Film Channels Kerouac's Words

By John Koch, Globe Staff, 12/20/2000

Words flow on the soundtrack, often lovely ones like these: ''By moonlight, I see the Mighty Merrimac foaming in a thousand white horses upon the tragic plain below.'' Images flow, too, a cascade of often striking and artfully edited scenes of exploding water, fierce skies, and red-brick mills on the river shoreline. Swooping, mellow saxophone jazz licks complete the effect, which might well be mesmerizing to some viewers, and understandably befuddling to others.

''Lowell Blues: The Words of Jack Kerouac'' is an impressionistic film tribute to the prolific Beat writer and famous Lowell native. Specifically, it celebrates Kerouac's umbilical attachment to his birthplace through readings from his autobiographical novel ''Dr. Sax.'' The passages filmmaker Henry Ferrini favors are mostly liquid prose-poetry evoking the Lowell cityscape, especially the river, and its powerful pull on Kerouac's developing consciousness.

Ferrini's accompanying images are meant to support and intensify Kerouac's rhythmic, river-steeped language, and they often do so quite admirably.

Still, the half-hour documentary, airing tonight at 8:30 as a presentation of WGBH-TV's ''Greater Boston Arts'' series, clearly isn't for everybody. If you don't come equipped with at least minimal knowledge of the author and a taste for unconventional filmmaking, you may find yourself at sea - or at least lost in a rushing river of sound and fleeting imagery. Unwilling to compromise the incantatory, hallucinatory intentions of his literary tribute, Ferrini offers almost no guidance or helpful exposition.

Viewers will know quickly whether they want to take it or leave it.

Kerouac's words are read by poet Robert Creely, actor Johnny Depp, composer David Amram, and others - with varying degrees of skill and pretentiousness. The score is lovely, especially the alto saxophone of Lee Konitz.

This story ran on page F12 of the Boston Globe on 12/20/2000.
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