Film Review: Venice West and the LA Scene

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By Mary Getlein

On April 17, Venice West and the LA Scene, by Mary Kerr, was shown at Beyond Baroque. It is part one of a two-part documentary covering the Venice and San Francisco Beat scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The film showed the lives of local Venice poets and artists: Stuart Perkoff, John Thomas, Philomene Long, Frankie Rios and Tony Scibella, among others. The artists represented included Wally Berman, John Altoon, Artie Richard and Saul White, among others.

Venice was very cheap then and people could afford to live somewhere and work on their poetry and art. A lot of artists felt that their art was just for themselves and would give it away to their friends.  They didn’t have the desire to do commercial art. It was very innocent in that respect.

Wally Berman was a very influential artist in the Beat scene – he was the one who coined the phrase “Art is Love is God.” He was arrested on a pornography charge in the Syndale Studio, the first gallery that would show Beat artists’ work. He was arrested for a small drawing representing two people having sex. Two plainclothes policemen came in, found the drawing, arrested him and took him to jail. He was eventually bailed out, but it was quite traumatic for him.

Colorful John Atoon was professionally trained as an artist, and became an Abstract Expressionist and influenced many artists around him. He was one of the few that held down a job, as an art teacher, and also did his own art. Most artists and poets lived in voluntary poverty and worked odd jobs here and there to pay the rent and buy food.

Another artist who was important was Artie Richards, who was not allowed in his own shoe at Ferris Gallery. The owners of the Ferris Gallery were afraid of how he would act once he started drinking, and didn’t want him to offend potential clients. So Artie and his friends went to the back of the gallery and built a make-shift bar out of some wood planks and set up shop there, in the alley.

Stuart Perkoff was a major poet of the ‘50s. He was very careless with his poetry, would perform it and then crumble it up and throw it on the floor. He was known for writing line after line of poetry and not stopping, as if he was in a trance. After his death, a big book of his poetry was published, at the urging of Allan Ginsburg. Stuart got heavily into drugs, which lead to him going to jail and his early death.

There is a scene in the movie where John Thomas, Philomene Long, Frankie Rios, Tony Scibella and Saul White were gathered around the table talking about the good ol’ days. Of the five, only Frankie is left. Tony, John and Frankie talked about the relief they felt of discovering they could write poems – that this was their profession. Discovering the talent that was buried under the rough exterior.

The concept of “the Muse” was discussed by many poems. The Muse was about finding the inspiration inside yourself. It was necessary to open yourself and receive the inspiration to do poetry and art. An artist or poet should keep themselves pure – you didn’t do art and poetry to make money. Stuart Perkoff felt the Muse would take away your inspiration and ability if you allowed yourself to be corrupted by the capitalist culture. Many people would use drugs or alcohol to as a way to be open to the Muse – this might work in the beginning, but by the end you couldn’t write anything at all. This happened to many poets and artists, among them Frankie Rios and Stuart Perkoff.

The film includes footage from the Gas House and Venice West, where people used to go and listen to poets “blowing” their poems and musicians playing their music.

The beatniks were dropouts from regular society, which was primarily described by conformity. America was in the prosperous ‘50s, when people were encouraged to move into the suburbs and the men would go to work and the women would stay home and raise their children. Everyone looked the same, dressed the same and aspired to the same goal: success.

Or you could drop out, run away from your pre-described role in society and go to New York, San Francisco or Venice and hang out with madmen and crazy poets. Venice was cheap then, and you could practically live on nothing. Some poets were given rooms above the Gas House.

Philomene Long talked about becoming a nun and at the last moment deciding to be a poet. She was already wearing black, she had already embraced poverty, she spent all day staring at the sky, so she was already a poet. She said that when she met Stuart Perkoff, after a minute of knowing him it was like she had known him a thousand years.

Mary Kerr tied all the pieces together in this engaging film of young voices emerging from the strange hold of the ‘50s.

In the Q&A after the movie, Mary said the movie was especially encouraging to art students, who feel that deep pull to do art, while everyone around them are telling them not to.

Elaine Trotter was the editor of the film. Jimmy Z, Theo Sauders, Ben Perkoff and, Si Perkoff (son and brother of Stuart Perkoff, respectively) performed the music in the film. Mary is planning a two DVD set that covers Venice and San Francisco. She needs money to help produce it and has a website: beatera.org, and indigogo, where you can go and view parts of the movie and donate money. The title of the two documentaries will be “Swinging in the Shadows’, part one: “Venice West and the LA Scene” and part two: “San Francisco’s Wild History Group.”

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