On the Road – On Film
So I finally got around to seeing the movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road, not far off two years after its UK release, which, for a writer and film buff who counts the Beat scene as a specialist interest, seems somewhat lackadaisical! I missed it at the cinema and having absorbed the lukewarm reviews and general lack of buzz surrounding the release, I wasn’t in any hurry to catch it on DVD. In a way I was delaying disappointment, putting off a moment of long anticipation that was now almost certainly destined to be anticlimactic. Why would I want to spend two hours witnessing one of the most cherished and influential novels of my life turned into just another average piece of 1940s-’50s period cinema-screen fodder?
Like its companion Great Beat Novel Naked Lunch, On the Road presented challenges to the filmmaker. Its autobiographical narrative is episodic, meandering and strung out, lacking the neatly shaped arc that would authoritively drive a film plot. What holds the book together is, of course, Kerouac’s prose itself, his ‘bop prosody’ with its jazz-like spontaneity, exuberance, fearless rule-breaking experimentation and pure drug-tinged scintillation. Finding a parallel method to inject all that into a film and make it work is no easy task. Go too far from the original – as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch – and you end up with something that’s a bit potty; but try to be too faithful and the danger is your product will be flat and lacklustre in its attempts at reverence.
Walter Salles’ On the Road does at times fall into the latter trap. What was cutting edge in ’50s culture and writing – acting crazy whilst mouthing off about poetry and philosophy, doing Benzedrine and weed and swapping sexual partners – now seems tame, dated and so-whatish in many of the film’s scenes. There is no shock value and not much of a curious spin to make us view the action in a special light. Kerouac the writer manifests in the most conventional of ways – in voice-over narration from the actual text, banging the keys of his typewriter with big close ups of the emerging words, and the usual spiel about wanting to capture life’s evanescence. Finally the moment where he writes the first draft of the book itself, on a continuous scroll of paper (obviously not part of the text itself), becomes the apotheosis of the whole process – again hardly a ground-breaking idea.
This device of real-life framing of the fiction, also employed in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch mash-up, seems almost inevitable in dealing with Beat mythology now, as the biographical details of the protagonists and their writings permeate each other totally. And when you have a ‘fiction’ such as On the Road which is already ‘real-life’ – on the IMDB page real and fictional names appear side by side – one might think there is little point in retaining the fictional armature at all; why not make a film about the events ignoring Kerouac’s own perspective and instead try to say something new?
As someone who’s read most every book, fictional and non-fictional, concerning the Beats, I wondered what the casually watcher with no special knowledge would make of the action and characters, many of whom are underdeveloped. To me Garrett Hedlund feels miscast as the central protagonist Dean Moriaty (Neal Cassady), with not enough ruggedness and true period feel, and too much film star handsomeness – like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise. Sam Riley is better as the Kerouac character, though not quite right, but Viggo Mortensen is nigh perfect as the Burroughs character, with his chiselled face and Deep South laconic drawl, talking heavy psychological stuff between the bouts of complaining. When the action shifted to his weird set-up in New Orleans, with mad wife Jane (Amy Adams), my interested noticeably increased; the trouble was this section was all too fleeting. Burroughs going bare-arsed into his garden orgone accumulator cubicle – to supposedly increase sexual impetus – was my favourite scene, and I’d like to see a whole movie devoted to Mortensen in the role.
Ultimately I found On the Road watchable and I didn’t hate it – perhaps because my expectations were already low. The road sequences themselves, showing big empty American landscapes, with the ever faithful period barometer of beat-up trucks and old Chevys and Hudsons, were nicely evocative, though again familiar from other road movies such as Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop. The destructiveness of Cassady’s polymorphous bisexual satyriasis came over well, with his hectic flipping between two wives (Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst), his dalliance with the Allen Ginsberg character (Tom Sturridge) and his readiness to service a fellow traveller, played by Steve Buscemi, for a few extra dollars. The inevitable sad conclusion, indicating that this phase of high jinks cannot last, struck a sure elegiac note, finally bringing home the message of that earlier philosophising about life’s evanescence.