Back in the early ’60s, a 16-year-old high school senior sat across from an admissions official at Princeton University. Glancing briefly at the student’s erratic academic record, he asked what field of study the boy hoped to pursue. When he heard “Creative writing,” the official came to life. “You want to be a creative writer? Then you shouldn’t be confined in a place like this! Heed Kerouac, man — get on the road! Start devouring life! Experience is the best university!” (Translation: Admission declined.)
On the Road — a juiced-up biographical novel recounting the friendship that Jack Kerouac and his literary pals Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs kindled in the late ’40s with the drifter-hustler-poet Neal Cassady — was the publishing sensation of 1957. It announced the arrival of the Beat Generation, an anarcho-Buddhist response to the buttoned-down somnolence of the same decade’s Silent Generation. In his tribute to “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,” On the Road blared a siren call to youth in a decade of finicky, middle-aged novelists. “With his barbaric yawp of a book,” a TIME critic wrote, “Kerouac commands attention as a kind of literary James Dean.”
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Like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita — the other supreme American road novel of the ’50s — the Kerouac book was a controversial best-seller that Hollywood deemed unfilmable. Just after publication, Kerouac tried and failed to get Marlon Brando interested; two decades later, Francis Ford Coppola optioned the novel but gave up. The roadblock was less the characters’ sexual and pharmacological transgressions than the wandering story. Sal Paradise (the Kerouac stand-in) goes on cross-country trips, sometime with Dean Moriarty (the Cassady figure) and comes home, again and again. The picaresque structure could work in novels, like Huckleberry Finn, but movies of the time demanded the freight train of narrative. In this later, equally timid time, they mostly still do.
Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road, which has its world premiere this evening in Cannes, stoked a little hope. The Brazilian director began well: he cast Garrett Hedlund of Friday Night Lights as Dean and The Twilight Saga’s Kristen Stewart as his teen wife Marylou. Rising British light Sam Riley, as Sal, is supported by a strong cast that includes Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Alice Braga and Elisabeth Moss. Perhaps Salles would use this attractive ensemble to find some cinematic equivalent of Kerouac’s “wild-form” storytelling and serve up a daring hipster hallucination.
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No such luck. Some of the actors seem as uncomfortable playing rebels from 60 years ago as a fifth-grader would in costume for an Elizabethan pageant. More cripplingly, Jose Rivera, the movie’s screenwriter, has boiled down Kerouac’s grand banquet of events and insights until nearly all flavor escapes. And the fidelity to the novel’s lurching structure makes the film seem even longer than its 2 hours 17 minutes. Could the old Hollywood pharisees have been right? Maybe On the Road is unfilmable.
“The past is a foreign country,” L.P. Hartley wrote in his novel The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” And though the hair styles and casual clothes of the 1950s are worn without irony today, that decade is foreign to ours. One big difference was the popular renown of serious artists — so long as their work was buttressed by a legend about its creation. The abstract-expressionist artist Jackson Pollock, for instance, became famous through a Life magazine story detailing his technique of dribbling and squirting paint onto a canvas.
Kerouac’s backstory tapped into an even more appealing myth of the hero. He believed himself seized by a relentless muse, as his biographer Ann Charters wrote, and worried that the moments he spent changing the paper in his typewriter would stanch all orgasmic inspiration. So this expert typist cut down 12-foot sheets of tracing paper to fit into the typewriter barrel, then went furiously to work; the clatter of his keys played like the soundtrack of a tap dance marathon. Finding the ordeal so hot that he’d change T-shirts several times a day, he wrote the book in three fevered weeks in April 1951. Six years later, when the book finally reached print, Kerouac was instantly famous — and notorious. Some critics dismissed the conversational tone of the book and mocked the speed of its composition. “That isn’t writing,” Truman Capote said, “it’s typing.”
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Read today, On the Road surprises by how unsurprising it is. A natural talespinner with many strange and entertaining stories in his knapsack, Kerouac packs telling details into every page; he’s a superb observational journalist. His self-portrait shows a young man who sees the outlaw Dean as his ticket to bust out of the conventional life. They don’t hit the road because they’re broke, like the migrant workers and homeless men they encounter, but as an escape from “the squares” — and because, in the American grain, freedom means movement. They could be traveling salesmen for whom the road is home.
Salles has been on this road before: his 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries charted a trip through South America taken by two friends, one of them the young Che Guevara. (Rivera has plowed this terrain too, though more delicately, in the 2010 weepie Letters to Juliet, also about the travels of an aspiring writer.) Sal and Dean don’t seek political awakening, and their quest is not heroic, as it was for Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee (in yet another masterpiece of road fiction published in the ’50s). But Sal did imagine he was also on a search for spiritual enlightenment: to him, Beat meant beatific.
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In the movie, there’s less spirit, more flesh. Sal and Dean try a three-way sex sandwich, with Marylou as the meat; and on a car trip, where all three are naked, Marylou in the middle uses her hands to satisfy both men simultaneously. For the young men here, the Grail is kicks; they could be frat brothers on an extended spring break. Their journey is about going where chance blows them, finding and discarding women and, when money gets short, stealing from people poorer than they. It’s an adventure with no particular aim or, for that matter, destination.
Condensing the number of trips in the book, and avoiding most of the antique hipster argot that Kerouac loved (“What a crazy cat that was, whoo! Did I dig him!”), the film makes time for a sweet, sexy dance that Dean has with Marylou. It smolders, as Hedlund does throughout the movie; he’s a comer who may already have arrived. Dunst is excellent as Dean’s previous wife Camille, whom he has abandoned with their two kids; the wages of sin are a bill he never expects to pay.
If you rent the eventual DVD, skip to the salty, mid-film encounter with the William Burroughs character (Viggo Mortensen, sporting a froggy voice and a veteran junkie’s seen-it-all weariness) and his wife (Amy Adams, who’s awarded the movie’s biggest laugh line when grabs a broom and absents herself from the company by saying, “Excuse me — lizards”). A side benefit for Twilight fans is the spectacle of Stewart getting more girl-on-man action in her half-hour or so of screen time than Bella Swan has enjoyed in the first four features. And that’s about it.
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Kerouac’s greatest gift was to transmute the thrill and danger of the vagrant life into prose every bit as intoxicating as the original experience. In an early story, he expanded his joy at hearing a tenor sax player blow “Gator Tail” into a declaration of the pleasure principle: “I like my whiskey wild, I like Saturday night in the shack to be crazy, I like the tenor to be woman-mad, I like things to GO and rock and be flipped, I want to be stoned if I’m going to be stoned at all, I want to be gassed by a back-alley music…” Wouldn’t you want to see a movie whose images and emotions matched that rush of words? See this film and keep wanting and waiting.
Though there’s plenty of cool jazz in the background, the movie lacks the novel’s exuberant syncopation — it misses the beat as well as the Beat. Some day someone may make a movie worthy of On the Road, but Salles wasn’t the one to try. This trip goes nowhere.