“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…” (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)
Many years ago I got it into my head that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on toilet paper. But – as I was reminded at the end of Walter Salles’s film of On the Road, when the would-be writer sits down at his Underwood to knock out his seminal novel – it was a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. Imagine my disappointment! Though in my mind’s eye I still see a neverending scroll of Izal covered in unpunctuated text. As Truman Capote once said of Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing – it’s typing.”
Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951, though it wasn’t published till 1957. It’s one of those legendarily “unfilmable” texts that – like Dune, The Naked Lunch and The English Patient – has duly been filmed. Salles directs from a screenplay by Jose Rivera, with whom he previously collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries, another road-cum-biopic which I prefer to think of as Young Che!, possibly the prequel to Che! (or even Che?)
On the Road – the film – is simultaneously a road movie (and of course it has a strong claim towards being the road movie), a Literary Dramatisation and (the novel being a roman à clef) a biopic. As you’d imagine, there are a lot of driving shots in it, which is fine by me as I am always entertained by these – it’s like looking out of the window while you’re being driven around in a car – always something to see. (Abbas Kiarostami is the king of driving shots, by the way.) It’s also a commercial film which by its very nature imposes a structure on an unstructured text. To transpose this “spontaneous prose” to the screen would result in a film too avant-garde even for today’s arthouse cinemas, so instead of that we have a tasteful, even classy package verging on the Cinéma du Look. Eric Gautier’s cinematography bathes even penniless sleaze in a nostalgic glow, all natural light and warm sunbeam. Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty aka Neal Cassady), Sam Riley (Sal Paradise aka Kerouac), Kirsten Dunst (Camille aka Carolyn Cassady) and Kristen Stewart (Marylou aka Luanne) are all as photogenic as their cars, their casual clothing and the passing landscapes. It’s like an entire film shot on Instagram.
It’s hard to grasp the impact of Kerouac’s book must have had on pre-youthquake America in the 1950s, when turning one’s back on a “normality” that had only recently been reestablished after the upheavals of the Second World War would have taken imagination as well as courage, since it had yet to become a tried and tested path for young non-conformists. The sound of rebellion was not yet rock music but jazz, and the hippy concept of turning on, tuning in and dropping out was still a decade away.
From a modern perspective, Kerouac’s rootlessness and studied irresponsibility, copied from his charismatic but genuinely feckless buddy Neal Cassady, can come across like the self-indulgent skiving off of a privileged student on his gap year, who can go home whenever he wants, though I daresay when today’s students run out of money they wire their parents for a top-up instead of, like Kerouac, picking cotton alongside migrant workers or riding the trains like a hobo. The irony is, of course, that while modern hipsters sneer at Kerouac as a self-indulgent poseur who was just playing at being a nomadic bohemian to collect writing material, they themselves are sneering via their iPads or MacAirs or Samsungs. Not even a manual typewriter, which requires a lot more muscle than tippy-tapping at a bluetooth keyboard.
What annoyed me most when I read On the Road (more years ago than I care to remember) is Kerouac’s attitude to the opposite sex, which of course was simply a reflection of the attitudes of the day. His non-conformism certainly didn’t extend to the role of women, who existed purely for his pleasure, as symbols of conformity and commitment, but also as enablers of a man’s artistic aspirations and life choices. Salles’ film makes this explicit in a scene where the men discuss translations of Céline while, in the very next room, the women scrub the kitchen floor and tend to the children. In another scene it turns out that Galatea Dunkel (Elisabeth Moss) has been dumped as collateral with a couple she barely knows – Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, very funny as the William Burroughs character) and his wife (Amy Adams as the surrogate of Joan Vollmer, whom Burroughs would later shoot and kill in a drunken game of “William Tell”).
Hedlund-as-Moriarty, who has a heartbreaking smile and knows how to use it, woos and beds Kirsten Dunst (madonna-like) and Kristen Stewart (Lolita-esque, with scrappy nail polish) as the fancy takes him – the women gamely ride alongside the menfolk, but quickly tire of life on the road and yearn to settle down. I’ve often mused about why there was never any distaff version of On the Road. Is it simply a 20th century version of Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s Sister hypothesis? A question of safety? In those pre-Pill days, one imagines, pregnancy might have got in the way – but only so long as a woman was intent on maintaining relations with the opposite sex. Is there no hidden literary treasure of femme-centric rootlessness from this era, written by lesbians or celibates? Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, perhaps? I don’t know – you tell me.
Another thing I’ve been musing on is why the view of non-conformism is invariably a uncompromising all-or-nothing – not just in On the Road, but in all Hollywood sagas of youthful rebellion, which is invariably seen as a rite of passage prior to inevitable domestication and enslavement to tradition. Women are killjoy signifiers of responsibility, and the men must turn their back on amusing but childish behaviour if they want to become grown-ups, with families. Like Hal turning his back on Falstaff (only without the kingly stuff, obviously), Paradise renounces Moriarty and the road for respectable urban intellectual living with a good woman. Stewart says at one point, “I just want a house, a baby, you know, something normal.” Well, I’m sorry, and I know I’m looking at this from a privileged post-Feminist perspective, but that’s not my idea of normal.
But a theoretical Third Way, in which conformity is rejected but not necessarily replaced by self-destructive behaviour, never enters into the equation. I’m left wondering why the choice always has to be so cut and dried. I truly believe one can be a non-conformist without ending up as a deadbeat, addict, sociopath or hermit, but I can’t think of any films which illustrate this. If you can, I’d love to hear about it.
BEAT FOOTNOTE. I saw John Byrum’s Heart Beat (1980) when it came out, but it didn’t make a big impression on me, which is another way of saying I remember hardly anything about it, though it might be worth revisiting in the light of my growing appreciation of John Heard in the intervening years. He plays Kerouac in this adaptation of Carolyn Cassady’s memoirs, which concentrates, predictably, on the three-way relationship between Jack, Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Cassady , with a scene-stealing turn from Ray Sharkey as Alan Ginsberg surrogate “Ira Streiker”. Ginsberg reportedly refused permission for the film to use his name or poetry, but was portrayed directly – and surprisingly successfully given the actor’s pulchritude – by James Franco in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s more adventurous if not entirely successful Howl (2010). (In On the Road, the geeky Ginsberg character (Carlo Marx) is played by Tom Sturridge.)
Nowadays, it seems, we feel more comfortable with our Beat Generation filtered through fashion, or sent up in parodies – it’s certainly not taken seriously as counterculture, not even with the sort of retrospective mix of condescension, irritation, denunciation or grudging admiration now accorded the hippy movements of the 1960s. Think of beat in the movies, and you think of Audrey Hepburn’s meticulously choreographed “self-expression” in Funny Face, or the kitsch appeal of George Peppard and Leslie Caron in The Subterraneans (another Kerouac adaptation) or Tony Hancock encountering a blue-lipsticked Nanette Newman in The Rebel, or busboy Dick Miller yearning to hang with the cool kids in A Bucket of Blood.
My favourite film beats are Juliette Gréco and her maenads in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. But follow this link if you’d like to see some more examples of Beats on Film.