The new 2012 film version of On the Road, based on the classic 1957 novel gets only 44% positive rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Fans like it even less, with just 40% approval. And I know why and understand their reasons, but it’s not the movie.
I loved the movie, but I’m haunted by the Beats.
I think director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera, did an excellent job capturing Jack Kerouac’s novel. But see, that’s problematic, since the book itself is hard to like, even though it’s considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century by many literary historians, and yes, hated by just as many. However, On the Road is more than a novel, it’s a legend. The characters are based on real people. These people were so fascinating they became characters in many other novels by various Beat writers. Countless biographies have been written about their beat lives, and over the years films and documentaries have been made trying to capture this very tiny subculture. We’re not reviewing a movie, we’re reviewing mythology.
The encounter of two men, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac generated a whole literary movement, the Beat Generation.
On the Road, came out in 1957, but was about Kerouac’s real life of 1947-1949. It was essentially written by 1951, the year I was born, but tinkered with, and not published until 1957. That’s a long time ago to most young movie goers today. If Kerouac had lived he’d be over ninety. So the 2012 film On the Road, is really a historical flick. It’s about a bunch of unhappy crazy people who did a lot of drugs and rushed back and forth across the continent several times trying to find happiness, kicks, or just escape from their inner demons, obligations and boredom.
When I first read On the Road in 1969, it felt contemporary because the beats were a whole lot like the hippies, at least superficially. It took me a while to realize that On the Road was about my father’s generation. My dad was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922. Kerouac died at 47, in October of 1969, and my dad died at 49, in May of 1970. They both died miserable drunks. They both smoked a lot of unfiltered Camels. They both travelled back and forth across America in a restless attempt to find themselves. They both were failures at marriage and raising kids. I use Kerouac to understand my uncommunicative father.
When you’re a kid and read On the Road for the first time it’s tremendously exciting. It’s adventurous. It’s about hitch-hiking. It’s about sex and drugs. It’s about jazz. Yes, it’s that old, before rock and roll. After doing a lot of drugs and hitch-hiking trips myself, I saw the book in a different light by 1971. I reread On the Road every few years, and the older I get, the more I understand the suffering behind the story.
I wonder if the 60% of movie fans, and 56% of critics who watched On the Road are savvy enough to immediately realize that this story is about misery and not glamor? To be on the road that much, to drink that much, to take that many drugs, to fuck that many people, requires a tortured soul driven by restless, existential pain.
Maybe I love this film because I read the pain in every character on the screen. This is a great film when you realize it’s not a fun film. Sure, they quote Kerouac’s famous lines twice in the film
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!”
Kerouac rewrote his life to make it better, to romanticize it, to make it more meaningful, more exciting, but if you read the many biographies about Jack, you know he failed to fool himself. He knew they were all beat characters. When he discovered Zen, he hoped to put a spiritual spin on things, and hoped he could find enlightenment in his life, or at least write an enlightened view of it. He failed. Alcoholism consumed Kerouac, just like my dad, my dad’s brothers, and their father. I come from two beat generations.
Everyone is initially seduced by Kerouac romantic spin on his life. Everyone loves Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty because he’s so wild and bangs all the chicks, but they forget that ole Dean will abandon you in a Mexico City flophouse when you’re out of your mind with dysentery and have no money, or run off and leave his wife and children to get his kicks making some other woman equally miserable. Neal was a petty criminal, street hustler, con man and user of people, but all too often people loved him. And Kerouac knew that.
Whether Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) or Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) are convincing in their roles depends on your image of Jack and Neal. I loved that the movie didn’t romanticize these two. I don’t think Kerouac did either in his book if you read it closely, but too many would-be beats and hippies have. I am reminded of the contrast between the 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and their trip across 1964 American in an old bus named Further, and the recent documentary Magic Trip that used actual film the Pranksters took on the trip. History and nonfiction don’t match up. For On the Road, history and fiction don’t match either. A good writer can make real life a whole lot more glamorous than it is. I believe Kerouac wanted to chronicle his life without the glamor.
Which brings us back to modern American movie goers, they are incurable romantics. They hate realism. They embrace a comic book view of reality. That’s why I think 60% of them turned their thumbs down for On the Road. That’s why the film played only one week in my city, and why there was only one other person in the theater when I went. That’s why they didn’t like a realistic story about a struggling young writer who loves a low-life hustler and makes him the center of his novel, his life, even though time and again, the bastard left him high and dry, and crushed his soul. Kerouac wrote a lot of books, but only the ones that have Neal in them still matter. Jack returned to Neal time and again, in life and in books, but without Neal, Jack never could get his life together. Success didn’t help, and only made it worse.
Neal Cassady was the bus driver for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and Cassady brought the King of the Hippies to meet the King of the Beats. It was a disaster for the old friends. Jack and Neal are now legendary mythic characters. Trying to understand the realism of their friendship requires reading book and after book, and now watching movie after movie.
I think if you’re among the people trying to understand the story of Jack and Neal, you must see this film. Everyone else should be warned. If you didn’t like it, then you’re lucky, you don’t have a beat soul. If you love it, you’re among the haunted by the myths of the Beats.