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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"On the Road" movie - I went for Jack

I fell in love with Jack Kerouac a dozen years after he died.

I'd been an English major in college, and I smugly figured I certainly had "met" all the American writers. Then a friend of my brother's said, "You should try reading Jack Kerouac." The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I had never read the man.

I found a copy of Jack's Big Sur in my hometown Menomonee Falls library, and was instantly hooked. I loved the way Jack wrote from the heart. I admired the way he captured an era. Those are my goals as a writer.

I barrelled through Kerouac's books one after the other during the next several years. My husband, Mike, became a Kerouackian also. We traveled to Quebec in 1987 to participate in an amazing Kerouac conference that celebrated Jack's French-Canadian roots. We also went to a couple of the annual "Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!" conferences in Jack's Massachusetts hometown. We were there for the 1988 opening of Kerouac park. I got to shake Stella Kerouac's hand and say to her, "Thank you for taking care of Jack." She was a tiny old lady. She shook my hand and smiled.

When you say "Kerouac" to most people, they say, "Oh yeah, On the Road." It's his most famous book and represents a parting-of-the-sea moment in American literature and, one might argue, in American culture as well. On the Road is a rambling account of cross-country travels with a wild bunch of people who do not fit in with post-WWII conformity. On the Road is not my favorite of Kerouac's books. I prefer his more quiet and personal novels Dr. Sax, The Subterraneans, Tristessa, and Visions of Gerard.

The movie version of On the Road just came to Milwaukee. I almost didn't go after I learned that Kristen Stewart had a lead role - I tired quickly of her bored look in the "Twilight" movies, although I did like her as Joan Jett.

I was also discouraged from seeing the movie when I read a scathing review of the film - to the effect that the movie captured all of the dissipation and none of the joy of the book, and that the film went nowhere. After seeing the movie, I agree with that assessment, but I'm still glad I went. I went for Jack, who so longed for the movie to be made.

It's been three decades since I read On the Road - too many years to judge the movie against the book. Around Christmas, Mike read the original scroll version of the book. He said it is much wilder and more raw than the sanitized version published in 1957. After seeing the movie, I'm inspired now to read the scroll myself.

I will say that I felt turned off by the several scenes of drunken and drugged debauchery in the movie. If Kerouac's writing was only about debauchery, he never would have become my favorite writer.

Kerouac himself regretted that he'd become famous as "king of the Beats." He rued the fact that he had become inspiration for the hippies, whom he deplored. He was sorry that people read his books and focused on the parties, the drinking, the drugs, the sex. He complained that readers seemed to have missed his exhortations to universal kindness. They missed his seeking of God and his seeing the holy in all of life. They missed his constant extrapolation of the universal in everyday life.

As a Kerouackian, I can make these comments on the movie:

* It's a joy to soak in the  film's atmospherics: the sprawling landscapes of Sal's and Dean's America and Mexico, the smoky apartments, the jazz-drenched music joints, the neon-lighted city streets. These are elements I've imagined for years. Best part of the movie.

* It's fun to see photographs of Kerouac and his friends translated, in color, onto a big screen, and brought to life in moving actors.

* It's a JOY to hear Kerouac's words here and there during the movie. The last scene brought tears to my eyes, with the famous last words of Jack's most famous novel.

* It's fun to see Dean Moriarty chattering away on fast-forward. This should have happened consistently throughout the movie, instead of only once or twice. Jack always wrote that his friend was a speed freak by nature, babbling on like a crazy person but with incredible wisdom and knowledge.

* Biggest disappointment of the movie: no look-alike for Jack's character, Sal Paradise. Kerouac was renowned by his friends as being one of the most beautiful men they'd ever laid eyes on. Photos attest to that. The movie has look-alikes for the other characters; why not for Jack? The real Jack had a softness in his eyes along with very masculine features; the actor Sam Riley has a harder look and more angular face.

* Another disappointment: gratuitous sex scenes graphic enough to make me squirm and wish I weren't sitting across the aisle from other humans in the theatre. Not necessary. (Note: now someone can add Kristen Stewart's name to the  "I saw your boobs" Oscar song - or had she already earned that distinction?)

* Kristen Stewart wasn't as bad as I feared she'd be. She plays dissipation quite well.

Teacher Gail movie grade: C minus.

Most of the actors were fair look-alikes (or at least act-alikes, like Amy Adams, who played the burned-out wife of the William Burroughs character). Here are some comparison pictures of the actors and the real-life characters they played:

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise - looking a bit like the photo of
Jack Kerouac below, but nothing like him in the movie

Jack Kerouac, AKA Sal Paradise
The real Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, inspirations for
Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise

Neal Cassady, the real-life inspiration for the
character Dean Moriarty, the prime mover of On the Road

Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty

Amy Adams as the druggie wife of Old Bull Lee

The real-life Joan Vollmer, who was married to William S. Burroughs Jr.
 Joan was the inspiration for the character of the wife of Old Bull Lee

Kristen Stewart playing Marylou

The real-life LuAnne Henderson, Neal Cassady's first wife -
 Lu Anne was the inspiration for the character Marylou
The real Carolyn Cassady, second wife of Neal Cassady. Carolyn was still
beautiful when I met her in 1987 - she was in her 60s then, I believe.

Kirsten Dunst playing Carolyn Cassady

Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee

William Burroughs Jr., the real-life inspiration
for the character Old Bull Lee

Tom Sturridge playing Carlo Marx,
the character modeled after Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, the real-life
inspiration for the character Carlo Marx

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