Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nothing Behind Us, Everything Before Us, As Always it is On the Road

On the Road
Directed by Walter Salles
Three Stars

Note: This is the first review I've written since the passing of my hero Roger Ebert. I'd like to dedicate this review in his honor.

I've looked forward to reviewing Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's landmark novel, "On the Road", if only because it would afford me the opportunity to write about the book itself, which is among my very favorites. Kerouac had captured, in vibrant color, an entire cultural movement. The Beats, they called themselves, an underground generation of progressive liberation, punctuated by sex, drugs, and jazz, that laid the foundation for the  hippy movement of the late sixties. He told a tale of the last days of an untamed American countryside, as the coasts had just begun to close in on each other, and cries of freedom still disappeared into a sprawling, wild openness, populated sporadically by strange and eclectic characters that seemed as if from another world.

But mostly, "On the Road" was a portrait of Neal Cassady, Kerouac's muse, who was crippled by an insatiable lust for the great beauty of the country, the thrill of the road, and the pleasures and peculiarities of their people. Neal was a beautiful and tragic figure, completely untethered, selfish, inconsiderate of the needs of woes of those around him, he was also welcoming and warm, in frantic pursuit of something akin to the transcendent. He desired to love everyone he met (except, perhaps, for policemen), and found everyone interesting in their own right. Forever ravenous for his "kicks", Cassady was the embodiment of the free spirit, of its romanticism and of its consequences.

The great challenge of adapting "On the Road", a novel largely considered unfilmable (for reasons Salles' effort reinforces), is that Neal Cassady - here, as in the original publication, named Dean Moriarty (played heroically by Garrett Hedlund) - is largely an unperformable character. If he hadn't have existed, we could not have invented him. Even though he was a real person, he inhabits our imaginations as a literary figure, the tone of his life lives less through deed or summary than through the intoxicating recklessness of Kerouac's prose. Neal Cassady is not so much a character as a state of mind, a need, a hunger, a siren for the push-back against apathy and cynicism that had crept into the American dream like a cancer.

It is an impossible task, I fear, but Salles' adaptation is probably the best we could ask for. The project, for me, revolves around the effort to translate Neal Cassady onto the screen. Garrett Hedlund, assuming the thankless task, takes a predictable approach that makes the daunting assignment manageable but false. He slows him down, edges him out of his unsustainably heedless pace of living, and makes him more of a hyper James Dean type, a cool cat without a barometer for excess.

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), the novel pseudonym for Kerouac himself, meets Dean in New York. Sal, a down and out writer and underground pseudo-intellectual, finds Dean intriguing, a reprieve from the dingy tedium of New York living, and joins him on a series of cross country road trips, twice to San Franciso via different routes, and once deep into Mexico. Dean, who has never met a woman he didn't love, juggles multiple women in his travels, many of them his own wives, some even with children. It is abhorrent behavior, but Dean means well. He simply cannot slow down long enough to see what his lifestyle does to other people, the burdens he leaves in his wake. Sal is intoxicated by him. He is like another species. One of the "mad ones", he says affectionately. Though it dawns on him slowly that the speed of his life will eventually whittle Dean down to nothing.

That is perhaps where the movie finally cannot deliver. Hedlund's portrayal of Cassady as a suave, deliberate madcap, oblivious to the suffering he inflicts upon others doesn't add up to his final scene, when he finally appears too torn and frayed to continue in such a fashion. The scene is devastating in Kerouac's universe. In Salles' it is peculiar, as though something went awry when we weren't looking.

But, to be fair, "On the Road" is a good movie. Salles' camera captures the dusty, sweaty, puritan allure of the American countryside, the exotic presence of Dean's sleak Hudson as it blazes through the Nebraska Sandhills or the cactus-laden backroads of Mexico. There is an abundance of lovely and colorful supporting performances, chiefly Tom Sturridge as Carlo (Allen Ginsberg), whose soft, genteel attraction to Dean is sad and beautiful, and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs) in a surprise turn as an eccentric paranoid holed up in the backwoods of the Louisiana bayou.

"On the Road" ends on the right note, but neither we nor Salles are particularly sure how he got us there. The epic nature of the film is something of a cumulative effect, the long, ambitious road-trips piling on top of one another until they all run into a great mass of desire. Sure, Salles can't explain why Sal and Dean longed so for the open road. Perhaps it was wise not to spend much time on it. There are roads in America, and so they drove them. And when they reached the end of the world, they turned and went back to the other. The film may spend more time on the chaos and sadness Cassady left in his wake then in the exuberant pursuit of more, more, more, in the disregard of limitations, in the vain conceit that there might always be somewhere else to escape to when the scene at hand grows stagnant, as was the focal point of Kerouac's account, but in a generation that is very much post-beat, perhaps this is all we've left to see. As I think back on the experience, though, both of the film and, inescapably, Kerouac's ethereal book, I think of Neal Cassady. I think of Neal Cassady.

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