Monday, December 26, 2022

Melody C. Miller profiles Poet Ruth Weiss in Lively 2019 Documentary The Beat Goddess

(Melody C. Miller, USA, 2019, 69 minutes) 

In a deep, nicotine-burnished voice, beat poet, performer, and playwright Ruth Weiss narrates Melody C. Miller's spirited and affectionate documentary. 

Weiss starts off by stating that she always knew she wanted to be a poet. Born in 1928 in Berlin, she cites a book of Grimms' Fairy Tales for sparking her imagination. Her parents gave her the prized possession as a Hanukkah gift in 1935. After Hitler came to power, her father could see the writing on the wall, and the family traveled through Austria, Holland, and Switzerland on their way to the United States. Some of her poems retrace that journey. 

In Chicago, she attended a Catholic school where the nuns encouraged her talent. After moving to San Francisco in the 1940s, she established her performance style. "I do my best to use simple, everyday words," she notes about her unpretentious writing approach. Though she doesn't claim to be the first beat poet, she helped to popularize the practice on the West Coast. 

She got the idea to color her hair in shades of green from Joseph Losey's 1948 antiwar film The Boy with the Green Hair starring a young Dean Stockwell. Eighty-eight years old at the time of filming, her teal hair and fingernails match her sea-green eyes. 

As part of the North Beach poetry scene, Weiss befriended fellow beat writers, like On the Road and Dharma Bums novelist Jack Kerouac, with whom she would drink and trade haikus. She expresses regret that she didn't save their work. Unlike her male peers, though, she had trouble getting published. She would eventually issue over a dozen books of poetry. 

When she performs in the film, she receives accompaniment from sax player Rent Romus, bassist Doug O'Connor, and percussionist Hal Davis who plays a hollow log like a drum. According to Romus, "You almost have to be psychic to play with Ruth." Davis, 20 years Weiss's junior, moved in with her in 2010. Towards the end, he reads a poem in which he describes her as a princess. The two seem amazed that they found each other so late in life. 

Throughout the documentary, Miller uses painterly animation from Ketzi Rivera to depict Weiss's peripatetic childhood and solo dance performances to illuminate her poems. She filmed the three dancers on the streets of San Francisco (Brennan Wall), in a forest (Isabel Tsui), and in a desert (Ida Nowakowska). 

It's fortunate she spent time with Weiss while she was in such good health as the poet passed away in 2020. Her ability to carve out a niche in a male-dominated scene, in addition to her Judaism, bears comparison with Chuck Smith's documentary Barbara Rubin and the Exploding Underground, which revolves around an experimental filmmaker famed for collaborations with Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, who traveled in similar circles. 

Ruth Weiss: Beat Goddess can be streamed via Tubi, Plex, and Prime Video. Click here for the full list. Images from Blues GR (Weiss at home in San Francisco in 1972 and at Eugazi Hall in 1956) and Melody C. Miller/Ruth Weiss: The Beat Goddess (Weiss performing her poem "Turnabout" by the ocean in Albion, California; written to protect the whales and ocean creatures from oil rigs, she calls out to mother nature to protect them).  

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