Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review: On the Road

The first impression I had of Jack Kerouac was initially provided by my family describing him as a bum, a drunk; someone who did nothing with his life. I come from a working class family and they believed in working hard to pay the bills, putting family first, and going to church every week. Having been raised in Lowell, MA, the town where Kerouac was also raised and also left behind, it wasn't until I moved out to San Francisco, California that I read his novel On the Road

I arrived and found City Lights Bookstore, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Discovering that there was more to Kerouac than his drinking and his slacking off the 9 to 5 typical work schedule, I enjoyed his novels because he wrote profoundly from the heart about the human experience, about the post-war culture of big cities and open plains, and excelled at documenting the journey that brought him over pastures, mountains and the bayous of North America. The best parts of Kerouac's stories are his witnessing of the human spirit and writing about what is at the core of living as a free person, living each moment by expressing your desires and regretting nothing. Reading On the Road for the first time was an adrenaline rush. Meeting William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, under aliases of Old Bull Lee, Carlo Marx and Dean Moriarty, respectively, challenged my views of these writers who were not entirely bums, dope fiends and crooks. Kerouac as Sal Paradise -- his voice as the constant observer -- you feel that you're in the room, in the car, flying around the frenetic, speeding party scenes. Certainly they could have respected their woman much more, but at that time period womens' lib hadn't turned around the views of any men.

When I heard the news about the film adaptation of the book and the three significant figures in the movie business -- Walter Salles, Roman Coppola, and Francis Ford Coppola -- at the helm, I knew that there was going to be an endless amount of speculation on whether the film ever would be able to lift from the page the same experience you get from reading the book. I also had expectations that some areas of Kerouac's life would be better portrayed on film than it could be on the page. One area that was the most refreshing and nearly unexpected is his conversation in the Canadian French dialect between him and his mother, Gabrielle Lévesque, expertly portrayed by Marie-Ginette Guay of Quebec. Her expressions and reactions are hilarious!

Canadian French dialect is seldom, if ever, accurately depicted in fictional films made in the province of Quebec where mostly French is spoken. The films made in Canadian French language are later dubbed with Parisian French for distribution (in my opinion much meaning is lost within the sounds of the original language when dubbed). Hearing the Quebec French in On the Road for the first time in years was so much more of an authentic experience. Kerouac spoke a Joual version of the dialect with his mother, yet in the film, it definitely sounded more elegant like what most Montreal-ers sound like today. As Sal (Sam Riley) spoke French, I recognized several words without needing subtitles in English. My mother and grandmother spoke Canadian French at home, but I've yet to master it to speak it fluently. Hear for yourself how Kerouac spoke in this 1967 interview

Riley being from Yorkshire, England, he uses an American accent with a light regionalism of a French Canadian living in New England. It isn't quite the accent I heard in my family, but to have studied this accent and drop his native accent, it is no easy feat. He spoke in a similar vocal range and head vocal register that is common among the people with a New England accent. He would only have been more convincing if he put on about 20 pounds for his role as Kerouac.

The challenge for the screenwriter José Rivera is to adapt a prose novel into a film with Kerouac's jazz-influenced writing style. In the film, the literary voice of Sal is demonstrated through use of narration, unobtrusively paired to the visual. Director Walter Salles chose majestic visuals of the west -- traversing the wide open landscape by car or feet. There are no overtly sentimental sequences, though every time Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) leaves Sal, you see through Sal's eyes the void left behind until they're reunited again. The pair enjoy going to live music events and include scenes of them singing along to Slim Gaillard's "Yep Rock Heresy". I would have preferred to see more of the live music in the film, but we do get to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Son House, available on the soundtrack album.

Hedlund's Moriarty radiates on the screen, a kinetic and intensely magnetic man. Each time he turns up, you know there will be all night mayhem. He wasn't clearly a boozehead and perhaps moreso because his father was a drunk, as was Sal's (Kerouac's father smoke, drank, and died of stomach cancer). One of the key driving points is Moriarty's goal to find his old man in Colorado. Hedlund's portrayal as the speed-loving, womanizing Moriarty is genuine and rooted in loving and living. He's selfish and kind all at the same time in the scenes with Kirsten Dunst who plays Camille aka Carolyn Cassady

Moriarty's empty promises to Mary Lou aka LuAnne Henderson (Kristen Stewart) is one among their relationship's contentious and antagonistic issues resulting from his impulsive choices. There are times when both Sal and MaryLou have to settle for letting Dean be with someone else, but it is MaryLou's emotional turmoil that is most visible in Stewart's performance. Henderson reportedly was 15 when she met Cassady, married him at 16 and the marriage was annulled shortly after so that Cassady could marry Carolyn Robinson who was pregnant with his child. Alluding to this marriage with MaryLou, Moriarty's plan to reconcile with Camille is the elephant in the room throughout the cross-country ride, but only is it apparent that MaryLou feels their relationship is forever doomed upon crossing the bridge into San Francisco. Stewart has the challenge of displaying the widest range of emotions unlike her monotone-style character in the Twilight series. Humorous as it is to hear her talk about the lack of food on the road trip for the first time we meet her, later she again refers to food in saying, "It's been 30 hours since we ate anything." Out of all the women, MaryLou and Camille are the most practical-minded women who end up with Dean, who is one of the most impractical people they know. Maybe in reality LuAnne and Carolyn felt they could fix Cassady, which temporarily kept them from breaking it off. The peak of the film is MaryLou and Dean's dancing to Dizzy Gillespie at the New Year's Eve party welcoming in 1949. Stewart's imploding emotions of MaryLou's full-on despair at Dean's dead silence as they depart in San Francisco is not unlike those times we've all had at having to face the cold, heartless truth of the ending of a relationship.

Scene stealers are Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortenson, and Amy Adams. For the short amount of time we see the character Jane aka Joan Vollmer, memorably portrayed by Amy Adams in a state of a vacant stare, wild hair, so sadly we are not given the privilege to see her true intellect. She was said to have a severe addiction to Bennies, but mostly what we saw of her in On the Road was a very strange display of character.

The role of Old Bull Lee aka William S. Burroughs by Viggo Mortenson is not entirely mimicry; Mortenson is the eccentric but wise inventor. Sure, he's the junkie with generosity, too. On the one hand the gloomy style of Burroughs' voice is from a source of deep thinking and yet there is a sadness among his home as there's not much love between him and his wife. A brief shooting range scene is a little rough on the foreshadowing of what happens between Burroughs and Vollmer in about two years.

There are comic moments throughout, especially when we meet the group of travelers led by Steve Buscemi, the driving portion of their interaction is possibly scored by a sappy song sung by a group sounding like The Andrew Sisters. It is best not to spoil it for those having not seen the movie, but the key scene with Buscemi after he knocks on the door to Dean and Sal's room is priceless. It lends some insight into the "means to an end" ethic that Dean Moriarty lives by. Sal may be protective of his friend and, yet, is it completely reciprocated after his bad bout with sickness after a trip to Mexico? There's a constant sense that Dean doesn't wait around for anyone if he has to move on.

All the characters are well-read, but you don't know for certain if the reading they're doing is leaving an indelible influence. There are times when Moriarty quotes from Marcel Proust's Swann's Way which ironically is about a man analyzing and longing to relive his past. Eugene O'Neill is another reference to writers who they relate to in that the characters who dominate O'Neill's works are often on the outside of the mainstream society. The letter writing between Moriarty and Sal and Marx and Sal is tribute to the writers friendships and their need to constantly have an audience with each other.

As the movie comes to a close, we finally are rewarded after all the glimpses into the journaling Sal was doing throughout the movie. The impracticality of having to waste time feeding sheets of paper into the typewriter is resolved and the plunge into all night and all day purposeful tapping of the typewriter is juxtaposed with scenes the last emotional encounter between Sal and Dean in NYC. Wait through the initial credits to hear Kerouac's reading from On the Road.

Director Walter Salles did more than an excellent tribute to the book and really found the best actors to bring the characters to life, including using unique places to make us think they were in Denver, Mexico, NYC, and California during the 40s and 50s. Francis Ford Coppola had the rights since 1979. Yes, it may have taken 23 years to get people on board, but he found the right people at the right time to generate a new following for these old souls and their legacies.

Rating - 4 headless dolls