Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Road - A Film Review by Bruce P. Grether

Many citizens of the USA have a romantic fixation concerning the landscape of this vast nation, its variety, and the cultural differences of regions, such as the East, West, North, South and the Middle, all imbued with their own character, beauty, and mystique. The classic novel by Jack Kerouac, On the Road, touches into all of these, as well as depicting a rich assortment of human characters.

Like many readers and writers, I have waited a long time for On the Road to come to the screen. One major challenge to such a visual adaptation is that Kerouac’s beautiful, quirky and inspired prose in the novel is not easy to translate visually. There is a kind of poetry and heart to his best writing that must be heard and felt, as much as seen. Still, the film offers exquisite cinematography, and fine performances by the entire cast. Though I appreciate the choice to use Kerouac’s fictional character names, this may confuse some viewers unless they research on Wikipedia.

As with the novel, the major focus is what we now call a classic “bromance” between the narrator (the character Kerouac based on himself) and his good friend and inspiration based on that famous wild man Neal Cassady. There are several layers of romantic fixation going on here, for Kerouac crafted most of his works by recording his own life and friendships through a kind of romanticized filter. His novels ended up as accounts of how he wanted to see things, and often quite different from how others viewed events.

This beautiful film mostly honors Kerouac’s version of things, though there are touches of biography added that are not so flattering, such as the wonderful performance of Kirsten Dunst, as the woman who married Cassady’s character. Though her role is relatively small, she achieves special luminosity and poignance. Also exceptional are Garrett Hedlund as the Cassady character, who brilliantly convinces with his rakish charm. The unexpected casting of Viggo Mortensen as the character inspired by William S. Burroughs, is a brilliant vignette, and quite true to life.

No doubt my view of the film is colored by my own fascination with the Beat Generation, whose works and lives I’ve studied for decades. My partner who is not so fixated said, “The film seems to be about three things: substance abuse, male bonding, and abuse of women.” Though I cannot disagree, to me the film, like the novel, provides a depiction of how certain people can light up other’s lives with enthusiasm and inspiration; this may even translate into the creation of writing and art.

Though creativity does not require irresponsible behavior, the other side of the equation is the free spirits that defy convention, and question external authority. For anyone interested in the literary and cultural history of modern times, On the Road is definitely worthwhile. I’m less certain what I feel about how the film ends, and yet in a real sense, that conclusion was only the beginning of much else.

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