“The place that I really loved, the place we all went to, was the Cornelia Street Café,” says documentary filmmaker Karen Kramer. “We were just devastated when it closed. I almost can’t bear to go down Cornelia Street. But I have to, every day.”
Kramer and I are sitting in Rocco’s bakery on Bleecker, sipping coffee and hot chocolate, discussing a long-gone Greenwich Village. “Whenever I travel in the world and people hear I’m from Greenwich Village, they go, ‘Oh, what a neighborhood. You used to have the Gaslight there, the Bitter End,’” says Kramer, who has been a resident here—in a rent-stabilized apartment—for decades. “People know what was really going on then. I wanted to keep that legend alive.”
Her new film, Renegade Dreamers—which will premiere at Cinema Village on May 31—aims to do just that. Much of its narrative follows the Village counterculture scene of the 1950s and ’60s: it gives viewers a good sense of the Beat poets and folk singers who dominated that era, the artists who used to define this neighborhood. We see a lot of ghosts: Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Woody Guthrie. Kramer interviewed a number of the era’s living witnesses, too, who recall the vanished geography in vivid detail. “If you chose not to conform in small towns, you had to run away,” the poet Hettie Jones says to the camera, of herself and her contemporaries from that time. “It was wonderful to go to places [in the Village], to just sit there, and know that there were like-minded people around.”
The historical shots Kramer uses comprise some of the film’s strongest moments. She takes us inside underground Village haunts, all concentrated within just a few city blocks. The Gaslight, where Allen Ginsberg once held court and a young Bob Dylan debuted “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” stood just a few blocks east from where Kramer and I are sitting (it closed permanently many years ago). The Bitter End is still around, but it’s one of only a few venues left from that era. Even Rocco’s is a vestige—it opened in the mid-1970s, years after the Beat generation’s peak influence here. But the bakery, like Kramer’s new film, serves as a strong reminder of how much the neighborhood has changed. This is no longer where renegades live and make art. That tectonic shift in the counter-cultural geography of the city is a key point in Renegade Dreamers.
The film isn’t all backward-looking, though. “When I made the film, I didn’t want it to just be history,” Kramer recalls. “I didn’t want it to be just a bunch of 70-year-olds reminiscing.” So she interwove a second narrative through her film: a story of modern “renegades.” These are the political poets, musicians, and activists of the Occupy Wall Street, anti-Trump, and Black Lives Matter generation. We follow a handful of them to gigs and to protests. We see where they live and hear what they think about politics. Because of the film’s braided structure, we can directly compare them, side-by-side, with their 20th-century forebears.
This new generation, we see in the film, speaks out on a wide range of issues, from police brutality to rampant, thoughtless consumerism. “There were a few issues that people [of the Beat generation] were very involved in,” Kramer said. “Civil rights and anti-war, mostly. Now, there’s so many things that people are singing about.” We hear a sampling of the younger generation’s art, which draws on the likes of Dylan and Ginsberg, but also remains distinct (“I love the Beat poets, and I was influenced by them. But that doesn’t mean I have to try to sound like them,” a young poet in the film insists. “That’s what they taught me: to not sound like anybody else”). Of course, one of the biggest differences the film shows us is that this generation is living anywhere but the Village; they’re all across the city, in Bushwick, Harlem, the Bronx, and elsewhere. There is definitely a sense of diversification in the film, and of dispersal.
There have, of course, always been artists in Bushwick and Harlem and the Bronx, and there have always been artists singing about issues like police brutality, which is something Renegade Dreamers doesn’t really address. It’s a film about one specific place, and that’s okay; Greenwich Village was, inarguably, once a major hub of artistic activity, and has since seen a ton of change. Yet despite the loss of one neighborhood’s spirit, which Kramer highlights, the film still leaves viewers hopeful. This new crop of poets and singers is more diverse—ethnically, artistically, and geographically—than the Village generation that came before, with broader perspectives on political issues reflecting that diversity. Kramer’s film shows us that despite—or, perhaps, because of—the loss of one epicenter, a movement has come to spread and sprawl.
So the times have changed, for worse and for better, and Karen Kramer has been around to see a lot of it. At one point during our conversation, I ask Kramer about the film’s title. “When I was looking for a title, I wanted something that was tough, yet poetic. Tough and soft,” Kramer explains to me, sipping her drink. “A renegade is a risk-taker, but also has a higher calling, in a way.” That’s something, she thinks, that hasn’t changed at all.