Tuesday, March 26

REVIEW: On the Road

Directed by Walter Salles
2012 Drama
2 hours 4 minutes
From IFC Films

Sam Riley
Garrett Hedlund
Kristen Stewart
Kirsten Dunst
Tom Sturridge
Alice Braga
Danny Morgan
Elizabeth Moss
Amy Adams
Viggo Mortensen

I had mixed emotions about seeing this film.  To begin with, it was based on a novel by Jack Kerouac that I truly adored the three times I read it in the 1950s-60s.  And we know how we feel about films of books that we loved.  While the book was like a bible to me, a how-to manual, it was a bit of a mess and would the film be the same?

The book was published in 1957 and for all these years I have wondered why it was never made into a movie.  I still don't know the answer but guessed the Kerouac family withheld approval.

Then, while we're looking around for some cheese to go with our whine, this movie was first released in November of last year.  It annoys me that it has taken this long to get to the Heartland.  Damn if there aren't times I wish I was living back in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world.

I was a kid when I first read Kerouac's novel.  My mother didn't approve.  He was of her generation, not mine, and he was irresponsible, she said, a bum.  She wouldn't have me trying to emulate him especially after my behavior from seeing Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle before it.  She'd had enough of the sass, the crappy posture, the greasy hair.  Poor Mom.  She had her hands full and she had to blame it on something, someone, and Jack Kerouac would do.

Kerouac was the father of the beat generation.  The beat generation?  What is that?  Beat is short for beatnik.  They liked to inhabit smoke-filled coffee houses and listen to jazz.  They often wore sunglasses indoors and said things like far out and called one another man.  Kerouac took it a step further with his writings.  He gave birth to the American counterculture.  Convention was his enemy (it was the singlemost important factor in why I liked his work).  Traveling, drinking, drugs, poetry, pals, thievery, poverty, rampant promiscuity and occasional work were his friends.  Gee, Mom, what's not to like here?

What the daddy of the beats really had to do was travel.  He couldn't be pinned down for too long.  He needed to go.  And with barely two cents to his name and a full backpack, off he went.  He would return to his east coast home to visit his mother or to see friends in other parts of the country and then he would be off again.  On the Road is about the man and those travels.

The real Cassady (l) and Kerouac

It is also about one main friend, Neal Cassady, in many ways Kerouac's twin.  They were soulmates before anyone ever used that term... kindred spirits, joined at the hip.  The group would also include poet Allen Ginsburg and writer William S. Burroughs and many others who espoused the same philosophies and engaged in the same behaviors, mainly drugs, drink, sex and writing. 

Kerouac used real names when he wrote the novel and turned it in to publishers that way but it was agreed for whatever reasons to change names before publication so Jack Kerouac became Sal Paradise, Neil Cassady was Dean Moriarty and so on.  In a way it was pretty silly because everyone knew who everyone was.

Cassady would marry 15-year old Lu-Anne Henderson (Marylou in the book and film) and they enjoyed many a three-way with Kerouac.  Share and share alike was the spirit.  She traveled with them a great deal.  He would divorce her and marry Carolyn Robinson (Camille in the book and film) with whom he would have three kids.  (While not in the film, he would also have a bigamous marriage with another woman and father a son while married to Robinson.)  He also had a 20-year sexual affair with Ginsburg.

The messy part of the book was the effort to get through the rambling nature, the episodic approach, the boredom of their various menial jobs so we could hear the message.  Kerouac certainly did have a message.  The film has this same problem although I should not be surprised that it does.  It kind of quietly and slowly hits you upside the head with the same stuff. 

One of those things, oddly enough, is cigarette smoking.  My God did people smoke in the 40s and 50s and they smoke so much in this film that I couldn't help but catch some of that second-hand.

I suspect that those who will most not like the film will be those who did not read the novel. 

One thing I think the movie got wrong is that Jack Kerouac was not as nice as portrayed here.  He was a reticent guy but not this passive.  Here he was more or less turned into a reactive character.   I do not fault at all the acting of Sam Riley, but rather the writing. 

Hedlund (l) and Riley

While we're on the subject of acting, major praise I heap on Garrett Hedlund as Neal/Dean.  I bought every moment of it.  I did not realize until after seeing the film that this is the same young man from Country Strong, a role I very much liked.  He's now covered by radar.

I could have done without Kristen Stewart, but then I always can.  She is one of the boring actresses on the screen today... seemingly devoid of emotion.  When she gives me some ooomph, I may change my tune, but as it is... I'll pass.  She also was the only one who didn't look like a character from the 1940s.  She looked pretty much today to me.

I thought Walter (The Motorcyle Diaries) Salles did a good job of directing what I would think was a difficult picture to steer.  What is wrong with it may be more about his desire to be faithful to the novel... a difficult task no matter how one attempts it.

Jack Kerouac has always been one of my favorite writers.  Some of his favorite writers are also some of mine.  I love biographical films big-time.  If they're a bit flawed as this one is, I don't care.  I never really did become the rebel that Kerouac was but I admire that he lived the kind of life he wanted to live.  We don't all get that chance.  Some would certainly call how he and his friends lived as foolhardy, even reckless, but I always admired that they determined to do it their way.  I love iconoclasts.

By the way, the next film on Jack Kerouac, coming out this year, directed by Michael Polish, is called Big Sur, based on another Kerouac novel.  Stay tuned to these pages.

Coming in April


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