On the Road – and the Beat Goes On

 

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise a.k.a. Jack Kerouac in On The Road.
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise a.k.a. Jack Kerouac in On The Road.

Walter Salles’s film version of “On the Road” (2013) starts out with a voice over narrative to set the scene, but quickly dissolves into linear visual storytelling with the markings of a buddy film, much like the “Motorcycle Diaries” (2004). The two films are similar – they’re coming of age road movies, but that’s where the similarities end. In “On the Road,” two young guys are out for adventure, consciously leaving the confines of normalcy behind to experience life with the intent of using their experience to make art – and that’s the pitch the movie takes with a token nod towards seeking God. Jack Kerouac has said that “On The Road” was essentially a search for God. “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.”
(quote: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Road#Major_themes)
Set in the late forties, early fifties, Kerouac was struggling to find his writing voice. As it says in the movie, after his father’s death, Kerouac met Neal Cassady. Like all of Kerouac’s work, “On the Road” is semi-autobiographical and Cassady was Kerouac’s muse.

 

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise a.k.a. Jack Kerouac and Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg in On the Road (2013).
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise a.k.a. Jack Kerouac and Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg in On the Road (2013).

Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) is played by Sam Riley, the English actor who isn’t quite as physical as Jack Kerouac probably was, given that Kerouac went to college on a football scholarship, but comes off as the friendly, sometimes brooding, observer. Dean Moriarty, brilliantly cast and played by Garrett Hedlund, is a manly, sexy, bisexual Neal Cassady, and Mary Lou, Moriarty’s teenage first wife, a.k.a. Luanne Henderson, is well played by Kristen Stewart. Moriarty’s second wife, Camille, a.k.a. Carolyn Cassady (who wrote the famed “Off the Road”) is played by Kristen Dunst with appropriate and longing for Dean to settle down. Carlo Marx a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg is played with exuberance and angst by Tom Sturridge, and the love scenes with Hedlund are sweet. “The legendary Holy Goof (Neal Cassady) inspired so much of the Beat movement and literature, despite having no famous literary output of his own. He was Ginsberg’s lover and ‘secret hero of these poems’.”
(quote: http://www.beatdom.com/?page_id=349 )

The film mirrors the bop aspect of Kerouac’s writing sometimes jumping from one subject to the next without a lot of continuity. You don’t know how you got there, but you go with the flow, and some of the club scenes capture the hot gritty grind of sex, drugs and jazz that would melt away intolerance based on skin tone and allow these forward thinking young people conviviality and acceptance in an intolerant world.

 

Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee, movie poster.
Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee

Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee does a fantastic job capturing the pathos of a junky mentor in his portrayal of William S. Burroughs, a paranoid, closeted, junky with a gun fetish, and his wife, Jane Lee a.k.a. Joan Vollmer is brilliantly deranged as played by Amy Adams. Burroughs wife became one of the most famous women of the Beat generation because she was shot and killed by Burroughs while playing “William Tell” in 1951 in Mexico. Burroughs has said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death … [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out”. (Queer, 1985, p.xxii) (Quote: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Vollmer)

 

The real Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
The real Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.

Male bonding may have been a motivating factor for Jack Kerouac’s adventure, and the experience made for great art. With the Gay movement finally making real headway towards equality, the timing of this movie couldn’t be more perfect. The story was written in a time of oppression, when conformity was paramount. Naturally, “On the Road” is filmed through the lens of nostalgia, but the craving for freedom and truth found through rebellion is visceral and applicable to anyone searching for meaning, truth, tribe, and personal expression – something that many people still seek in our discordant society. The film mirrors our societies ethics today with a haze of early fifties paranoia striving for those same utopian ideals of acceptance and equality. We’re poised for the next big integration, so the search for meaning is all the more poignant.

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