On the Road – The Movie

by Mark Hahn


On the Road just opened in Tucson. I felt I had to see it. As much as I might not like Jack Kerouac or his novel, there is no denying its social importance.

While the Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles  took on the revolutionary pop icon Che Guevara in his 2004 movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, taking on Kerouac’s novel was a much bolder undertaking. On The Road resides in many people’s minds as being more important than the Bible. Kerouac fans find whatever they are looking for in this work. They search for salvation in his words. They look for a path to freedom in its pages.

Guevara wrote The Motorcycle Diaries when he was an errant medical student at the age of 23. While important because it chronicles the travels of a pre-revolutionary Che, it is still simply a travel log written by him. You cannot connect the dots between Che in the Motorcycle Diaries to Che, the charismatic and iconic communist militant commando. The movie in fact is more about Latin America than anything else — Che never dominates the landscape. He is just a part of it. We follow him through it, but we could just as well follow someone else.

On the Road IS Jack Kerouac, THE legend. This is the shelter Kerouac built for himself so he could hide from his own pain and loneliness. On the Road is also a record of a whole cast of Beat celebrities — William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Allan Ginsberg, Herman Huncke and others. So not only is Salles messing with people’s religious messiah and his sacred text, but also a collective history as well. In a sense, this leaves no real room for filmmaking interpretation. What needs to be in the film has already been written in stone.

Recognizing this, Salles chooses a straightforward adaption of the novel. He doesn’t deviate in timeline or, for the most part, the events. Sure, there are simplifications and adjustments for continuity in the film — there had to be to make it coherent and pared down to its final release length of 2 hours. Salles does subtly manipulate certain details to put his own soft footprint on the novel however. A few of these make a fairly dramatic impact on the final piece.

The filmmaking is beautiful and nostalgic — shifting effortlessly between classic postcard rural Americana highway scenics to interior and street shots reminiscent of Robert Frank’s period photography. A reference to Frank makes historic sense given that Kerouac co-authored The Americans with Frank — probably the most famous photo essay of all time.

“We Serve Whites Only” and “No Beer Sold to Indians” signs in the stores that Kerouac stops at help put the novel in context of the time. Perhaps this is meant to partially justify Kerouac’s problematic racial and sexist attitudes. Kerouac habitually treats women and the black jazz musicians as objects in both the movie and the novel — worse so in the novel.

On the Road was originally written in the late 1940’s and is about events that took place in this time frame. This was well before the American civil rights movement had any organizational strength. The novel wasn’t published until 1957 so it was almost a decade out of date when it was released.

Criticism of the film seems to mostly stem from the lack of exuberance that many Kerouac fans read into the novel. Salles chooses to take a “road to nowhere” read which is where I find the novel’s strength — and the film’s. In real life, Kerouac attempted to find freedom and was left with nothing — the whole trip, on the road, brings him nowhere.

Drug use was an exotic topic for the 1950’s. One of the most stunningly well crafted scenes in the movie is when Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg all do Benzedrine speed from broken inhalers along with Cassady’s 16 year old wife “Marylou.” The timing and subtle shift in accelerated edits coupled with the disjointed and fragmented bits of speech create the experiential feeling of a speed rush cinematically better than anything I have ever seen before. But as exciting as the high is, it ends with Cassady, Ginsberg and Marylou having a three-way in the bedroom while Kerouac is left sitting alone on the sofa — his head against the hard wall while he comes down from this high.

Later in the movie, Dean breaks down and through sincere tears, tells Kerouac how he sat in a car all night holding a gun to his head. He wanted to end it all. He cries that he just couldn’t do it. While trying to express his pain to Kerouac, Dean senses Kerouac’s lack of ability to respond to him on any sincere human level. Dean has to accept how alone he really is. Seeing the futility of talking to Kerouac, Dean falls back into his defensive fun-loving character and transitions straight into telling a wild orgy story. Kerouac likes it. They both laugh. The pain is still there for both of them, but it allows them to get through the moment.

What is clear is that Kerouac uses Cassady for his experiences as well providing an outlet for his own longings to build a fictitious model of freedom. Cassady and Kerouac are both hiding from the pain they carry inside — Cassady attempts to outrun his with booze, stolen cars and sex. Kerouac tries to follow, but always ends up trapped in his own inactivity and inability to let go. Kerouac is never able to own his actions, but is the perpetual follower.

There are comprehensive websites devoted to listing the “inaccuracies” in the film, but really, who cares. The film is its own final product — or should be. But I will still feel the need to note a couple deviations that I feel change the fundamental essence of Kerouac’s original work. After all, the film wouldn’t be getting the attention it is has if it not been based on the novel.

In the final Mexican whorehouse scene, Salles chooses to present it as a drunk and stoned whirlwind blur of hedonism. In the novel, Kerouac goes to great lengths to express the sadness of the experience. In it, while he was helplessly attracted to a beautiful teenage prostitute, he is overcome by moral guilt and unable to fuck her. Even though Dean is out doing every young piece he can without a worry, Kerouac cannot let himself take advantage of someone so young and so obviously a victim of the world. Perhaps Kerouac momentarily identifies with her pain.  In the book, we can read this as an acknowledgement of Kerouac’s failure to find freedom — a freedom from himself. Mexico was the end of the road. In this, you have to feel some sort of sympathy for the man. Not so in the movie.

In the final scene, Dean comes across Kerouac on the streets of NY. He stands there in his moth eaten overcoat and a well dressed Kerouac just walks away from him. In the novel, Kerouac tries to convince his friends to give Dean a ride. They are all dressed up on their way to a fancy show and refuse. Kerouac wrote, “the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him,” as they drove away. In the movie, Kerouac shows nothing. It leaves you feeling that he was a complete unfeeling user and Dean was the innocent victim. In the novel, you never know who is using who and as much as it pains me to come to Kerouac’s defense, I think the confused friendship between him and Cassady was just that, a very confused friendship. Salles seems to be punishing Kerouac for his fame. Neither Kerouac nor Cassady found freedom or salvation in the span of the novel, but by the end, it was just time to move on. Other than a need to not be alone, there wasn’t much else that they could share.

Just as he did with Motorcycle Diaries, Salles has given us a sprawlingly beautiful and relatively safe interpretation of On the Road. It’s hard not to like the film, but even harder to love it. There is nothing new, no real meat — you watch the film because of what the novel stands for. Both films by Salles are important because of the historic characters that they are based on and their stories. Che Guevara and Jack Kerouac are both iconic twentieth century heroic macho underdogs. It will be interesting to see which hero Salles wraps his next movie project around. I’m sure I’ll go see it too.

I recently revisited On the Road, the novel, and discussed my response to it here.