' Cinema Romantico: On the Road

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On the Road

If Jack Kerouac had managed to live another 50, 60 years and into this age of shaky-cam, frenetic-cut cinema I can only imagine he would have been an admirer. What is shaky-cam, frenetic-cut cinema but spontaneous prose for the silver screen? I still remember the first time I read Kerouac (which was not “On the Road” actually, but “The Subterraneans”) - my mind spun, forgetting as much as I was retaining, repulsed and engrossed. After all, Kerouac was the master implementer of the run-on sentence, torrents of text gleefully indifferent to nonsense like punctuation and structure, because sometimes life is just too damn short to adhere to grammatical construction, and any English teacher that scoffs at such a notion probably writes really polite sentences you'd want to take home to your mother while secretly lusting after all those carnal over-extended sentences done up in ripped jeans and smoking cigarettes and listening to The Clash in the corner and giving the finger to marks in red pen ornamented with the words "thirty-seven points subtracted for wordiness.”


I mention all this because director Walter Salles' adaptation of Kerouac's landmark "On the Road" manages to visually encapsulate the sensation of the run-on sentence. It moves and grooves just like the free-form jazz that inspired the book itself and permeates the film’s soundtrack, be-boppin’ and skattin’, not intent on rooting itself to anything tangible, just going with the flow. On the other hand, Salles' adaptation is unable to viscerally re-create the glorious gobbledygook of the bard of the beats.

It’s easy to make the case for “On the Road” being a cautionary tale but no one – dudes, at least – first encounters nor falls in love with “On the Road” at a time in their lives when they are interested in exhibiting caution. They read it when they want to ball up and throw caution away along with the napkins they used to clean their fingers after the extra order of chili cheese fries at the diner in Canon City, Colorado on a continental drive to the Pacific with no hotel lined up. As such, Salles’ version comes across quite revisionist.

The arc in the film does not necessarily divulge from the arc in the book, but it feels more weighted and much, much less off the cuff. Aspiring author Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) enters the orbit of romanticized rebel Dean Moriarty (Garett Hedlund) and the two strike out on the road. Eventually Sal comes to view Dean less as a romantic and a rebel than an irresponsible jerk while simultaneously feeling his euphoria for the white lines of the highway quashed. And Salles seems more intent to focus on the quashing than the hedonistic pleasures leading up to it.


Sal is distant, more like the writer who hangs back against the wall, observing and internalizing, and Dean’s charisma is strangely dampened. Though to be fair to Hedlund, bringing the part of Dean Moriarty to life is akin to re-creating Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show – that is, outside the realm of human possibility.

Even more interesting – and noble – is the apparent decision of Salles to focus more intently than Kerouac on what Dean’s decisions mean to the various women in his life. Kristen Stewart, she of the distinct “You don’t like me, huh? Big fucking whoop” Vibe, is sorta perfect as Marylou. And while she may be a wild child, Stewart outfits her with a handrolled cloud of sadness. Camille is summarized by an eventually tired-eyed Kirsten Dunst as being fed-up with Dean’s recklessness. Even Amy Adams makes an indentation with her brief cameo and frazzled hair.

The film may not elicit precisely the same reaction as the book, but by the time Dean is shivering on the sidewalk you will understand why Sal is done with him and done with the road. You might be done with the road too.

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