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“Road movies are what brought me to the cinema,” Brazilian-born director Walter Salles said in his introduction to his film adaptation of Jack Kerouac‘s generation defining novel, On the Road. That being the case, he has had the luck of bringing the most iconic road novel perhaps of all time (with exception of Cervantes’ Don Quixote) to the big screen. First published in 1957, On the Road seemed unfilmable due to its wild content then considered too taboo for American audiences. Francis Ford Coppola snapped up its rights in 1979 and hoped to bring it to the screen himself, filming in black and white on 16mm. When that plan fell through due to financing issues, he put hte project on hold and waited for the right circumstances. Joel Schumacher was going to direct it at one point – unimaginable to me since he’s an incredible hack – with Colin Farrell in one of the lead roles, but that eventually fell though. When Coppola saw SallesThe Motorcycle Diaries, the road movie about Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Alberto Granado‘s trek around South America, he knew he’d found his man to finally bring this much loved novel to the screen.

So, in 2004 when Salles was given the reins, he felt he was not ready to shoot the film. So he decided to embark on the same trip that Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and Marylou set out on in the novel, interview all of the people (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Michael McClure, Carolyn Cassady, etc.) who took part in or witnessed the events  that took place in the thinly veiled biography of the early Beat Generation. He also filmed a documentary Searching for On the Road, which has yet to be released chronicling this trip, part of which was shown at a lecture given by Salles yesterday at the Indiana University Cinema. In 2008, the film was ready to go just when the economic crisis hit. Production was shut down due to money concerns, and the bulk of the cast remained in place, waiting for it to eventually go. In 2010, production finally began.

Now, to the film itself.

If you haven’t read the book, here’s the basic premise – would-be writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley who was so wonderful in Control) meets ex-con drifter Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, Tron: Legacy) through friend and poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), the literary/filmic counterparts to real-life Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginzberg. The three form an unlikely bond, and over the course of years embark on various journeys together, criss-crossing the continent in search of love, sex, drugs, jazz, wisdom, knowledge, insight, truth, enlightenment and understanding. As Amiri Baraka told director Salles, and I’m paraphrasing here – the story is about blue collar kids colliding against the dominant culture because they are not allowed in. And this is precisely what we get.

Hedlund absolutely shines as Moriarty, a machine gun of energy when he’s on screen. He is the driver of this film. Dean has “it,” that one indescribable thing/magnetism that some people have that for whatever reason draws others to him. This notion is detailed in a great voiceover while Sal, Carlo and Dean are at a jazz club, taking in the pulse of the music, absorbing it as if to carry it along with them when they leave. When he’s present, the film cruises like a drunk driver at the Indianapolis 500 – fast (“balling the jack” as Kerouac wrote), all over the place and never knowing where it’s going to take you.  Salles imports the jazz-fueled grammar of the book to the screen, the narrative mimicking the bebop of the soundtrack with great effect. This is how I remember the book and I can’t imagine it being any other way.

Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) on the road.

The staccato-like structure of the film does offset the high-speed elements with Dean at the fore. Returning to focus on Sal and his internal journey, the one that takes him to the place where he can finally write his novel which is exactly what we’re watching, or stopping off to see Old Bull Lee (the William S. Burroughs character played to perfection by Viggo Mortensen) helps temper a narrative that could easily spin out of control. One of the very successful parts of this film is that, if I recall correctly, we are never out of Sal’s point of view, or at least in an ancillary sense, at all throughout the entire film. Even in scenes like when Dean and Camille (Kirsten Dunst) argue causing Dean to leave for good, Sal is there. Whatever information we receive as viewers about the characters, Sal also receives so we never know more than he does.

Marylou (Kristen Stewart), the apple of Sal and Dean’s eye…at least for a while.

The novel has often been called misogynistic in its portrayal of the female characters, especially Camille, the woman who is left to take care of the wanderer’s two children while he’s off banging every chick in sight, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), the 16-year old that Dean marries, leaves, finds, sleeps with, leaves Camille for, dumps for Camille, shares with his friends, etc. Salles definitely beefed up their characters from the novel as he wanted to show them as the women that were on the cusp of the women’s lib movement in the 60s. I think these two women show different ends of the that spectrum. Camille is the responsible woman and one that doesn’t take most of Dean’s shit. She is not submissive and won’t let him continue his man-whoring ways and stay with her. Even though she knows that with one toddler and another baby on the way life will be difficult, she still kicks him out. On the other ends lies Marylou, the impetuous free-loving teenager not afraid to explore her sexuality and use it for what she wants. Not exactly the standard model for women of the late 40s and early 50s.

Being on the road gives one a better understanding of who they are and who they will become, Salles said as he tried to explain his take on the film. There is time for discussion and self-reflection because time is all you’ve got. This certainly plays out for the characters in the film and is especially true of Dean. He says, “I’m scared I’m going to lose all the wisdom I ever got.” So is this why he reads Proust’s Swann’s Way? Is this why an ex-car thief spends time with poets and writers? Why he embarks on benzedrine fueled all-nighters discussing truth and existence? The question is do we or even Dean really know who he is by the film’s end? This is why he’s the most fascinating character in the book and the film – he eludes us, or at least he eludes me.

Dean Moriarty, plain and simple.

One of the more interesting points Salles made in the Q&A after the screening was when he pointed out the scene in which Old Bull Lee is discussing the translation of the passage from the Louis-Ferdinand Céline novel. Lee points out that the translator who put the book into English had done it wrong, had betrayed the original text by not capturing the nuance of the French in his English translation. Salles himself noted while this was an improvised scene by Mortensen, it rang very true for himself and the cast and crew making this film as they, too, were translators of the original Kerouac work. Were they traitors as well? I’m sure some critics and audience members will believe they are and so does Mr. Salles as well. This is just one group of people’s take on this material. If 200 other directors and writer’s tackled it, you would likely see 200 different versions of the film.

All in all, this film is successful enough. I don’t think it will burn up the box office, nor do I think it will offend the hard core fans of the novel. When tackling an iconic work like this, there are going to be bumps. The novel is so thick with material despite it’s 304-page length it would be nearly impossible to film faithfully unless it were tackled like Fassbinder did with Alfred Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is 15 hours and 40 minutes long. Kristen Stewart surprised me as I usually put her in the Julia Roberts acting category of having as much range as a quadraplegic shortstop, which is to say none at all. Salles said she was locked into the film since 2006 after composer Gustavo Santoalalla and director Alejandro González Iñárritu saw her in Sean Penn‘s Into the Wild and suggested he cast her. Not a bad move. This is a film people should see. Each person probably will have a different take-away from it. Hopefully it’s one that inspires us each to take our own trip down a road in hopes of discovery.

It was a real treat having Mr. Salles here in Bloomington with us. He has been extremely gracious with his time (he is still here showing his other films). Getting to speak with him at the pre-screening reception was a true highlight. His praise of our campus, the IU Cinema and its staff and the Lilly Library and its staff  is particularly gratifying. We are lucky to have those world-class institutions here. That the Lilly Library houses the original On the Road scroll is also very exciting and an appropriate place for this film to screen.

Here’s the trailer:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are 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 yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awwww’ ” – Sal Paradise, On the Road