October 21, 2008

With Corso, Reininger doesn’t miss a beat

In many ways, Gregory Corso’s late adolescence mirrors that of the typical University of Chicago student. At 17, he spent hours in a cramped living space with unsavory people; he pored over every book that came his way, particularly the Greek and Roman classics. Unfortunately for Corso, the backdrop for his learning and growing experiences was not the U of C; it was Clinton Correctional Facility, New York State’s maximum-security prison.

After enduring a jaw-dropping list of childhood traumas, Corso somehow made it to adulthood not only with his life, but also with a talent for writing poetry that stopped Allen Ginsberg in his tracks. From start to finish, Corso’s story was no ordinary tale. So it’s a triumph for the historical record that Gustave Reininger documented the poet’s life in the film Corso: The Last Beat, before the subject’s death in 2001.

Reininger, who will showcase the documentary at Doc Films on Thursday, is something of an inspiration himself. Econ majors bemoaning their employment outlook may take heart in his example: A Chicago alumnus, Reininger (A.B. ’73) ditched his i-banking career to create the NBC drama Crime Story, which scored 30 million viewers over its two seasons in the late ’80s.

For his latest project, Reininger has planned a much more gentle, small-scale release into the world. After a few private screenings, Corso will be headed for film festivals, leading up to a full-scale release in December 2009.

“It’s a delicate film,” Reininger said in a phone interview. “It’s hilarious, but it’s terribly poignant. It’s poignant when [Corso is] reunited with his mother; it’s poignant when Allen dies. It deserves careful handling.”

For Corso, Reininger took a more unscripted approach than with Crime Story, following the poet for four years before his death. Unwritten plot twists abound: Corso mourns the death of his great friend Ginsberg; then he is reunited with his mother, who abandoned him as a baby; finally, he faces his own mortality when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The way Reininger tells it, the film’s cinema vérité style was a foregone conclusion.

“No one’s going to script this crazy poet who’s on 30 milligrams of methadone a day,” Reininger said.

Getting Corso to agree to the project at all was something of a challenge. The poet shied away from media attention, especially after Ginsberg’s death.

“Allen [Ginsberg] had been the mouthpiece, and then suddenly [Corso] had to be the mouthpiece of the Beats,” Reininger said. “People were going up to him saying, ‘You’re the last Beat!’ ‘Well, fuck you!’ he’d say. ‘Is that your mythology or mine?’”

After Ginsberg introduced the two, however, Corso took a shine to Reininger. He put Reininger through a series of brainteasers on ancient history, especially Greek mythology. Reininger, like any good U of C graduate, held his own.

But even securing financial backing and Corso’s go-ahead didn’t ensure smooth sailing on the project.

“I took him back to his hometown,” Reininger said. “I had the camera rolling, and I said, ‘Tell me about your hometown.’ Silence. And I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work. I’m going to have to give that money back.’”

Reininger figured that a change of scenery was in order. He took Corso to Paris, which worked out so well that the two stopped in Italy and Greece as well.

“Paris is where they incubated,” Reininger said of the Beats. “That’s where they’d do their best writing. So we went, and he wouldn’t shut up.”

As a result of the years he spent with his subject, Reininger has become something of an expert on Corso’s at once heartbreaking and hilarious life story. Reininger related one anecdote about Corso’s second term in prison, which he served as punishment for stealing a $50 suit. While on the inside, Corso would say he was doing time for gang-related activity; when Mafia members asked what gang he was part of, he’d say, “I’m independent.”

“He wasn’t going to say, ‘I stole a suit,’” Reininger said. “[He said] ‘I would’ve lost my virginity that afternoon.’”

In fact, Corso came close to experiencing the prison shower scenario that nightmares are made of. At one point, a crowd of inmates advanced on him in the bathroom. Just as things began to look desperate, one of the Mafiosos walked in. According to Reininger, the Mafioso said, “You don’t look so independent now.” Then he snapped his fingers and the inmates backed off.

Reininger himself is no stranger to seedier side of life. With the help of the Chicago Police Department, he met with Chicago mobsters wearing a body microphone and recorder to research Crime Story years ago.

“That was really dumb—I was a complete nutcase,” Reininger said. “I took all the recordings, and I put them in a bank vault in Lichtenstein. And I told them what should be done with them in the event that I disappeared mysteriously.”

While certainly a less dangerous project, Corso had its own pitfalls—namely the enormous commitment and dedication it demanded.

“If someone told me they were going to make a documentary, I’d take them to Jimmy’s and say, ‘Don’t do it’—it was crazy and thankless,” Reininger said half-jokingly. “It made me re-think what was necessary in life. It was a way of finding out what was important.”

Having found some resolution to such weighty issues, Reininger looks forward to returning to his roots. He fondly remembers frequenting Doc as an undergraduate, taking in everything from Scarlett O’Hara to Superfly.

“I got to the Cinemateque Français in Paris, and this is as good as any of them,” Reininger said. “Doc is really a world treasure.”