Thursday, November 7, 2013

Big Sur [2013]

MPAA (R) (2 Stars)  SlantMagazine (1 1/2 Stars) AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing (S. O'Malley) review (D.L. Dallas) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

Big Sur [2013] (screenplay and directed by Michael Polish, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac [IMDb-nm]) is the second Kerouac novel to made into a movie in a year, the other being the (young) star studded but not particularly acclaimed On The Road [2012].  (That so many films about the post-WW II / "beatnik" era have come out in the past year or two has fascinated me.  Besides these two films there have been a documentary Salinger [2013] about that famed post-WW II writer's life, the recently released Kill Your Darlings [2013] about future Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg's formative time at Colombia University in New York during WW II, and even The Master [2012] loosely based on Scientology founder L.R. Hubbard's rise to prominence (also) in the years immediately following WW II).

The current film, Big Sur [2013], seems destined to receive the same tepid critical response (see above) as On The Road [2012] did, even if I honestly liked both films (and I can attest that both films stuck very close to the books).

It would seem that those film-makers wishing to put Kerouac's novels on screen face a similar challenge as Peter Jackson, et al had when they embarked on putting J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy onscreen -- a cadre of devoted fans of the books.  HOWEVER (and not particularly surprisingly when one thinks about it) the two sets of fans appear to be quite different.  It would seem that Tolkien fans are often fantasy-gamers, hence often quite at home with the CGI of fantasy video-games.  The challenge that Jackson, et al faced when making the LotR films was making the CGI, costuming, etc, meet (and exceed) the bar set by said video-game adventures.  In contrast, one would expect that Kerouac fans would be largely "hippies," predisposed to be weary of technology.  So while there would be no need at all for any "special effects" in filming the very, very human/earthy stories of Kerouac's books, I'm not surprised that so many Kerouac fans would cling to the view that his works are simply "unfilmable."

Yet there have been all kinds of other works by all kinds of other authors -- think of  Charles Dickens [IMDb], Victor Hugo [IMDb], Jane Austen [IMDb], Leo Tolstoy [IMDb], Fyodor Dostoyevsky [IMDb], John Steinbeck [IMDb], Ernest Hemingway [IMDb], Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind [1939]) heck even Mickey Spillane [IMDb], Stephen King [IMDb] and  J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series), etc, etc -- that have been successfully put on the screen.  So I do believe that there's a certain quaint arrogance in maintaining that one's favorite author's works are "untranslatable" to the screen.

So take a step-back folks, both On The Road [2012] and the current Big Sur [2013] do the works remarkable justice.  And would you prefer that Kerouac's books NOT BE KNOWN by young people today?  A fair number of Hollywood's young actors/actresses have "stepped-up" to play in the recent screen adaptations of his books (Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst and Amy Adams in On The Road [2012], and Kate Bosworth here.  Additionally, Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame played in the recent Kill Your Darlings [2013] about Allen Ginsberg).  It'd be a shame if their efforts were ignored or put-down by aging, silver-haired and perhaps even somewhat misguided/confused "purists."

The curent film, Big Sur [2013], like Kerouac's (ever semi-autographical) book, takes place around 1960, three years after the publication of On The Road, which propelled him to sudden fame.  Fundamentally an introvert, the experience of fame proved to him to be a crushing burden.  Finding himself out West after doing an interview on the Steve Allen Show in Los Angeles, a friend (Lawrence Felinghetti [IMDb] played in the film by Anthony Edwards) owner of a San Francisco bay-area book store offers Kerouac [IMDb] played in the film by Jean Marc Barr) the chance to go spend some time at a cabin in nearby Big Sur.  (Note here: In the book, Kerouac gives himself and most of the other persons in the story pseudonyms.  For instance, Kerouac's pseudonym in the book is Jack Dulouz.  The film, however, dispenses with the pseudonyms and calls the characters by their actual names).  Though wanting to escape the burdens of public notoriety, he soon finds the solitude at the cabin crushing as well.  Thus most of the story takes place both at the cabin as well as among friends in the early-1960s Bay Area, in particular with Neal [IMDb] and Carolyn Cassady [IMDb] (played by Josh Lucas and Radha Mitchell respectively) of On The Road [wiki] [IMDb] fame as well as with Neal's on-the-side girlfriend Billie (played magnificently in the film by Kate Bosworth) who becomes Kerouac's girlfriend for much of the film.

By its nature, semi-autobiographical, the story is definitely on the narcissistic side.  This may actually be an interesting characteristic (and criticism...) of both the Beat Generation writers' focus (on themselves) AND of our own time in general (again focused on individual personal fulfillment).  Yet Kerouac's saving grace in his writing could be that he doesn't portray himself (nor most of his friends) particularly positively.  He portrays himself as a very fearful person (at one point Billie calls him an "f-ing neurotic") famously preferring "the road" to commitment and living as an alcoholic or drunk (again another form of escape...).  Neal, of course, is portrayed as a philanderer and a bum (he can't seem to hold onto a job).  Interestingly the women, Carolyn and Billie, are portrayed as being far more sensible, even if from the time  Kerouac meets Billie, he seems convinced that Billie must have "issues" as well (she does, or certainly comes to have them, but then so do we all...).  It all makes for a very interesting "snap-shot" of life that a lot of young people (On The Road [wiki] [IMDb]) and middle-aged people (Big Sur [wiki] [IMDb]) could understand.  Indeed, part of what makes Kerouac so interesting today is that though he wrote about his circle of "beatnik" friends in the late-1940s/early-1950s (On The Road [wiki] [IMDb]) and then in the late-50s/early-60s (Big Sur [wiki] [IMDb]) both of his books written at that time feel so surprisingly current today.

A word about the cinematography.  Big Sur is one of the most beautiful parts of the United States and hence also the world.  Director Michael Polish certainly takes advantage of that by contrasting the serene and at times awesome beauty of the cliffs, the surf, the clouds, the fog with the obvious inner restlessness of Kerouac.  It's obvious in the story that he has "trouble" with serenity.  In the first part of the story, he can't stand the insistent rhythms of nature (the surf, the fog) around him.  In the latter part of the story, when it shifts attention from the natural beauty of Big Sur to the tranquil physical beauty of Kerouac's new-found if, alas, doomed-to-be-temporary girlfriend Billie (who both when clothed ... and Parents take note ... when not clothed ... actress Kate Bosworth plays superbly), Kerouac again can't bring himself to say "yes" to the gentle tranquility, beauty and stability that she could have offered him.  Instead, Kerouac seemed most happy drinking and carousing with the friends of his past.

Kerouac's attitude here actually reminds me of another famous slacker, singer Jimmy Buffet, who like Kerouac grew up to "not be a particularly great or traditional Catholic" and Buffet's song "Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude," where he sings of himself as another guy who can't really keep still.  Still there is clearly something Eucharistic in the "Party with Friends."  (Jesus compares the Kingdom of God dozens of times in the Gospels to a "wedding banquet" ... Now of course, too much of any good thing, like alcohol, etc ... becomes a problem and hence sin.  Perhaps though, Kerouac's story of his time at Big Sur shows that even Nature without the Communion of Friends becomes empty). 

Finally, a number of the reviewers (see above) found irritating director Polish's heavy leaning on voice-over by Jean Marc Barr (who plays Kerouac in the film).  The voice-overs are passages taken directly from the book and they do help explain what's going-on in the scenes playing out on-screen.  Given that I loved the book, I do believe that the voice-overs did serve the film quite well.  The wood chopping scene, for instance, in which a fair number of Kerouac's friends visiting him at the cabin take turns chopping wood, where Kerouac muses in voice over with the text taken directly from the book: "I have long thought that one could learn a great deal about the character of a person from the way he chops wood..." would have been infinitely harder to express without the explanatory voice over than with it.  And there are many similar instances where the voice-over made the scene work (or work much better) than without it.

All in all, loved both the book and the film and was happy that the film was made.  Both book and film offer much to think about.  So good job folks, good job!

NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

No comments:

Post a Comment