Sunday, April 7, 2013
Review of Walter Salles' movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road
Pardon the clunky title of this post, but I am being sensitive to how Google searches blog posts as well as how readers decide which Google results to read. I am going to take a different tack for this review, in part because On the Road has been reviewed extensively by the American media and there's little left to say except whether one agrees or disagrees in part or in total with a particular review. If you want to read an exhaustive treatise by acclaimed Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia, click here. Gerry also talks about the film in this recent interview with Pacific Sun.
But I digress. Here's my plan for this post. First (Part 1), I will opine about my reactions to the movie very briefly. Then (Part 2), in order to take a unique tack, I will outline the entries in my book, The Beat Handbook (available here), that make an appearance in the film.
Overall, I would give the film a B+ (using the traditional school grading scale of A, B, C, D, F). Given that On the Road has long been deemed "unfilmable," it's a good adaptation. I think it probably works better for Kerouac fans because we can fill in the wholes which inevitably are left when adapting a 300-page novel to a 2-hour screenplay. I do wonder if I'd never heard of Jack Kerouac whether I'd grade the film the same way. I doubt it.
I've opined about the casting before, but I can't ignore it. I can understand why Salles chose star-power as he did, but I think he could have done better. The worst casting was Kristen Stewart as Marylou. That's not how I see Marylou at all, but I will give KStew kudos for breaking out - a little - from her typically flat performances. Sam Riley as Kerouac? I thought he was only okay. I can't wait to see Jack Huston as Kerouac in the upcoming Kill Your Darlings - that guy can brood. I bought into Tom Sturridge as Ginsberg, and Viggo Mortenson captured Burroughs effectively enough (although he didn't get enough screen time). The women in the film were about as fleshed out as Kerouac treated them. They all did well, especially Kirsten Dunst (who I've decided is actually the same actress as Julia Stiles - I can never tell them apart) as Camille. Steve Buscemi is always excellent, although I could have done without the graphic sex scene with Hedlund. Which brings me to Garrett. After three viewings now (only one of the U.S. version), I am a fan of his portrayal of Dean. I think he could have been more kinetic (the actor who played Neal in The Beat Generation performed at the Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell last October was perfect in the part), and I wish the screenwriters had given him more of Dean's spontaneous dialogue with the "yasses" and "ah-hems" and "yups", etc.
So, the acting was solid but not overwhelming. Not so the cinematography. It was excellent, and I'm glad I went to see it on the big screen. Eric Gautier definitely hit a bulls-eye, and the careful location selections made me really believe I was watching America in the late 40s.
I think the U.S. version was better scripted than the Cannes version because it better emphasized the relationship between Sal and Dean as well as the search for their fathers. Note I say "their" because Sal was searching for his father figuratively alonside Dean's literal search. They did leave out some material I would have liked to have seen, such as Sal's time living with Remi in California. Can't you just picture some of the scenes with Sal as a barracks guard, as well as their lunch on the old rusty freighter? I also wanted to see the scene where Kerouac gets sidetracked near Bear Mountain, NY, at the beginning of his first trip west. And how could Salles have omitted the Ghost of the Susquehanna? I admit I'm biased, having lived and worked in the Harrisburg, PA, area, but this is a seminal scene!
What they did include was necessary - I can't think of any throwaway scenes. I was especially glad they included "pisscall," as that is - for me - the funniest scene in the book. And, of course, "the mad ones" made it in, as well as the closing of the novel ("I think of Dean Moriarty").
I think a grade of B+ is pretty damn good given the well-acknowledged difficulty of bringing On the Road to the big screen. I'd only give the Cannes version a B, so Salles did well in his editing (with extensive input from Gerry Nicosia).
Since the 78 On the Road entries in my book aligned with specific passages in the novel, and since I chose those passages because I thought they were important, I thought it would be interesting (for me, at least, and hopefully for some of you) to see which passages made the cut. That is, where did Salles and I agree on whether to include a passage. I used bold font to indicate the included passages.
Day 23, the mad ones passage, included
Day 24, the apple pie and ice cream passage, not included
Day 25, about hitchhiking (with a truckdriver), included (maybe not this specific incident but hitching was well-represented and there was the dynamite truck scene in the movie)
Day 26, about Eddie the hitchiker, not included
Day 27, about Sal seeing his first cowboy (in Omaha), not included
Day 28, about giving Eddie his wool plaid shirt, not included
Day 29, about Sal sharing his cigarettes on the flatbed with Gene et al., included (I'm giving this to Salles because he definitely included the flatbed scene, not necessarily Sal's generosity)
Day 30, pisscall, included (and was I ever glad)
Day 31, about trying to pick up a waitress by writing on the back of the bill, not included
Day 32, about how Sal rues not saving money and dawdling, not included
Day 33, about Sal making it to Colorado and thinking, "Damn! damn! damn! I'm making it!, not included
Day 34, about using the interjection, "Wow!", not included (I could be wrong about this)
Day 35, about the party in the miner's shack, not included
Day 36, about the Central City bar, not included
Day 37, about Sal's pickup line with Rita Bettencourt, not included
Day 38, about wanting a second chance with Rita, not included
Day 39, about calling each other "Yo," not included
Are you bored yet? Think how tedious this was for me!
Day 40, about getting a job as a barracks guard, not included
Day 41, about realizing everyone in America is a natural-born thief, not included
Day 42, about lunch on the rusty old freighter with Remi and Lee Ann, not included
Day 43, about reaching the end of America with nowhere to go but back, not included
Day 44, about wearing a flimsy Army raincoat purchased for three dollars in Oakland, not included
Day 45, about the pain of seeing a girl Sal loved going the opposite direction, not included
Day 46, about Sal's pick-up line with Terry, included (although it wasn't the same line as in the book)
Day 47, about drinking with Terry and a bunch of hobos, not included
Day 48, about repeating movie lines over and over ("What'd he do up in Weed?"), not included
Day 49, about sleeping until noon, not included
Day 50, about Terry's brother, Rickey, not included
Day 51, about Ponzo, Rickey's friend, not included
Day 52, about eating Mexican food, included (sort of)
Day 53, about "manana," not included
Day 54, about bicycling to get groceries, not included
Dar 55, about climbing a tree and singing "Blue Skies," not included
Day 56, about leaving Terry ("love is a duel"), not included
Day 57, about making salami sandwiches in a Hollywood john, not included
Day 58, about reading Le Grand Meaulnes, not included (I could be wrong about this)
Day 59, about necking with a girl on the bus and trading stories for meals, not included
Day 60, about walking with the Ghost of the Susquehanna, not included (big omission!)
You're halfway there. Press on!
Day 61, about Dean driving in a snowstorm with his head out the window, included
Day 62, about Dean jabbering on the way from NYC to Virginia, not included
Day 63, about sleeping all day on New Year's Eve, not included
Day 64, about Sal talking a bakery worker into giving him bread and coffee cakes for free, not included
Day 65, about Rollo Greb and all of his books, not included
Day 66, about the one and only function of the time, move, included
Day 67, about picking up hitchhkers and asking them for gas money, included
Day 68, about stealing gasoline with the attendant asleep, included
Day 69, about Dean and Marylou playing piggyback around some gas tanks, not included
Day 70, about barhopping in the French Quarter with Old Bull, not included
Day 71, about Old Bull's speech on planned obsolescence, etc., not included
Day 72, about Old Bull loving cats, not included (there is a scene with a cat in the orgone accumulator)
Day 73, about going to the horse races with Old Bull, not included
Day 74, about Dean and Ed and Sal playing basketball with Dodie's ball, not included
Day 75, about stealing food from a grocery store while the family ate supper out back, included
Day 76, about Dean stopping the car near Ozona and running naked in the sage, not included
Day 77, about everyone falling asleep in the car in Arizona, not included
Day 78, about Sal pawning a pocketwatch for gas money, included
Day 79, about Dean driving down Tehachapi Pass without using gas, not included
Day 80, about heating a can of pork and beans on an iron, not included
Day 81, about Sal taking a long walk and scrounging tobacco from butts for his pipe, not included
Day 82, about Dean standing naked in the window looking at San Francisco, not included
Day 83, about Sal showing up at Dean's unannounced, included
Day 84, about Dean remarking how Walter's wife was a real woman, not included
Day 85, about knowing IT and knowing TIME, included (at least the IT part)
Day 86, about Dean being happiest behind the wheel, included (by implication)
Day 87, about Sal's using two different urinals without spillage, not included
Day 88, about Dean's attire (levis and T-shirt), included
Day 89, about falling asleep in the grass near a church, not included
Day 90, about using travel bureau cars, included
Ten days to go. If you got this far, you'll make it to the end!
Day 91, about picking up hitchhikers, included
Day 92, about going unshaven and barechested and hanging out with bums, included
Day 93, about making it 1180 miles to Ed Wall's ranch in seventeen hours, not included
Day 94, about the importance of parking a car in a position where it's ready to go, not included
Day 95, about seeing George Shearing, not included
Day 96, about using a movie theater for a place to rest, not included
Day 97, about Dean telling Sal to "dig the ride," not included
Day 98, about cleaning up at a bathhouse, not included
Day 99, about Dean giving the Mexican girl a wristwatch, not included
Day 100, about the "forlorn rags of growing old," included
By my count, that's 20 out of a possible 78 entries from my book that show up in the film. That's about 26%, or, in baseball terms (since we're talking about Kerouac) a .256. Most batters wouldn't mind that as a batting average, so I'm not displeased.
Now that you got this far, I thought it only appropriate to give you one more chance to buy my book on Amazon just in case this exercise made you curious. Click here for the ordering page.
In summary, I recommend you see this film, but definitely see it on the big screen since the cinematography is the film's strong suit.
Finally, the anticipation for On the Road is over. Now on to Big Sur and Kill Your Darlings.