Friday, May 15, 2015

On the Road (2012)

Some old (2012) notes, half-formed and messy:
-I saw this film in a special advance screening at the IU Cinema with Walter Salles in attendance. The audience gave the movie a standing ovation, and he answered questions for a while afterwards.
-The film is obviously the result of a great deal of research and thought and discussion about the book. Salles said he started working on it in 2004, stalled by financial crisis, used the original typewritten scroll and interviews with actual participants/friends/family members to find out exactly what happened in reality to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady, etc.
-But this, to my mind, is missing the point: The book is not inspiring and beloved because people just like reading about people getting drunk and taking drugs, but because of the way it is written --if you can't capture the energy of the book in your cinematic style, why even adapt it? You might as well go for a biopic of Kerouac or a historical study of the Beats if you're just gonna strip things away.
-What really happened only matters because the book found the poetry and spirituality and beauty in the events.
-The novel doesn't have traditional scenes, plot, etc., instead all about language, texture, flow. Movie keeps trying to make traditional scenes, plots, and gets sucked into doldrums of "real" life.
-The movie's journey across America should have had more visual creativity and interest. Something like Into the Wild was far more vibrant and alive. If film was really going to take the challenge of the prose seriously, it probably should have gone for a more Malick-like aesthetic--flowing, but with few real scenes, and emphasis on fragmentary cutting. To my mind, the Levi's commercials that quote Whitman or show Braddock, PA, have caught more of the best spirit of the book than anything in this film.
-Salles said that adapting the book was difficult and never going to satisfy everyone because the novel is so "polyphonic." He's probably right. Some of the themes/interpretations he could have gone with: the search for the American dream, the last of the pioneer/cowboy spirit, the search for spiritual meaning, the story of the sons of immigrants looking for a place of their own, the rebellion against postwar cultural complacency, a radical call for a new social order, etc.
-Instead, Salles entirely ignored these and went for a coming-of-age story, with the focus on a friendship that ends.
-Apparently he lacked the inclination (and I would say the ability) to make this story genuinely American, or say anything about America at all. Sure he said he had read it and been deeply affected as a young man, and noted that the book had had impact around the world, but I'm going to come right out and say that a Brazilian filmmaker was probably the wrong choice to adapt a book so quintessentially and inescapably American.
-Where the book reveled in larger-than-life characters and outrageous exploits, the movie paradoxically seems to tone everything down, avoid any hint of exaggeration, and consequently it is dull.
-Riley quite good as Sal, Sturridge good as Carlo, Viggo Mortenson strange and perfect--too bad he's only there for a few minutes, Stewart=meh.
-Hedlund isn't bad exactly, Salles says he put his all into the role, was awed by his commitment.--But he isn't Dean. He isn't part Gene Autry, part Harpo Marx. He isn't a motormouth, not constantly going wild and exciting you into going along. He seems too often depressed, and he goes for a more modern idea of cool which Dean doesn't fit.
-These characters have noting admirable and little exciting about them. Why should we care?
-For some reason, after stripping out so many interesting incidents, the movie includes almost every sex scene from the book, plus ones that weren't mentioned, plus gay sex scenes and fights between Dean and Camille which the book slides over. If this was some sort of critical expose on what the Beats were *really* like, this might make sense, but it's not.
-The whole film seems slowed down, ignoring the weird rhythms of event and human speech that gives the book momentum. Focused on the quiet nights after the party rather than the excitement during it. It all adds up to a more pervasive feeling of loneliness, alienation, exhaustion.
-For Kerouac, "beat" meant down and out but full of intense conviction, beatific. But here when Sal suggests there might be something holy about Dean, Bull shoots it down angrily and the film seems to agree.
-For this movie, "beat" just means lost. But the novel has moments that reach higher, moments when they're found.

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