Well, you wait over 50 years for an On the Road movie to arrive and then two come along in fairly quick time. Within recent weeks, director Walter Salles’ original and longer version of the feature – coming in at around 140 minutes and seen in that format at Cannes in the spring – has been trimmed by close to 20 minutes and it is the latter, tighter cut that has pulled up at the network of independent movie houses in the UK in the last fortnight or so. Its autumn press reception in Britain has been lukewarm to say the least – a handful of positive notices amid the general feeling that this is not the piece we’d been hoping for, maybe half-expecting, but not ultimately the one we’d anticipated.
I went in determined to ignore the worst of the reviews and take glimmers of hope from the few, more upbeat reactions. I had consumed probably a dozen media responses to the production, yet believed that I could, despite those steers this way and that, still make my own decision on this. After all, the trailer had looked appealing, full of vigour, so I did not enter Manchester’s Cornerhouse complex without a certain optimism. But I had, I must confess, already been disappointed by decisions to excise the initial release: for me, I thought, more would probably mean more and less would leave me hungry. But I’ll return to that in due course.
On the Road on the big screen has a number of things to recommend it. The visions that Salles concocts, with the aid of his acclaimed cinematographer Eric Gautier, are often breath-taking: the shots of landscape – the road snaking ahead, the car shooting along the ribbon of highway from left to right, right to left, through new country, the immensity of a Mexican vista as a Manhattan of cacti spikes is dwarfed by the misty mountains beyond – are frequently splendid. Bridges caught in fog, the sunset-touched shore of New York City, the spark of a cigarette mounted against the neon horizon at night…these eye-catching shots are in many ways the stars of the film.
But what about the true stars of the picture, the actors who have attempted to bring to life a gallery of familiar characters, dramatis personae who have already been doubly cast in so many of our minds: as the genuine flesh and blood individuals – Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and so on – and the fictional ciphers who inhabit the page, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, particularly.
And this is where my faith in the new version starts to waver. Sam Riley’s Paradise may have tried hard to frame Sal’s understated intensity, his introspective reflection, his deep and brooding soul, but he feels more like a ghost to me: a shadowy, somewhat insipid presence. Good you may think: Paradise is, after all, the observer, the recorder of the chaotic events unfolding around him, rather than the architect. But then you need the white flame of Moriarty to get this feast cooking and I’m afraid I have to say that Garrett Hedlund’s stab at incarnating this iconic Beat emblem is game but simply short of the mercurial spirit I required. He has a handsome cool but is lacking the alchemic fire that Kerouac toils to describe in the book – and does so to huge effect. Meanwhile, Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx/Ginsberg is also a pale imitation of the intellectual dynamo I perceive: his take is neurotic, near autistic, submissive. The brain-power, the potency of the nascent poet, is reduced here to mumbling sycophant.
Other supporting characters in the drama are more convincing though. Kristen Stewart’s Marylou is dark-eyed and aloof but brings a crackling tension to the scenes she inhabits. She is sexy and confident and her performance as manipulative temptress transcends the brief moments when she actually beds Moriarty or Paradise, or both together. Viggo Mortenson’s Old Bull Lee – for which we, of course, read William Burroughs – is excellent, too, capturing the author’s mannerisms and drawl quite brilliantly. Kirsten’s Dunst’s Camille, Carolyn Cassady’s character, illuminates a couple of fizzing exchanges along the way and Elisabeth Moss’s feisty cameo as Ed Dunkel’s discarded wife also brings something memorable to the table.
What else catches the eye or under-delivers? I have to say that as a period piece, On the Road does not, in some ways at least, always feel like a 1940s re-creation. The storefronts, the automobiles, the domestic settings, the difficult expensive details, are plausibly of their time. But the main protagonists don’t necessarily suggest they have stepped from that immediate post-war era. The hair-cuts are indistinctly based on indie kid styles from a later, unspecified moment. I can’t believe that Moriarty’s Western neck would have let the hair hang there so long, or that Paradise’s floppy fringe or Marx’s untamed mane are really true representations of their day. Other simple matters don’t add up either: the white T-shirt Dean wears has that tight, short, slim cut that Gap would be flogging us here and now, not the stretched and shapeless billow, maybe oil-dotted or ketchup stained, that Moriarty’s functional vest would surely have displayed.
On the Road the book is, of course, episodic, picaresque and fragmented. Salles’ film tries to be all those things. But while the story that Kerouac conceived, the autobiographical material that he moulded into one of the century’s great tales of restless wandering, was brought to vivid life through prose that said things, that described relationships, that painted horizons, that expressed the rushing wind of the timeless journey, in utterly fresh ways, crafted words are a most difficult currency to translate into sketched out storyboards and final celluloid frames.
I really did feel that it was the prose that had held me all those years ago, when I first read this writer and speedily consumed most of his oeuvre. Someone once said that they preferred radio to television because the pictures were better, the imagination produced more convincing impressions than the literal images on the box that had been served up whole to us. The same I feel applies to this project: the sentences and paragraphs that had me breathlessly running, at least in in my mind’s eye, down Denver streets, up San Francisco hills or the back alleys of Greenwich Village, could not quite be replicated in this bigger, brasher medium. I simply could not make a visceral connection. The all-talking, all-moving marathon of the motion picture left me longing for stillness, for intimacy, for that original discovery when my eyes met Kerouac’s adjectives and images bloomed in my younger cortex.
True to this thought, one of the very best moments in the movie for me is linked more closely to text than to visuals. While Kerouac’s phrases and descriptions are occasionally present in the screenplay – from the Scroll more than the book interestingly – they never quite take off: they have a somewhat cliched quality in this context, and when Paradise sits down at the end of film to actually write On the Road on teletype paper, there is a strong and surprising sense of banality: the device feels hackneyed and short of inspiration, a lazy way to wrap the ramble up.
However, when, a little earlier, Paradise’s eyes run over the new poems that Marx has written and presented in a pamphlet called Denver Doldrums, the lines – are they from On the Road? are they a Ginsberg pastiche? – are quite wonderful. They seem (just as ‘Howl’ did) to condense impression and emotion into a series of evocative word-snaps – ‘the tin cans of Cincinnati’ – and it is that intensity, that concentration, that great poetry has the ability to convey, something that this particular movie interpretation singularly lacks.
The film is free-form, free-wheeling and far-flung and while the barely-resolved arcs of the various chapters will be familiar to Kerouac readers, the average movie-goer, less acquainted with the classic Beat odyssey, will find the threads interminably lacking in shape and substance, bereft of purpose and thin on resolution. For me, as a Kerouac fan and follower, I had a certain admiration for its existential looseness: the impressionist splashes of light and shade, mood and meaning, that Salles throws on the canvas do suggest the anarchic irresponsibility of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic mission. But this technique will not, I fear, spark light-bulbs in the heads of the mainstream audience-member.
On the plus side, various party scenes throb with youthful life and the live jazz interlude, with saxophone at its beating heart, has an authentic energy, and the bordello scene, south of the border, has a hypnotic, proto-psychedelic allure. Less compelling, more stilted even, is Coati Mundi’s on-screen rendition of a Slim Gaillard tune. His version on the soundtrack recording is admirable but the movie take, as the singer exhibits a risible toupee, feels more like an excerpt from a Marx Brothers cabaret than a homage to a significant R&B innovator.
To summarise, On the Road is an unmissable experience for the Kerouac aficionado. You have to see what a major film-maker has attempted with this remarkable work of fiction; it is going to be fascinating for that reason alone. But this movie’s flaws are manifest and its treats strictly rationed; a tour de force it is not. Frankly, the production’s tangible rewards are few and far between and, after two hours, when the end-titles roll accompanied by a re-imagining of Cassady/Hedlund walking the railroad tracks to his early death in 1968, I have to say that I had seen enough. The excised section, I’d been sorry to hear was now on the cutting-room floor, perhaps to be restored at some later stage in a director’s cut DVD, was not, ultimately, missed by me at all.