Joe Gould and Siddhartha: Ascetic Film Festival

Apropos of nothing, I’d like to tell you about two surprisingly good literary-minded movies I recently caught on cable TV.

1. Joe Gould’s Secret is a gentle, talky New York City bohemian flick about a homeless writer who wandered the pubs and alleys of Manhattan for years claiming to be writing an epic history of the world. His wit and sincerity were noticed by other New Yorkers, and eventually a group of publishers attempted to evaluate his book for publication, effectively calling his bluff, as there was no book to publish.

That’s all the plot this movie’s got, but in the tradition of My Dinner With Andre, the movie gets by on rarified air and is a pleasure to watch. This is mainly to the credit of its two lead performers. Ian Holm is the writer, a mumbling and entirely believable crochety nervous crank who recalls real streetwise shaggy-haired poets from Gregory Corso to Charles Plymell to Paul Verlaine. Holm gets to play off the remarkable Stanley Tucci, who I first noticed several years ago in a commercial film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Tucci played Puck, improbably (since he is a balding adult male) but quite well, and was the best thing about this mediocre Shakespeare interpretation. He proves his skill again here as a well-meaning staff writer at the New Yorker who befriends the homeless author (Tucci also directed the film). There is a compelling depth to his every expression; Tucci plays straight man to Holm’s clown, and somehow steals the show. Drawn in by the scent of good acting, Steve Martin even pops in for a bit spot as a high-powered book editor.

2. Siddhartha is a little-known but extremely watchable film version of Hermann Hesse’s much more well-known book about a young religious quester who lived in India during the time of Buddha. I loved the book when I first read it decades ago, and I was recently surprised to learn a film version had been released in 1972. The photography is lush and moody, the acting is subtle, and the storyline is mainly true to Hesse’s book. The most compelling thing about this story, in my opinion, is the depiction of a religious ascetic’s middle years, when despite his “enlightenment” he gradually finds himself succumbing to the disappointing but inevitable urges of a normal human being. Even a mature buddha-in-training can find himself on the wrong road, and that’s what gives this story its pointed honesty.

Neither of these films are in theatres right now, and you probably won’t find either of them on the shelves at Blockbuster Video either. But if you find yourself awake at 4 am flicking through indie film cable channels, you may be lucky enough to catch one or both of these worthy films about the lives of ascetics surviving in the real world.

5 Responses

  1. Professor SeagullYes! Writer
    Professor Seagull


    Writer Joseph Mitchell first told the Joe Gould story (and it is a true story).

    A couple of years ago, I was in a used bookstore when I ran across Joseph Mitchell’s Up In the Old Hotel. Something told me to buy the book, which turned out to be a collection of true stories about various colorful and eccentric characters Joseph Mitchell met in New York in, approximately, the 1930’s thru the 1950’s. Joe Gould is featured twice. First, in a story called “Professor Seagull”, because Gould had this knack for loudly imitating the squawk and stance of a seagull at these big parties, freaking out the high-class people (Gould was more-or-less a semi-homeless bum). The sequel story, in the same book, is called “Joe Gould’s Secret” and it’s a somewhat sad tale, but fascinating. For years, Gould had claimed to be writing a prodigiously long book. After he died, all they ever found were a bunch of those hard-bound college writing books, exam books or whatever they are called, and each one began almost the same way, with Gould talking about his father, and never getting past a certain point. Like, the world’s longest case of writer’s block.

    I remember listening to a CD of William S. Burroughs reading from his own work, and there was a passage where he said, “He’s a real character collector. He’d stand still for Joe Gould’s seagull act!” For the longest time, I had no idea what he was talking about, until I read Up In the Old Hotel.

  2. That’s cool about the
    That’s cool about the Burroughs ref, Bill. Didn’t know that.

    BTW, Joe Mitchell is the character Stanley Tucci plays in the film.

  3. De GouldI can add something
    De Gould

    I can add something to the Gould thread.

    (1) In his introduction to Pluto Press’ 1996 paperback edition of Gamsci’s ‘Prison Letters’ Hamish Henderson quotes Mitchell’s 1938 book ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon’ quoting Gould as saying: ‘What we used to think was history – all that chitty-chatty about Caesar, Napoleon, treaties, inventions, big battles – is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude – what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows – or I’ll perish in the attempt’.

    (2) Henderson goes on to quote ee cummings’ ‘Collected Poems’ number 261: ‘a myth is as good as a smile but little joe gould’s quote oral history unquote might (publishers note) be entitled a wraith’s progress or mainly awash while chiefly submerged or an amoral morality sort-of-aliving by innumerable kind-of-deaths’.

    (3) In the same piece Henderson refers to ‘an essay of Gould’s, printed in the April 1929 issue of ‘The Dial” and quotes William Saroyan as saying of this essay: ‘To this day, I have not read anything else by Joe Gould. And yet to me he remains one of the few genuine and original American writers. He was easy and uncluttered, and almost all other American writing was uneasy and cluttered. It was not at home anywhere; it was trying too hard; it was miserable; it was a little sickly; it was literary; and it couldn’t say anything simply’.

    (4) Tim Leary in ‘What Does WoMan Want’ has a fictional Neal Cassady speaking about history in terms very very close to those Mitchell attributes to Gould. Was Leary conflating Gould and Cassady? or was Cassady an unconscious Gouldite? or did he know or know about Gould? Just speculation.

  4. Incredible. This is a most
    Incredible. This is a most substantial collection Gould info for me to feast on. Thank you!

    You know, I’m reminded of an observation I once made… the most “Beat” person of all will never be heard of …

  5. SiddharthaInteresting, to see

    Interesting, to see this movie referenced, well, anywhere. I fell upon it one day and was entranced by the cinematic imagery and for some reason cannot remember if the movie wandered from the book (namely the second half of it).

    I reread it this past summer and — as always — it compelled me to rethink a few things. I agree completely that the imperfection of his journey is the connection point to the “everyman”. It’s appealing to see a master with slight flaw. It’s humanity’s imprint left behind on a perfect form.

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