On the Road
By B. Michael Rubin
Like Brazilians, Americans have a deeply rooted commitment to automobiles. For as long as cars have been around, both countries have been fascinated by the combustion engine and its ability to take us away. To be honest, the appeal of cars is stronger among men than women, although if the women love their men who love their cars, it’s contagious.
In the US, the glamour of cars extends to the everyday male, one who is not talented enough to race in the Indy 500 or Formula 1 in Brazil, but who finds supreme joy in driving, particularly driving without a destination. Even before the existence of cars, pioneer men set out in search of their fortunes, arriving from Europe on the East Coast of the US and then heading west with the beckoning motto: “Go West Young Man.”
Since the invention of cars, Americans have taken to the road in a quest for something unnameable. The “lure of the open road” as it’s known in the US, is a subject that has gripped the American male consciousness in a serious way since at least the 1950s, when the federal government created the interstate highway system, which encouraged anyone who owned a car to drive across the country, from East Coast to West Coast, a distance of 3,000 miles (5000 kilometers). With nothing more than a “sturdy pair of wheels” Americans found themselves capable of safely criss-crossing their entire country without even paying a toll.
There isn’t an American male who hasn’t dreamed of driving across the US, and many of them have done it, or at least tried. However, it isn’t enough for people to love cars or long-distance travel for these pleasures to develop their own stories and heroes. For that mythical expansion, a culture needs artists – writers and musicians who elevate driving into a mystical, magical experience. The appeal of the open road has seeped into the American consciousness and become a symbol thanks to artists like Bruce Springsteen and his Born to Run album, among others.
Perhaps the greatest proponent of the lure of the open road, to capture it on a page, was Jack Kerouac, who published his masterpiece novel On the Road in the 1950s. What Kerouac accomplished was to encapsulate not only the joy of crossing the US by car, but the sorrow and depth and wanderlust that gave name to an entire generation of Americans in the 1950s called the “Beat Generation.”
The enormous social upheaval of the 1960s in the US has been well documented. It spawned a countercultural movement — social protests to end the Vietnam War and women’s liberation, aided by the mass marketing of the birth control pill and legalization of abortion. However, what some people do not know is the counterculture of the Sixties would never have been possible without the Beat Generation, nicknamed the Beats. What the hippies were to the 1960s, the Beats were to the 1950s.
No one captured the spirit of the Beats with more energy or popularity than Jack Kerouac, who became a hero through his books like On the Road and The Dharma Bums. In his novels, Kerouac invented what some critics called a new style of writing, a frenzy of creativity that often poured from Kerouac nonstop for days and weeks until he’d finished a draft. Kerouac referred to it as “spontaneous prose.” One famous tale of Kerouac’s literary delirium revealed that he wrote On the Road so quickly he had no time to replace each sheet of paper in his typewriter, so he took long rolls of paper and taped them together into one continuous sheet to fit the entire book on one piece of paper.
Because Kerouac’s novels were autobiographical, the 1960s American counterculture was able to easily identify its Beat heroes in Kerouac’s novels: Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, among others. Many of these men, thanks to the Sixties hero worship they received, not to mention their extraordinary talent, became famous writers themselves. William Burroughs’s novels included Naked Lunch and Junkie. Ken Kesey wrote a book called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was later adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson and winning five Oscars.
For decades, filmmakers have been intrigued by the idea of turning Kerouac’s blazing prose in On the Road into a movie. The book captured, for many men of the US baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), the greatest expression of male desire for physical exploration, truth, and sexual freedom ever written.
In 1979, the film rights to On the Road were sold to Francis Ford Coppola, the brilliant creator of the Godfather saga. For years Coppola searched for the perfect way to express this American literary symbol on a movie screen. He tried writing the script himself and later hired others to attempt a script. However, Coppola never felt that any of the scripts captured the power and frenetic energy of Kerouac’s story. Eventually, Coppola gave up on the project, and after watching the film Motorcycle Diaries, directed by the Brazilian Walter Salles, agreed to sell the rights to On the Road to Salles.
Walter Salles has now brought the screen version of On the Road to completion, thanks to a script written by José Rivera, who also wrote the Motorcycle Diaries.
This new film is a faithful adaption of Kerouac’s work and both Rivera and Salles are to be congratulated for their efforts. It took a lot of guts to adapt such an important book into a movie, a book many men consider the bible of anti-authoritarianism. For an entire generation of readers, Kerouac captured the soul of American restlessness, the spirit that so often inhabits young men to break free of their hometown rules and leave for parts unknown, the great American frontier.
What is so remarkable about On the Road is that despite its excesses – drug taking, group sex, law breaking – the events depicted are mostly accurate. In the book, the fictional characters of Sal Paradise, the narrator, and Dean Moriarity, his mentor, are disguises for Kerouac himself and his driving partner, Neal Cassady. Kerouac and Cassady in fact spent years driving across the US with no other goals than to reach one ocean and subsequently turn around and drive back to the other ocean. Kerouac died in 1969, a literary icon, at age 47.
Interestingly, Salles has chosen two relatively unknown actors to play the lead roles, Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Sam Riley as the narrator, Sal. Along the way they cross paths with a number of wild characters, all of whom are based on real people, such as Old Bull Lee, played by the superb Viggo Mortensen (Oscar-nominated for Eastern Promises). Lee’s disturbing drug escapades are an accurate depiction of the Beat writer William Burroughs.
Perhaps the most interesting performances in the film belong to the female characters, the various wives and girlfriends who populated the world of the Beats, particularly those who fell into bed with Neal Cassady, a troubled ladies man, who managed to be a magnet for both men and women despite his irresponsible behavior and inability to understand the nature of adult relationship commitments. In the film, Salles was lucky enough to employ the talents of several superb Hollywood actresses in the female roles including Amy Adams, Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst.
The most startling casting is Salles’s decision to have Kristen Stewart play Marylou. As a 16-year-old impressionable teen, she falls under Cassady’s magnetism and turns into a willing sex slave. Stewart, although only 21 when this film was shot, is already a megastar in Hollywood thanks to her role in the series of vampire films known as the Twilight saga in the US and Crepúsculo in Brazil. Along with the nudity Ms. Stewart displays in this film, she also engages in drug taking. To sacrifice her virginal image from the vampire series to play the exact opposite in On the Road takes courage.
Unfortunately, for foreigners unfamiliar with Kerouac’s books or the history of the Beats, this movie will probably lack entertainment value. There’s very little plot to drive the film or character development. All the characters end up more or less where they started, doing everything they can to avoid joining mainstream society. For those who are fans of Jack Kerouac, it will be a treat to see the book and his real-life characters come to life on the big screen. For others, the film will seem overly long and a bit depressing in the relentless depiction of its characters’ desperate attempts to capture the unknowable open road.On the Road Director: Walter Salles Writer: José Rivera Cast: Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Viggo Mortensen Now available for DVD rental in Curitiba.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.