Monday, 5 November 2012

On The Road


Jack Kerouac’s cult-classic hits the road with Walter Salles behind the wheel.

It’s been over half a century in the run and now, exactly 55 years after it was first published in the US, Jack Kerouac’s ground-breaking, if not life-changing, novel On The Road has finally been brought to the screen in a feature length film.

It has been a much anticipated spectacle for fans of the American writer’s most illustrious work, and a long-awaited project for whoever dared to transcribe the 300-page ramble and place its mass of seemingly aimless digresses neatly into a piece of conventional narrative film.

Thank you, Walter Salles.

Young and aspiring writer Sal Paradise joins wild ‘n’ wacky Dean Moriarty as they wind up on an exhilarating ride back and forth America. In search of personal freedom and self-exploration, the pair, and their half-hearted entourage who idle in amidst their travels, divulge into a life of sex, drugs, jazz and kicks. Stimulated by their incessant discovery of the unravelling sidewalks of life, and living an existence of, as Kerouac himself describes, “raggedy madness and riot”, Sal and Dean amble east to west and back again to fulfil their yearning desire of new and exciting experiences. While indubitably defining the ‘Beat’ generation, Kerouac’s novel tests the limits of the American Dream whilst celebrating the growing phenomena of the counter culture in the fresh approaching years of the mid-20th century.

With an exuberant Dean at the helm and an infatuated Sal clipping his heals close behind, they race through society drinking whiskey, smoking weed and getting girls. Working by day to fund their life by night. Salles captures the no-worries-be-happy existence of the elated ensemble to a tee and highlights both the charm and energy of the American poor man’s city buzz– what it was like to really feel alive- as well as its tragic consequences of poverty and, as demonstrated in one of Kerouac’s characters, it’s potential to create an ultimate dissatisfaction of life.

Kerouac’s exquisite blend of fictional and autobiographical storytelling is really a visual display of a nostalgic panorama of the open outdoors; a love poem to nature, passion and exuberance. But unfortunately, we spend more time indoors in hotel rooms and shacks in this adaptation. What is tragically suppressed is the true essence of Kerouac’s experiences on the backdrop of post-war America- the gritty nature of a life on the road. The young men’s adolescent affection for the many wonders of the world and their endless cravings to discover and unravel its natural splendour is dampened down. Subsequently, the continuing sense of their long and winding miles that forever exist ahead of them, and how each brief stay in each city or town is only a pitstop on their forever-present journey on the road, is largely lost. This is perhaps surprising considering the director’s prior success in creating just that in his critically-acclaimed The Motorcycle Diaries. Sal and Dean’s brief separation which is so poignant to understanding their relationship is too somewhat neglected.

Nonetheless, Salles delivers a well-rounded and intriguing story around the salient events of the characters lives in those noteworthy years, which will no doubt be inflated for those who haven’t read the novel. Despite probably suffering for its lack of insight into Kerouac’s deeper philosophies and character relations, Salles should be credited for how much of the novel he does pack into the 120 minute pic. And, allas, it is fundamentally comprehendible to follow.

Kirsten Stewart falls back into her teenager years and whilst her character of Marylou isn’t entirely accurately sketched, she embraces the balance of the young woman’s maturity- whose outlook is older than her years- with the larger-than-life free spirited girl (not to mention her boob debut!) Garrett Hedlund literally and metaphorically beams as the vivacious, eccentric ‘cowboy’ and Sam Riley equally shines in his performance, as does supporting roles from Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunce, Amy Adams and Tom Sturridge. Though the ensemble is an impressive one, the ephemeral of multiple characters that we encounter doesn’t quite allow for that depth of individual personality and history that we feel each character deserves. The connection to them is subsequently more one of fleeting admiration and, at times, bewilderment rather than sentimental emotion.

Though the movies ending is admirably left in the stories honest, nonchalant conclusion, a feeling that Kerouac’s life on the road remains a story untold onscreen lingers. And perhaps that’s the way it should stay.

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