dir: Walter Salles
Unfilmable books make for interesting films.
On the Road has been on that list of “Great” American Novels like Tropic of Cancer, Catcher in the Rye, Pale Fire, The Sound and the Fury, a bunch of others, that people never thought could be adapted to the big screen.
But then you think of the flicks made from Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or further afield to the flicks made from other "unadaptable" books like Perfume or Cloud Atlas, and it makes it more the question of not “whether” but “how well”, as in, anything can be adapted, but not everything is adapted well, just like with any book.
Kerouac’s classic novel would always have made a good film, if the people involved knew what they were doing, and what they should avoid doing. The biggest problem it would have had is that even in a quality realisation, the flick would always (now) look just like every other road movie that’s ever come out in the last fifty years.
The majority of the flick isn’t, perhaps, on the actual road as the travellers travel down that road, but it certainly feels like it, and where it almost glows with purpose. Far more, comparatively, is spent watching these people smoke, drink and fuck in scummy apartments and dishevelled domiciles across the Americas as these people, these people, live their lives in the pursuit of life itself.
Sal Paradise (Sam Reilly) is, essentially, Jack Kerouac, the author of the novel of the film that bears its name, but the clever conceit the film uses in its adaptation of the book is that it’s not the ‘book’, per se. It’s like a depiction of the experiences, the impressions, the heady moments that eventually got Sal / Jack where he needed to get to in order to be able to write On the Road.
The recent death of his father leaves Sal at something of a loose end. He lives with his French-Canadian mother, working a sequence of shitty jobs, but he has the desire, the intention, the pretentions to aspire to write. Like many people who want to write but don’t know what to write about, he thrills at any opportunity to absorb what he can from fellow contemporaries. He has a somewhat unlikely friendship with a very exuberant gay poet called Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) amongst a bunch of others, but essentially what this then connects him to is Dean, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund).
In case you know something about the Beats, the Beat Generation, all those jerks, Carlo is Allen Ginsberg of Howl fame, and Dean is Neal Cassady of being Neal Cassady fame.
Dean’s the man, the absolute Man. Every woman wants to fuck him, and every man, including Sal, wants to be him. And in plenty of cases throughout the film, the men want to fuck him too.
Every time Sal and his friends go to visit the man, he’s on the job, and that job, quite often in the flick, is working away on top of Marylou (Kristen Stewart). He never minds being interrupted, and from the first to the last he’s a living embodiment of the concept of a person who lives the free life without consideration for what came before or what happens next.
Clutching a well-worn copy of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, Sal and the others travel both with words, cars and feet across the landscape both of their great nation and across the nation’s soul, trying to figure out what’s Important and Meaningful and Powerful about the life that’s in front of them that they can never quite grasp with their hands or any other part of their anatomies.
They love, love, love jazz music, and love dancing to it, fucking to it, and doing drugs to it. Dean and Sal are the perfect post-racial egalitarians who want to party with anyone who wants to party, whether it’s ‘coloured’ musicians or sassy senoritas from south of the border, they don’t care either way, as long as they get their kicks.
Always, always we notice that while Dean is “doing” stuff and “living”, Sal hangs back and watches Dean in whatever he does. He seems to be wondering a lot of things; how Dean can just be so certain of himself all the time, so energised, so alive, how he can be so much in the eternal moment. The problem or the predicament is that if he’s observing, he’s not living, or if he’s living, he’s doing it in a way that seems to make him someone following in another’s wake instead of someone living with their own trajectory. If they exist in different states, it’s emblematic of the fact that one did the living, and the other was better at writing about it.
Sal hits the road himself, needing perhaps to get away from the orbital pull of these celestial bodies. On the road, on his own, the destination isn’t that clear for us, whatever reason he may have given for being there. I don’t know if the purpose was to be on the road itself, in that Sal is trying to accumulate life experiences in order to have something to write about, but that’s how it seems. The life observed is not the life lived, and he’s trying to do something, even if it just looks like a vagabond’s existence.
There isn’t a lot of connective tissue between scenes, between sequences of the story, so much so that why the characters do a lot of the stuff they do outside of the present moment either isn’t really apparent or isn’t really meant to matter to us, I guess? The reasons don’t matter, I guess, when we’re supposed to accept that, hey, that’s how it happened, and also, the journey’s what matters, nothing else, you total Wilson, you squaresville daddy-o. This kind of approach definitely makes the film more impressionistic than anything else, and it was probably for the best, though it’s of no help to viewers who haven’t read the book and who don’t know everything to do with these people going into it from the get-go.
They’ll come to a town, a tiny podunk town in wherever, Tennessee, and the location will come up on the screen, such that you think “shit, something bad must have happened for them to note it like this, like it’s a scene from Zodiac”, and then the most minor occurrence will occur, a sneaky trick with a gas pump, or a stolen carton of cigarettes with no repercussions, and you’ll think, “Oh, okay, so it’s just a travelogue.”
“We went here, then we went here, then we had sex with Marylou, then we went here and so on and so on until we stopped travelling.” That’s what it’s like, and I have to say, that’s not completely wrong as an approach to take to something written by Kerouac, but it’s not the kind of structure people tend to want or expect.
It gives the moments before and after the journey more illusory importance than they should actually possess, because we’re grasping for meaning from these moments, rather than appreciating that it didn’t mean as much as us just watching their aimless travels.
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Their reasons, one Christmas, for going to rescue a young bride called Galatea (Elizabeth Moss) from the swampy house where she’s been abandoned doesn’t matter as much as watching Viggo Mortensen put in a spirited portrayal as William S. Burroughs, or Old Bull Lee as he’s called here. We’re meant to be delighted that we’re watching an old coot snoozing with one of his children with the tourniquet still cinched around his arm, and not to wonder how it is that these people even know each other.
I mean, I know, but I thinking of all those people who’ll (never) be watching this flick with a kind of surly expression on their face, involuntarily prompted to say out loud “so who the fuck is that guy, and what crap is he taking about? Orgone energy? What the fuck is going on?” Also, the delectable Amy Adams plays Bull Lee’s wife looking like she’s a crazy cat lady just begging to be shot in the head during a game of William Tell gone wrong. She does have handy advice on giving blowjobs, though, so her time is as well spent as it is completely random.
This is a rendition of the film that really feels different from what should/could have been. Director Walter Salles is a decent director with a completely different sensibility from what I would have thought this book would have required, nay, demanded. It’s meant to be a quintessentially American story, and he is definitely not a quintessential American director, seeing as he’s Brazilian. He knows how to make flicks about travellers; I’m just not completely sure if he gets the other aspects of Sal’s and Dean’s characters right.
In place of that he inserts his own kind of sensibility, which results in a certain frankness in the depiction of sex scenes, and a certain energy, a certain mad energy in some scenes that make this a somewhat non-American rendition of an American classic.
The importance, from the perspective of someone who cares about the book, or likes good films, is whether he gets it right, whatever that means and whatever that entails. I think overall that he does. The performances, which I haven’t really talked about yet, are excellent. The guy playing Sal / Kerouac took a while to grow on me, but he did, definitely. He’s got the harder role, I think. He has to deliberately make sure that he’s overshadowed by Dean, but ensure that our observation of him in relation to Dean is crucial for us to care about the overall story, and him as a character. We have to understand why he loves Dean so much, and what that costs him, and we have to understand what this person means to him and his life without the film having to tell us explicitly.
Dean Moriarty is the showier role, but it’s certainly not an easy one. I’ve previously seen Garrett Hedlund in stuff, and virtually ignored him, but not here. He builds this character from the ground up, working with a difficult, archaic sounding accent, and contorting himself into the model of someone who’s both infinitely desirable and also, unfortunately, a complete bastard. He has to make us understand how it is that he could have such a hold over the lives of so many men and women without reducing him to a cliché, and Hedlund does a stunning job as this guy, not least of which in his final, crushing scene. All the reasons, all the motivations are up there on the screen, but we’re still not going to understand what drove the man, even as we see why he inspired people.
I never thought I’d praise a performance by Kristen Stewart, considering the way I’ve lamented almost every Kristen Stewart performance I’ve ever seen, but she’s perfect in this (small) role. It comes down to being game. What surprised me is that she was game for this role, for this character, and the energy of that came through in what she does regardless of the sex scenes she’s in, in fact in spite of them. Her scene dancing at a New Year’s Eve party is one of the best scenes of any film I’ve scene this year, and she and Hedlund sell it with an feral fury, being incendiary and passionate in a way that far transcends anything she does between the sheets.
Jazz music abounds in the flick, and it’s not a bunch of cliché or predictable songs either. Jazz was obviously utterly crucial to Kerouac and to the book, both the writing of it and the lives lived within its pages, and so it being used well is crucial to the flick working as well. If I liked jazz music in the slightest I probably would have been ecstatic about it.
I was ultimately impressed with the film, which surprised the hell out of me, and while it feels somewhat formless and episodic without some kind of obvious structure, it ultimately builds to an ending that feels meaningful, that has some resonance, that feels true to the themes of the novel and to Kerouac himself. Sal and Dean’s last scene together is gutting, and we needed the whole tenuous complexity of the flick to get us there to understand why, and that’s exactly as it should be.
And that’s all any reasonable person could want.
8 times I never think of Old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found - I think of Dean Moriarty out of 10
“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – On the Road – Jack Kerouac