Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On the Road [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review
AV Club's (N. Murray) review

On the Road [2012] is based on "The Original Scroll" of Jack Kerouac's seminal post-WW II American "Beat Generation" semi-autobiographic novel On the Road [1951-1957].  The film is directed by Brazilian born director Walter Salles, screenplay by Puertorican born Jose Rivera, the two previously having collaborated in the making of The Motorcycle Diaries [2004] about the "epic" formative road trip of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the early 1950s from Buenos Aires, Argentina across the Andes Mountains to Chile and Peru, a "road trip" that took place at roughly the same time as Kerouac was making and writing about his.  The film also stars a veritable who's who of young Hollywood actors and actresses (Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, KRISTEN STEWART, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams) and its executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola [IMDb]

Why such an effort / such hoopla to (finally) put this book on the screen and why now?  One reason may be that its "time has come."  Kerouac wrote his book in the years immediately following World War II.  It's obvious that the both his book (and his life, it's semi-autobiographical after all) which became a post-World War II, 1950s "Beat Generation" classic was heavily influenced by the post World War I, 1920s "Lost Generation" writers like Ernest Hemingway and then by Depression Era writer John Steinbeck.   We're currently coming out of a decade of post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps finally turning the bend following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  All these eras, WW I, WW II and the Great Depression were marked by necessary national "pulling together" / regimentation.  The eras following, the "roaring 20s" and then the 1960s were marked by a "national letting-go / catharsis."  After a decade of war followed by economic pressure/uncertainty, we may be due for a "national catharsis" once again.

To those who do not know / have not read Kerouac's book (and I have to admit that prior to seeing the movie I was one of them too) the film initially may be disorienting.  The characters though dressed in late 1940s-early 1950s period garb and speaking in cadences of the time, nevertheless seem surprisingly contemporary, so much so that initially I honestly thought I smelled a rat.  "You jerks," I thought, "You dressed these characters in period clothes and then made them act like the most trendy artistic young people of today."  Then I looked-up articles about Jack Kerouac on the internet, bought the book (by then knowing even to buy the "original scroll" version, as the book as stunning as it was at the time that it was published, had gone through several re-drafts before it was finally published in 1957) and I found myself having experienced something of a "revelation."

All things considered, it's a relatively "small" revelation but one nonetheless, and this forms the basis of why I'd definitely recommend this film (and book) to American young adults (and their parents) today.  Why?  The reason is this:  While it is possible (though with a fair amount of difficulty) to draw a path explaining how American culture passed from the legacy of such writers as Ernest Hemingway / John Steinbeck to American culture of today, if Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road" is in one's cultural universe THEN THIS PATH BECOMES A STRAIGHT LINE.  There are parts of Jack Kerouac's novel that seem to take place just "Down the Road" from Steinbeck's world of Of Mice and Men (1936), Grapes of Wrath (1937) and Cannery Row (1945) and there are other parts that could be taking place at any college town party or in any otherwise "trendy" or "semi-intellectual district" in the United States today.

I find this honestly remarkable ;-).  And it actually might not be bad for young people today (or of any age) who find themselves frequenting trendy clubs and cafes to work sometime "on the railroad" or "spend a summer picking tomatoes in California's central valley" and reconnect thus with the legacies of some of America's cultural giants like writers Steinbeck and Hemingway, who I've already mentioned, but also others like Woody Guthrie (musician), Ansel Adams (photographer), and Georgia O'Keeffe (painter), all of whom could look at American young people today (and really since the 1960s) and see a bunch of espresso drinking, video-game playing wimps.

So On the Road [2012] is a "finding oneself" journey (a story of self-discovery) with the attendant sex, drugs and alcohol, but IMHO (I could be wrong...) so much more purposeful than the simply the sex, drugs and alcohol of the "spring break" experience so utterly (and IMHO justifiably) lampooned and trashed in the contemporary film Spring Breakers [2013]. (The two films have actually followed almost identical release trajectories, both being screened at the international film festivals in Cannes and Toronto in 2012 and then being released on the same weekend in the United States in March (spring break season) in 2013.  To be sure, Spring Breakers [2013] has generally received a "better response" both by critics and audiences than On the Road [2012].  Yet I do believe that On the Road [2012] is the more positive piece.  There are aspects of On the Road [2012] worth emulating, while Spring Breakers [2013] is simply a critique.

So what is On the Road about?  It's a semi-autobiographic story set in the late 1940s about the years when Sal Paradise (based on Jack Kerouac himself and played by Sam Riley in the film), a young French-Canadian-born writer who had subsequently grown-up with his family in New York City where he was living at the story's beginning, found himself inspired/under the spell of a friend named Dean Moriarty (based on Jack Keroauc's friend Neal Cassady and played by Garrett Hedlund in the film) who had come-up from Denver to New York City with his young randy wife named MaryLou (based on Neal Cassady's first wife LuAnne Henderson and played by Kristen Stewart in the film) on invitation of a mutual friend Carlo Marx (based on Jack Keroauc's friend and "Beat Generation" icon/poet Allen Ginsberg played by Tom Sturridge in the film).

Sal (Jack Kerouac) was a writer.  Dean (Neal Cassady) was not but was impressed by writers and lived at that time of his life with a confidence that could be overwhelmingly inspiring to a young writer like Sal.  Then both Sal and Dean (Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady) lost/grew-up without fathers.  They didn't lose them in any dramatic way.  Neither "died in the war."  Sal/Jack's dad had died, presumably of cancer, at the beginning story. Dean/Neal's dad was a bum who apparently spent a good part of his adult life (and may have died) in jail.

The funeral of Sal/Jack's father with which the film begins also serves the purpose of reminding the audience that both Sal and Jack Kerouac who Sal represents in the film were Catholic.  This is made reference to several times throughout the story though (in the film) generally not in a particularly positive way.  However, Kerouac's Catholicism was part of his identity that he did claim throughout his life even if due to his largely closeted homosexuality he also struggled with it.  At least one biographical essay that I read about him referred to Kerouac as a largely closeted homosexual and tormented Catholic.  While I honestly don't wish anyone much "torment," as a Catholic, in fact, I don't necessarily see some "torment" in one's life a bad thing.  It keeps one grounded, appreciating that that one is not a god.  The above characterization of Kerouac also makes his life and his work much more interesting than it would have been otherwise, both during his life and now.  And I would note here that one of the "papabili" before the recent papal election, Italian Cardinal Scola of Milan, apparently had made reference to Kerouac's book when speaking recently to Italy's youth.  Life is indeed a journey, and there is absolutely no doubt that there is a wide-eyed sincerity, even if apparently partly benzedrine enhanced, in Kerouac's book that over the decades has made it interesting far beyond American shores, even to a Brazilian born director and an Italian Cardinal...

Sal and Dean meet in the film at Dean's short-leased apartment after mutual friend Carlo Marx takes Sal there.  Dean answers the door completely naked.  In the backroom is Dean's young wife MaryLou, lying on a bed.  Presumably the two, married after all, were having sex.  Dean's matter-of-fact answering the door (filmed with some discretion from the back) is actually taken directly from the book, though in Kerouac's book it takes place later in the story.  Writing of the incident, Kerouac wrote that Moriarty answered the door "completely naked" and yet with confidence that "it wouldn't have mattered if (President) Harry Truman was at the door." ;-) If nothing else Dean (and Kerouac wrote his book before James Dean) was really, really cool ;-).

Dean lets the two in, gets dressed and joins Sal and Carlo in hitting the Harlem jazz scene of the time.  During Dean's time in New York, the three talk life, talk books, talk music, talk writing books, talk beer, yes talk (and take) some drugs and talk some more.

At some point, Dean has to pick-up and go back to Denver.  It wasn't particularly clear why Dean / MaryLou picked-up and went back.  Perhaps MaryLou was getting bored in New York (After all, Dean seemed to have spent more time with Sal and Carlo than her...).  Perhaps Dean himself (from the West after all and even if interested in good books was certainly less educated than either Sal or Carlo) was getting bored as well.  In any case, Dean and Mary Lou are quite suddenly ... gone.

What to do?  Well, of course, some time later Sal and Carlo pick themselves up and go off to Denver as well and Sal/Jack writes: "So began period of my life that I would call 'On the Road'..."

When they arrive Sal (and the audience) aren't probably altogether surprised that MaryLou is kinda "out of the picture" (asking for a divorce).  However, what perhaps does surprise is that Dean's now shacked-up with another, somewhat older, mid-thirty-something year old woman named Camille (based on Neal Cassady's future second wife Carolyn Cassady played by Kirsten Dunst).  Then when Sal and Carlo arrive, Dean also has another surprise for Sal:  he sets him up with a (partying) "friend named Jane" (based on again a real person named Joan Vollmer and played by Amy Adams in the film).

Dean's life is getting complicated.  MaryLou's dumping him.  Camille doesn't believe it though.  So after a fight, Camille picks herself up and heads back to San Francisco where she's originally from and Dean picks himself up and goes after her... 

With Dean gone again, Sal goes back to New York, then back to Denver, then to California.  During this time, he runs variously into friends: MaryLou (okay she was the ex-wife or soon to be ex-wife of his friend Dean, but she still kinda liked Sal and besides she was kinda a friend), Jane (Sal didn't particularly like her in any particularly romantic way, but Dean was right ... she was kinda cool), and Sal even takes a detour out there in California, spending some time with a nice Mexican-American woman, Terry (named in reality Bea Franco and played in the film by Alice Braga) who he met on the bus heading to San Francisco to find Dean. With Terry, he works for a season out there with her in the vegetable fields of California.

At different times, Sal runs into Carlo as well.  Eventually, he does run into Dean too.  And in the pages / time that follow(s) various random combinations of the characters mentioned above make the trip back and forth across the country (mind you, this is in the late 1940s!) any number of times.

What does Sal's mom think of all of this?  Yes, Kerouac includes his mom (played by Marie-Ginette Guay) and apparently more sensible sister (played by Imogen Haworth) in the story ;-).  Well, mom spends much of her time on screen rolling her eyes disapprovingly and muttering things in Quebecois French that one guesses were along the lines of "What now?" or "Oh, grow up" :-).  But she remains in his life and occasionally, sighing, helps him out.  And her presence in the story is not portrayed negatively.  If anything, my sense is that Kerouac, "good tormented soul" that he was, knew that this was a time in his life when he probably "looked like an idiot" to his mom and more sensible sister.  After all, mom was a widow and besides Sal's "better" sister, Sal was all she had.  Yet Sal was spending much of his time traveling back and forth across the country at a time when almost nobody did so (and most would not have imagined that it would have even been possible to do so) for no particular reason, even if it must have seemed really, really cool to be doing so ... ;-)

So how does the story end?  Well of course, I'm not going to tell you ;-).  But I honestly think that it ends pretty well.  For all the drugs, all the drinking and yes all the sex (most of all of which was implied, though at times "implied" so thinly that one would have to be an idiot to miss what's going on) the story (both book and movie) arguably ends with a moral tone: the more virtuous end up in better shape than the less.

But what I liked most about the story (both the book and the film) is the authenticity of its presentation.  Once I realized that the film was really portraying what Kerouac wrote (back in the 1950s!) I honestly was in awe.

Now parents, CLEARLY this is not a book or movie for high schoolers.  But I do believe that it is a great book/movie for young adults.  And having studied for three years in the seminary in Italy it doesn't surprise me at all that a serious and respected Italian Cardinal would find Kerouac's story worthy of positive reference as well.  Good job!

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