‘On The Road’

Filming The Unfilmable

I used to love the work of Jack Kerouac. I read it when I was young enough to catch the flame but old enough to see the writing as a bit of a stunt -much in the same way as heavy metal guitar players are ‘stunt players’. It’s been years since I’ve read ‘On the Road’ and ‘Visions of Cody’ so I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get with this film installment.  There have been quite a few attempts in film to catch the ‘Neal Jack and Me’ dynamic but none of them have come close to the raw, dynamic, pounding energy of the prose.

When I heard people were producing this film, I felt excited and elated as well as fearful. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m more sanguine. It couldn’t have been easy trying to make head or tail of a story that apparently has no structure. What the hell was Jack Kerouac on when he wrote all this stuff down? Of course Benzedrine and lots of it.

What’s Good About It

The bits on the road. The film takes a heck of a long time to get on the road, but when it does, it starts to look good. Some of the shooting of exteriors in this book is breathtaking – as it should be – while the production design remains steadfastly true.

The performances by the three main actors is passably good. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise is in some ways the best and the worst. Garrett Hedlund’s Dean Moriarty is an exhaustive (and exhausting to watch) study of the mythic character, drawing deep on both internal descriptions but also probably bits gleaned from Neal Cassady’s life. If Garrett Hedlund manages to summon the ghost of Neal Cassady, then Sam Riley utterly fails to evoke Jack Kerouac, but that’s not a problem because because it’s meant to be the fictional Sal and not ‘Zagg’ himself.

Kristen Stewart plays an excellent poly-andrously-erotic teen-wife Mary Lou. I was actually quite surprised. While I’ve never seen a single one of the twilight movies, I am familiar with the ragging she gets on the internet. In this film at least she shows more than a little pulse and her wild ecstatic dance scene as well as the numerous sex scenes show she’s quite a gutsy actress.

Some beautiful cameos are in there too with Viggo Mortensen appearing as Bull Lee, Amy Adams as his wife, and Steve Buscemi as the gay driver.

What’s Bad About It

The bits that are incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book. I knew what was going on, but if you hadn’t read the book, how were you supposed to understand this thing?

The film also tries to cut to the moments that stick out in the book with minimal connection or explanation. It’s a hard film to assemble in your head. The backwards and forwards thing at the beginning hardly sets the scene and you never really get a grip on where things are going.

The film also lacks any kind of rhythm or sense of exhilaration that is in the book. Yes, the cars go fast, but there is no sense as to what this means. One of the hallmarks of Kerouac’s prose is the flow and sense of dynamism and speed. This film is more meditative, but stodgy. It makes Sal Paradise seem emotionally constipated.

What’s Interesting About It

I guess the most interesting thing about it is that it got made. I don’t know if I would have made some of these choices, but there is now a film of the book that defied being filmed for a good 60 years. When you consider Kerouac wanted to have Marlon Brando in it as Dean Moriarty way back in the mid 1950s and here we are now with Francis Ford Coppola having executive produced it in 2012, the making of this film is in of itself a bit of Americana and cinema history.

The film also reaches behind the book to drag into sight Jack Kerouac as opposed to ‘Sal Paradise’ and Neal Cassady instead of ‘Dean Moriarty’, William Burroughs instead of ‘Old Bull Lee’. Because we know so much about these figures, the film actually has a weird docudrama edge to it.

Ahead Of Their Time

I’m really struck by how far ahead the Beat generation were in their tolerance and acceptance. Certainly the post-War relief resembles the Paris-between-the-wars Euphroia and Berlin-between-the-wars decadence all rolled into one, and is very understandable. But when you consider the range of things the Beats tried and wrote about, it becomes an astounding list.

The homosexuality text that seemed so peculiar in their oeuvre is not longer odd-looking today when most people are okay with the notion of ay marriage. The rest of society has had to come a long way to accept homosexuality but there it is in the writing of the Beats. The drug taking and brazen permissiveness has sort of drifted into the mainstream of our society to the point that we don’t bat an eyelid at once taboo topics as infidelity, divorce, prostitution, porn and drug abuse. In the very small time frame in the post WWII decade, the Beats documented all these potentialities that later got explored and expanded greatly in the cultural landscape. That, is impressive with hindsight; and as somebody who was reading this stuff in the 1980s, I can’t tell you how astounded I am that their vision of how things could be, has come true. It’s amazing that the cultural distance the Beats traveled in that decade is the equivalent of the 60years since that the mainstream has traveled.

Cars And Sexuality

Maybe the Beat Generation really were the first generation to have a threesome in a speeding car. It’s hard to tell. But Dean/Neal presages a kind of American youth that explodes with Elvis Presley and Rock’n’Roll music. He is merely ahead of his time, as is Jack Kerouac who had the good sense to write it all down. There is a feeling that Rockabilly is around the corner in the country towns in the late 1940s, all ready to explode across the airwaves.

There is also something in Neal/Dean that links right into the space of ‘American Graffiti’ as well as ‘American Gothic’. The trashiness of the character is never too far away, and yet there is something of an archetype of American masculine sexuality. It’s fast, hard, enduring and very confused. The car and driving cars then becomes a kind of expression of this fast, hard, enduring and driven nature.

Kirsten Dunst’s Camille offers a kind of counterpoint as she embraces an early brand of feminism that is about to explode in Berkely, only so many years in the future. It’s not explicit, but the text is there. She recognises Dean and cars and sex are interrelated at a very deep level that he cannot begin to articulate,let alone disentangle.  Camille, importantly, never gets in the car unlike Kristen Stewart’s Mary Lou.

Neal Cassady, The Mythmaker

If anything is interesting, it is the shadow Neal Cassady casts over not only this film but a lot of American culture. Consider for a moment that Dean Moriarty isn’t the only fictional alter ego of Cassady. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg seemingly couldn’t stop writing about Cassady. More interestingly, Cassady was the model for Randle Patrick McMurphy, the main character of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ by ken Kesey. Once you realise that, then you realise the weirdness and wildness portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation is not some generalised bum, but a very particular portrait of a very particular persona.

Hunter S. Thompson writes about Cassady in his Hells’ Angels book, and Tom Wolfe writes about his ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. Bands have written references to him, from the Grateful Dead and Doobie Brothers  and John Schofield and Tom Waits through to King Crimson’s glorious ‘Neal Jack and Me’. Certainly with ‘Neal Jack and Me’, we’re struck by the juxtaposition of the mania and boredom, the insane longing and sense of loneliness, even in the context of a threesome. All of this comes as a legacy of Neal Cassady.

He wasn’t some kind of run of the mill white trash anomaly. He was the kind of persona that has found its way into fiction and songs over and over again, like some buccaneer or a highwayman. He was the cultural enfant terrible that broke through from the other side when class walls in America were temporarily brought down by two world wars.

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler

This film makes out that it was Dean Moriarty who came long and lit the fuse to Sal Paradise’s wanderlust. The real life Kerouac was already well traveled by the time he ran into Cassady. He has written about his stint in the merchant marine as well as how he got a mental health discharge from the navy during World War II. The film also goes some ways towards trying to describe Sal Paradise as being in a writers block. From what we can glean from accounts and the volume of his manuscript, Kerouac was probably more prone to a kind of graphomania and logorrhea than writers’ block.

There is the famous quip by Truman Capote who, having heard a description of Kerouac’s work methods said, “But Jack, that’s not writing. That’s typing.”

As a guy who bangs out blog entries here, I can tell you Capote’s putdown hurts even me.

The uncomfortable tension in the film is partly due to the fact that the film makers consciously separate out Sal Paradise as a character from the entire Kerouac legacy, and yet, when Sal sits down to write towards the end, he does exactly as Kerouac did and types on to a massive scroll of paper. Kerouac himself can’t help but peep through from the back of the diagesis.

The Lacunae Of Jazz

The intersection of the Beats and Jazz is also noteworthy – because the people Kerouac and co. were listening to in New York essentially forms the outline of Bebop. Bebop’s fragile little moment in history is where music was allowed to finally break free of traditional arrangements. The freedom to improvise against standard progressions evolved into a kind of extended harmonic exploration, that opens up possibilities. And the suddenly jazz is left behind by the commercial explosion of rock music.

The explosion of jazz music in the post war decade is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper malaise in America concerning race. America effectively went to war to free Europe – other white people – while black people stayed impoverished and deprived. The apparent re-structuring of the social order did not extend to the blacks and so their music – jazz music heads into a heightened expression of this alienation.

The emotional intensity of the jazz that is discussed and written of by the Beats echoes their attempt to break with traditional societal norms. What follows on from Jazz turned out to be a very different thing to what the promise might have been. The implicit understanding of these kinds of cultural manoeuvres informs the writing of Kerouac greatly. We get snippets of this idea when Sal’s voice over is backed up by Bebop music. It frames up the era of these people, but it also gives an outline to the over all cultural thought. On that level, the film isn’t too bad.

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Filed under Cinema, Film, Literature, Movies

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