Film Review: Walter Salles shares his gritty take on Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’
April 4, 2013
When famous books are adapted as movies, it’s so easy to say “the book was better.” More often than not, when you ask someone to quickly sum up movies like these, that’s the response you can expect. It is also one of the most inane responses. Not only is the comparison false (apples and oranges, goes the hackneyed expression), but it’s also unfair.
These are two completely different mediums. A book is made of words. It’s a solitary experience that demands the imagination of the reader. A film is visual, and as such engages the eyes differently. It also has sound, which often includes music. Your characters and set pieces have a consistent look separate from the viewer’s imagination. In fact, the only “language” of cinema open to the imagination lies in the cuts during the editing process. “This is what’s called the language of cinema,” said Director Martin Scorsese of editing at his recent Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities this past Monday night in Washington (read a report here).
Keroauc’s book has been acknowledged as one of 20th century literature’s great works, the definitive chronicle of postwar America’s Beat Generation. I read it at the end of my studies in literature and journalism and never forgot it. The language and rhythm Kerouac used in his text was famously known as having been influenced by the bebop music that dominated the New York City club scene he frequented. Add to that the influence of writer friends like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and the wannabe charisma of Neal Cassady, and Kerouac was left brimming with inspiration to create a text like no other.
Those open to the destruction of the rules of sentence and paragraph structure found the text intoxicating and musical. It had a verve for life and living and seizing the day, even though Kerouac notably maintained a distance to the action, expressing a verse of vicarious living through people like Ginsberg, Burroughs and Cassady, whose names he changed in the book to Carlo Marx, Old Bull Lee and Dean Moriarty. There were women, drugs, drinking and, most important, the open road connecting East Coast USA to West Coast. But above all, it was men looking to connect with each other in as real and visceral a way as possible.
Though scenes in the book seem like aimless wandering, slacking and dreaming by a group of man-children who refuse to grow up, settle down and give the women in their lives the stable home they yearn for, the book still burns with a lust for living in the moment. Kerouac’s passion for the lives of those embracing the moment is seen through rose-colored glasses, precious to those men who embrace living life on benzedrine, liquor and pot to a fault. Yet, the consequence remains only in the nostalgic moments when the high wears off, and they have lost sight of the bigger picture. The only quest in the book is a hopeful, sloppy search for Dean’s long-lost father. Otherwise, it’s a search for capturing the verve of life in long meandering sentences that resist arrival at a punctuation point.
How does a longtime filmmaker like Salles even think to handle this sort of material, known as much for its language, as the actions within? It’s not possible. Few have noted that film versions of the early Kerouac/Cassady-era inspired two other films. Heart Beat (1980) and The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997) were based on other sources of the period that covered On the Road, yet still contained scenes and situations that defined On the Road: conflicted affections between people and fast cars that literalized fleeing from conflict. The first featured Nick Nolte and John Heard as Cassady and Kerouac respectively. The later film, based on a letter Cassady wrote Kerouac, starred Thomas Jane as Cassady and featured a character inspired by Ginsberg played by Adrien Brody. It also featured a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves. Kerouac’s character remains a sort of ghost, however.
These are obscure films for the simple fact that they went nowhere in the cinematic worlds of their time. They did not fail because of any ineptitude of those involved. Though the drama is certainly as frenetic as anything depicted in On the Road, the staging and presentation of that action falls rather inert. What both are missing is the language and rhythm of the narrative that brought the seeming aimless tragedy of these characters to vibrant life.
The failures of these films say something about the material, and it is bound to doom Salles’ film, despite the fact that it is the first true adaptation of On the Road. It will not satisfy anyone looking for something remotely resembling the feeling of book precisely because of the limits of cinema in handling material so reliant on the language of the text itself. Ironically, the problem of this film adaptation arrives in its almost literal approach to the material. However, there are many cinematic elements that do, ultimately, make the film worthwhile.
The Film Review
Keroac’s stand-in, Sal Paradise (a low-key Sam Riley) first appears in voice over reading from the text. The presumption that such a straightforward gimmick to include the text already sets the movie up for a sort of disappointment. Riley does not get the voice and rhythm of the text until the film’s finale, when he mimics Kerouac’s own famous reading of the book’s end on “the Steve Allen Show” (you can watch Kerouac’s original TV appearance here). Otherwise, his readings feel so straight, one is left to wonder if the voice-over narrative is even based on the original text.
But then, the slack voice for most of the film may be appropriate considering that, for most of the film, Sal is searching for inspiration to write the Great American Novel. We meet Sal drinking at a bar with his friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge) who seems to rub in the fact that his mind is a “veritable echo chamber of epiphanies.” But soon, in search of some reefer, the two will meet Dean (Garrett Hedlund), who will become a sort of savior for the both of them. After they knock on a door to a rundown apartment, Dean opens it wide, standing there stark naked. Carlo can’t seem to lick his lips enough as he sizes Dean up and Sal just seems in awe. Dean holds out a hand to Sal, they shake and Dean compliments Sal on his strong grip.
Played by Hedlund with a cool swagger, Dean comes across as a vivacious rapscallion, who Sal both praises and writes off as a con man, early in the film. After barging in on Sal’s Christmas dinner at his sister’s North Carolina home with his teenage wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and his “old pal” Ed Dunkle (Danny Morgan), the trio mooch off the meal like hungry hobos (which they pretty much are). Though Dean tries to remember manners in front Sal’s uptight mother, it’s all airs, as he can’t wait to tell Sal about his experience with a virgin during an interracial orgy. Sal convinces his mother to drive back to New York City with the trio instead of taking the bus, and she hesitantly agrees. When Dean steals gas from a filling station by resetting the pump, upsetting Sal’s mother, Sal notes, “This is the new, complete Dean.”
The film, like the book is filled with these seeming aimless vignettes/character sketches, as it bounds along across the U.S. before ending in Mexico. These people might seem reckless and unsympathetic as the film moves along rapidly from scene to scene with little consequence. At one point Carlo says, “There is no gold at the end of the rainbow, just shit and piss but to know that makes me free.” That actually is the key to this film, which offers a gritty look at people choosing to live life on the brink of near madness and abandon. With its worn, earthy tones in its costumes and set design, the film feels immersive. Even the choice of shooting trees stripped of leaves along the winter roadways and the dust billowing off the California farm fields keeps the harsh landscape in perspective where these rough-edged characters dwell.
As opposed to Heart Beat and The Last Time I Committed Suicide, Salles’ film could stand as the best of the Kerouac/Cassady relationship films, and one can tell it was made with affection for these characters, who are all well-portrayed thanks to sincere performances by all actors involved, including a delightful cameo by Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull. And forget those crosshairs on poor Stewart. She remains a capable actress for all the outside perceptions associated with the Twilight films and the malicious gossip world. Though she does appear too far from the age of 16 to play Marylou, she maintains a smoldering personage who can enjoy living in the moment as well as the guys in her life, yet harbor a pining for that American Dream so prevalent in postwar America: a picket-fence home with a loving family.
The other important woman in Sal’s and Dean’s lives, Camille, is played with sincerity by Kirsten Dunst. She has a compact but heartbreaking scene where she threatens to kick Dean out of their home on the West Coast that captures the poor woman’s yearning for Dean to stand up and settle into his role as father to their two children. After a drunken night out with a visiting Sal, she packs a suitcase with his clothes and yells at him to get out, as their children wail. He kisses one of the babies and says, “I’ll be back soon” in a calm voice. “Don’t you lie to her!” yells Camille. “Liar! Liar!” She yells at him as a sort of mantra to ignore a still suffocating affection for this fuckup of a man.
It’s a quick scene, but the actors load it with potency. And a strange moody soundtrack by the talented Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla does not add any sentiment to these proceedings but, rather, a melancholic sort of atmosphere. In fact, it feels alien to the world of bebop where these characters live. Beyond rowdy jazz club visits by the protagonists, Santaolalla uses instruments like thumb piano, flute and dulcimer for his score. It almost subverts the jazz that informs the movie, as once again, Salles heroically tries to move away from tropes that make the novel so distinctive.
There is so much more going on with these characters, including the rampant sexual quality of Marylou and Dean, who seems to enjoy sex with men as much as he does with women. He also doesn’t turn down an opportunity to give it out to a slimy travelling salesman (Steve Buscemi) looking to exchange a sexual tryst for gas money. Jose Rivera’s script jumps around trying to keep up with the people, but their living and suffering becomes so muted in these break-neck scenes, it becomes hard to invest in them. What remains missing is the poetic quality of the text that allows you to forgive them their seeming reckless self-indulgence. The members of the Beat generation were an inspired bunch in spite of their sensational behavior. But the visual quality of film only allows for the superficial experience of what they were most loved for: their writings. Hence, an attempt for as equally a transcendent movie becomes an exercise in futility.
Last year, I commended Andrea Arnold for her adaptation of Wuthering Heights because she went outside the box to create a cinematic feeling of the book (Film Review: Andrea Arnold’s raw and impressionistic take on ‘Wuthering Heights’). Those looking for a feeling of that classic 19th century novel in visual form would not have been disappointed. The film was not a complete success, but it never could have been, as noted in the introduction of this post about On the Road. Still it worked better than Salles’ adaptation of On the Road because of its creativity.
The inherit problem with On the Road also lies in the constant ambling of these characters. They never settle down long enough anywhere for the viewer to feel empathy for any situation they put themselves in. They always seem to be fleeing something, which stunts the drama of conflict.
Instead, Salles’ On the Road makes for a nice, sometimes emotional photo montage of the source novel, but there’s no way it can replace reading the book whose poetry, by nature of the medium, remains missing from the film. Pulling off something that Arnold accomplished would have been a very difficult line for Salles, or any filmmaker working with On the Road for that matter, to straddle. It could have easily turned from sincere to hokum. In the end, it’s unfair to deride Salles’ work as a failure. Call it a doomed notion with an outcome that should at least satisfy those searching for a pretty-looking mood piece on tormented people searching for a place in post-war America.
Watch the trailer:
On the Road is rated R and has a runtime of 125 minutes. In South Florida, it opens at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on April 5. It expands to the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, on April 19. IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review.