' Cinema Romantico: Forgotten Characters: Camille, On the Road

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Forgotten Characters: Camille, On the Road

My friend Andrew has a regular piece at his site, Encore's World of Film & TV, where he examines Forgotten Characters, those who made a significant impression despite minimal screen time. Today, I once again pay homage (rip him off), in honor of one of Cinema Romantico's all-time favorite actors whose celebration of birth is today.

Kirsten Dunst in "On the Road"
as Camille

Perhaps it's ridiculous to suggest that any character in a novel as seminal as Jack Keoruac's "On the Road" is "forgotten" but I dare say any wannabe beat such as myself who initially encounters the classic burst of run-on prose by the bard of the beats in his twenties reaches the last page with even half a thought of Camille. She was merely a speck dispersing in the rearview mirror, receding on the plain, collateral damage to a twenty-something idiot male tearing through "On the Road" while looking out on the drooping evening star shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie of the parking lot belonging to his apartment in Des Moines, Iowa where he wanted to believe whole-heartedly in the Dean Moriarty phantasm that his place of residence had the most beautiful girls in the world.

"We got what we needed," Sarah Vowell once wrote of Kerouac's most famous work, "namely a passion for unlikely words, the willingness to improvise, a distrust of authority, and a sentimental attachment to a certain America." All true. When you read "On the Road" at an impressionable age you take what you want and deny the rest. I remember reading it around the same time I first heard Eamon's "Fuck It (I Don't Want You Back)", a song from which I took what I wanted and denied the rest. Several years later, which felt like eons, I heard that song again and could only hear the winy self-involvement, the foul-mouthed vainglory, the cold-shoulder to introspection. "Christ," I thought to myself, "I could have been any more stupid? Or shallow? Or willfully ignorant?"

I felt like that when I caught up with Walter Salles' "On the Road" a good decade-plus after I first read the book and saw it as - to borrow the phrasing of Slate's David Haglund - "a pretty interesting work of literary criticism." It causes us, as Haglund notes, to "reconsider" Kerouac's book, and to reconsider it specifically from the vantage point of the women.

The first time we meet Kirsten Dunst's version of Camille, she is vivacious, in love with life, in love with Dean. When we catch up with Camille much later, she is no longer vivacious, in love with life, or in love with Dean. Now, because we have been on the road all this time with the dudes we are not privy to the change Camille has gone through. This means that when we return to Camille it is entirely up to Dunst to evince this change. She does.

I have a dear friend with two kids. Not long after she had the first one, I tagged along with her and her husband and the kid to their lakeside cottage in Wisconsin. At some point that weekend, after the little dude had run her ragged, she laid down on the couch, briefly, for like fourteen seconds, until the little dude re-sprang into her action. The look on her face as she laid there was a look I've only seen one other time - on Kirsten Dunst's face in "On the Road" when her tired eyes look up at Dean with such exhausted sorrow. And that's it. That's all Dunst needs to do to convince us of the all the years she has endured between her previous scene and now. Just one look.

And it's in moments like this where we see Dunst's absolute refusal to let Camille to fester as The Nagging Wife. In her exhaustion there is a strength, one so palpable that Dean recoils from it, because he knows he can't stand the heat, not like Camille, who Dunst, in a few flourishes, convinces us is too tough a cat to hang with this faux-macho weakling.

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