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Thursday, 23 May 2013

On The Road, the movie based on Jack Kerouac's book

I watched the movie On The Road a week or two ago and I'm still trying to work out (a) what I think of it and (b) why.

Basically I didn't enjoy it. Hardly surprising: I'm 63 years old, and first read OTR way back when I was a lad. Later, in my twenties, I became something of a Beat enthusiast, reading just about everything Jack Kerouac wrote, and following up with doses of Snyder, Ginsberg, Cassady (both Neal and Carolyn), Burroughs, Corso and so on. I was always ambivalent: blown away by the stuff I liked, disturbed and turned off by the stuff I didn't.

At 30, I thought I'd grown out of the Beats. I do believe that they appeal mostly to an adolescent, and male, readership; but later on, when I did my degree (I graduated at 39) I found that there was still stuff there that got to me. In the end I decided that, yes, Kerouac was at best a thrilling writer - particularly in October In The Railroad Earth, in parts of Desolation Angels, here and there in Visions of Cody - but otherwise regrettably slapdash and self-indulgent, a writer who really should have learned to edit his material, and edit it hard. Most of what followed On the Road would've been rejected by any publisher were it not for the sales guaranteed by Kerouac's reputation and that flagship second novel. (People tend to forget the Wolfean piece that preceded On The Road by seven years, The Town and The City.) Many of my reservations might apply to Ginsberg, but... if you've produced Howl, and Kaddish, to name but two of his great works, you've probably earned the right to a few sloppy patches.

Many years after the degree, I was appointed Kerouac Writer in Residence in the little house in Orlando, Florida, where Jack and Memere were living when OTR hit the streets in the late summer of 1957. From the three months I spent there, writing about my own 'road' to being a writer, I gained the friendship of Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal, who now lives in the UK. She celebrated her 90th birthday last month.

So.... I hardly came to Walter Salles' movie without a few concerns. How would these characters, so familiar to me, be portrayed? Would they seem life-like? How would Neal's legendary appetites - for women, fast cars and all-night philosophical discussion - come across? And what about the put-upon females? Or Jack's affair with his best buddy's wife after Neal's famous parting line, 'My best pal and my best gal' when he went off on a railroad trip, leaving them alone together?

Well, I felt that the guy who played Neal lacked something. Remember that Neal grew up very much on the streets of Denver, that he'd been in reform school, was an accomplished car thief, that his dad was a hobo. He had an edge. I would see him as pretty damned dangerous, despite the enormous charm. Gaunt too. And - as Carolyn herself constantly stresses - torn between his animal self and his deep yearning to be a respectable family man.  I didn't feel that Garrett Hedland ever seemed quite edgy or frightening enough. He was a bit of a lad, for sure - and we understand that he'd screw more or less anything that moved - but he never seemed as... predatory as I understand the real Neal to be. He looked too well nourished. Carolyn herself has referred more than once to Neal's 'wham-bam' style between the sheets. I'm not sure that that was stressed, that he used women and was, according to Carolyn, no lover.

Sam Riley as Kerouac never seemed quite as shy as I think Kerouac was. He seemed more pretty than handsome. You may say that's a fine, perhaps even an inconsequential distinction. I would counter that Kerouac's sensitivity lay within, not in his looks. On the outside, shy as he was, he was genuinely rugged: he had been a star football player, remember? A sprinter.

As for Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) - hmm, not tortured enough for me. It's as if he came into the movie a ready-made iconoclast and 'out' gay man. Did we get the full agony of the young gay man in the late 1940s? I don't think so. But maybe I missed something.

Of course, all these reservations may simply be the Beat fan in me hoping to see my erstwhile heroes reincarnated in every detail. There is always that tension in a biopic. What concerned me more, however, was - as I saw it - a lack of attention to the profound conservatism of 1950s America. What Kerouac and co. were doing was deeply anti-Establishment, and their publications would provoke outrage. For me, we didn't see enough of the oppressive normality against which they were revolting; neither did we get much hint of Kerouac's own conservatism. Of course, the film ended with the publication of the famous book in 1957 and the spotlight turning on the author, feeding the fame which would virtually destroy him - so we couldn't witness that weird counter-culture moment when he was at a party with anti-Vietnam War activists and quietly, lovingly folded up the American flag lest anybody else desecrate it.

As for the women, well, I couldn't really see Carolyn in Kirsten Dunst's portrayal - although she did a job of showing just what a dog's life Neal led her. Kristen Stewart as Lu Anne (Mary Lou) seemed way too knowing and sassy. I always thought of Lu Anne as a kid, in thrall to Neal. I believe she was only sixteen when they married.

So what about the actual road - or its depiction in the movie? I guess Salles did his best. It's not easy to recreate a pre-freeway trans-continental trip these days. Every year there's less of that scenery left to look at. It's not the way it was when a director like Peter Bogdanovich was making his homages to a bygone era in the early 1970s. But then he chose black and white, which was always an option open to Salles. There were, surely, missed opportunities. Remember the time they were driving west and ran out of gas and free-wheeled about seventeen miles down off the Rockies? The road wasn't always action-packed; it was sometimes slow, dreary, provoking thoughtful reflection.

No, I can see that On The Road had to be made one day. And at least we may be thankful that the plan that had Brando as Cassady didn't take off - although, with Montgomery Clift as JK, who knows, it might have worked. Like any film that tried to recreate scenes from a book, there's that tension between trying to go for the essence of the thing and trying to replicate what people have read - or think they 've read. I wouldn't condemn the movie; I'd just say that if you're of a certain age, and were captivated by Kerouac as a youngster, you might struggle to enjoy this version of a classic tale.

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