One of the main things I miss about living in a city is having the opportunity to watch independent, world and European cinema. Living in west Wales means I have to wait for films such as Amour, Rust and Bone and 5 Broken Cameras to end up on DVD before I can rent them. Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, is a four hour round trip. This means that my visits to the cinema have been slim this year, limited to blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers Assemble, which I enjoyed nonetheless.
I was at a loose end one dank Friday evening in Cork, and feeling the onset of a cold, I decided to forgo my usual routine of talking to strangers in bars and visit the cinema, one of the major picture-houses. I was pleased, albeit it tentatively, to see On the Road was showing and that there was not long to go before it started. I say tentatively because I had feigned having reservations about going to see it (‘Oh, I’ll wait for the DVD’). This was to a large extent an act of self-deception. Like many others I had adored the book during my mid-teens and was actually very keen (not to mention anxious, for the notices had not been very good) to see how director Walter Salles had translated an American literary classic to the big screen.
As it turned out I was the only person in the cinema that evening and looking back it was probably one of the reasons why the film turned out to be one of my cultural highlights of the year.
Various concepts for an adaptation of On the Road have been dreamt up in the years since its publication in 1957, and perhaps none of them are more famous then the author’s own attempt at writing a script. (The most un-famous attempt was by me; I had once written a treatment and scripted something like twenty or thirty pages based on Sal Paradise’s experiences on the back of the farm truck for a ‘Literature and Adaptation’ course I was enrolled on.) Kerouac had written a letter ‘praying’ for Marlon Brando to buy the rights to the novel and to make it into a film with both Kerouac and Brando starring, respectively, as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. The actual premise sounds like the kind of film I would love, an aesthetic that seems to herald the work of Win Wenders and the Hollywood New Wave.
Here’s an excerpt from Kerouac’s letter:
‘I visualise the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak.’
Over fifty years later and Salles’ direction and José Rivera’s script unsurprisingly eschews such an avant-garde approach. The result is thoughtful and engaging, serious and funny, and as follows it has managed to piss off many critics who had it down as doomed to fail the moment the project and cast was announced. One imagines such critics in dark of the theatre making notes with a self-regarding sigh and shaking of the head as they despair of how it relates to the ‘un-filmable’ novel.
Salles’ depiction of the main players, a lopsided ménage à trois made up primarily of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart), but with intermittent appearances by Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen), offers up a cross-examination of the their ‘search’ and failure, mostly of Moriarty, to consider the consequences of his seeming repetition-compulsion. They trail-blaze across the US, skirting on the coat tails of an ostensible zeitgeist, searching for the next ‘kick’ in order to pursue a heightened sense of being.
On screen they are the ‘desiring-machines’ described by French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their book Anti-Oedipus as well as the ‘seekers and discoverers’of Flannery O’Connor; refusing, that is, to live in ‘domesticated despair’. They seek to discover, gratify individual whims and fancies, and as a result form the collective desires and vague philosophies that would go some way to defining (rightly or wrongly) the basic tenets of ‘the Beat Generation’.
It is not all gratification. Like the concept of ‘desiring machines’, the process is reciprocal and their hedonism, particularly Moriarty’s, produces a kind of aura to which others are attracted. The result is cyclical, and in the film he is the point around which the characters and the action revolve. Hedlund has already received much acclaim for his performance as Moriarty and I may as well throw in my two cents and say he is almost hypnotic. Very difficult to take your eyes off.
Sam Riley plays Kerouac’s character, Sal Paradise, with a sly and prescient understanding of what the group’s unbridled desire will lead to. In particular, his indifference towards Moriarty in the latter stages of the film – symptomatic no doubt of Dean’s indifference to leaving Sal alone in Mexico, but also of the relationships which bind all the major players in the Beat ‘movement’ – when Paradise has risen above the insidious ‘reality’ of their life on the road and has to some extent begun to ‘domesticate’ his despair by attempting something like a conventional life, is acted out with the attitude of an ‘I-told-you-so’ Catholic.
Cinematographer Eric Gautier imaginatively captures the ebb and flow of their road trips. The landscape undulates as though it were the manifestation of the characters interlinking desires. Salles cleverly demonstrates how the automobile and its place at the very heart of American visions of freedom and independence resembles a prison in which the characters are all trapped. The sexual experimentation (usually at the behest of Moriarty) and Benzedrine-fuelled exploits soundtracked by bebop alleviate this claustrophobia only temporarily. Necessity, the spectre feeding the disillusionment of the characters and the nightmare from which they are trying escape, hovers over the entire film and it is only a matter of time before it claims each character.
It is possible to pause On the Road at any given moment and find yourself viewing a beautifully taken photograph. The images kept coming back to me in the days that followed my seeing the film and the end sequence, which plays out during the credits, provides a haunting climax (especially for those familiar with the story of Neal Cassady) in what is a wholly satisfying adaptation of the Kerouac’s novel.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis