September 16, 2012

Through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars

It all seems so long ago. On the road, hitch-hiking towards Denver, Sal Paradise (a miscast Sam Riley) gets a lift with a bunch of guys who could be extras from Days of Heaven or The Grapes of Wrath. On the Road is more history than story now, especially if it comes via the precise, respectful period representations in the new Walter Salles film. This is a handsome, flawed, slightly dull adaptation – more traditional and less “meta” than either David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch or Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, both of which added context to the beat text, extending literary adaptations towards unconventional biopics. Compared to them, On the Road is an enclosed world and while we see Paradise/Jack Kerouac at work – he is bystander and note-taker – there isn’t much connection between the exuberant voice on the page and the quiet man on screen. But beyond Riley, the casting mostly works – especially Garrett Hedlund as irresponsible, charismatic Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee/William S Burroughs, Kristen Stewart as teenage seductress Marylou, although Tom Sturridge makes little impression as Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg – and Eric Gautier shoots the American landscape beautifully. Maybe too beautifully. But those are technical issues. There are bigger problems. What does this stuff mean to anyone now? Especially when the real names are still hidden behind the legal fictions. Salles’ not dissimilar and much better The Motorcycle Diaries ran as prologue to the Che Guevara story with a road journey as a political education but there isn’t much sense of why this story should matter to those who don’t already know it and who are comfortable with its protective pseudonyms. Maintaining the pseudonyms also means that Salles and writer Jose Rivera can’t give the film’s end the poignancy it deserves: it would help to know that the real life Paradise and Moriarty both drank themselves to death in their forties.