where I could begin hitchhiking back to New York. My story about the trip is here. (https://louisproyect.org/2014/12/03/highway-80-revisited/). My risks pale in comparison to Dick and Steve’s. They lived to tell about it, so did I.

Both films have a lot to offer young people today trying to understand the 50s and 60s. Told by remarkable people, they might not inspire you to dye your hair green or hitchhike but they will strengthen your conviction that it is right to rebel.

1 Comment »

  1. You wrote: “While by no means as important a poet as Alan Ginsberg, who was part of the circle she ran with, her work is considered important.”

    Gee, thanks. But I think you meant Allen Ginsberg.

    Comment by alan ginsberg — August 18, 2020 @ 8:59 pm

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