On the Road

Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, Jack Kerouac (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart

★★★★☆

Walter Salles’s On the Road is perhaps as good as could have been expected, a faithful and gorgeously cinematic adaptation that lacks the soul and energy of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel. Infused with jazz, sex, drugs, adventure, poetry and rolling prose, the film easily draws you into the world of the Beat Generation but, once the excitement has worn off, you will be left wondering what it was all for.

The necessarily episodic plot revolves around the character of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the quasi-mythical incarnation of the hedonistic Beat pin-up Neal Cassady. He attracts a string of followers as he journeys back and forth across America, including Kerouac’s alter-ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), who is really Allen Ginsberg, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his young lover abound with sexual energy. Kerouac originally envisioned Marlon Brando in the role, one of the few actors who would have had a genuine shot at fully recreating Cassady’s intoxicating personality, but Hedlund does an excellent job, ensuring his character has a powerful presence and that mad glint in his eyes.

On the Road Garrett Hedlund Kristen Stewart Sam Riley

Riley also gives a good turn, resisting the temptation to take centre stage and feeding off the vibrancy of the other characters. Sal comes across as an observer, swept along by Dean’s charisma, but always trying to hold back from being drawn into the flame. He scribbles away in his notebook like some mad anthropologist on the brink of going native, taking down the philosophy of the road that will form the raw material for his book.

The lifestyle is seductive and certainly looks like a great deal of fun, while the romance of the journey is beautifully rendered. As they did for The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier succeed in capturing America’s spectacular variety. We feel the icy winters, the heat of the endless desert roads, and sense the freedom that lies on the other side of the horizon.

Arguably, the film has a more coherent narrative structure than the novel, but it still feels patchy. Characters are picked up and discarded along the way, which means we are never able to really feel anything for them. The segment featuring Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) passes by too quickly and without genuine purpose. Camille (Kirsten Dunst), like most women in On the Road, is treated disgracefully, but her story only appears as a coda to Dean’s own self-inflicted downfall.

Kristen Stewart On the Road

To an extent, the novel also gives rise to this fleeting feeling, but it is able to get away with it more. The Beat Generation represented a rejection of the entire construct of American society – its very existence was an act of rebellion. The film gives us little of this context and it often appears as if the characters are just out to have a good time. Experimenting with drugs and free sex was central to their liberating ideal, and, while it is clear in the novel that they resoundly fail to live up to it, it gave them a raison d’être that is sorely lacking in the film. Sturridge’s deeply complex Carlo is the only character worthy of the epithet holy.

Kerouac wrote that the only people for him were the mad ones, the ones that ‘burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’. His characters burn brightly and then burn out, the flashes of madness become routine and the sense is lost in the indiscrete recklessness of it all. It is difficult for people of this current generation to fully understand the Beats, or even to empathise with them. On the Road is constrained by this significant limitation, but it is nevertheless an entertaining and superbly-made film that, unlike the novel, never once begins to drag.

Rob Dickie

Advertisements

What is this film called Love?

Director: Mark Cousins
Writer: Mark Cousins
Year: 2012
Cast: Mark Cousins

★★★☆☆

What is this film called Love?

A question in the proper sense, open-ended, unanswerable, something to think about long after the credits have rolled. It is a very personal film, a sort of meditative documentary, shot by Mark Cousins on a £100 flip camera during a lonely three day trip to Mexico City. To use the director’s own terminology, it is an ad-lib, a stream-of-consciousness take on whatever he captures with his camera, a film without boundaries that develops, through personal memories and free association, into a rough philosophy of life.

Loosely, it begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein, a figure who evidently means a lot to Cousins. As he walks around the streets of Mexico City, which Eisenstein visited in the 1930s, he holds a photograph out in front of him and talks to an imaginary version of the Soviet director, which seems to have influenced his life and career as much as the real thing. While always slightly bizarre, this technique has the effect of turning a series of spontaneous observations into something resembling a purposeful piece of cinema.

What is this Film Called Love? Mark Cousins

Comparing his own filmmaking style to that of Eisenstein, Cousins uses illustrative shots to highlight different ways of seeing the world, demonstrating the effect that filmmaking has on your perception. Whether or not he consciously decided to come to that point is irrelevant – as a wandering director with camera in hand, it was inevitable. The most interesting scenes are those that explicitly deal with film, which is, after all, Cousins’s passion and area of expertise. What is this film called Love? is at its best when he opts to analyse the characters on a street corner as if they were in a Jacques Tati film, or captures a shot of a motorway bridge because its diagonal lines remind him of the geometry in Soviet cinema.

The Mexico City scenes are interspersed with holiday footage and dream sequences, which are used to elucidate some of Cousins’s observations and provide catharsis to the busy, unaesthetic metropolis. The use of montage is also excellent, and the choice of music, which includes some new PJ Harvey tracks and Tony Christie’s Avenues and Alleyways, is inspired.

Eventually, the film settles into a quasi-philosophical tone, structurally and thematically reminiscent of the bestselling novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Central to the novel is the Vedantic expression tat tvam asi, which means you are that, and Cousins’s real achievement is translating this principle into the medium of film. Using the camera, he develops a deep connection to the world around him, finding beauty and significance in everything. He makes it personal, into a part of himself. This is what he means by love.

It sounds extremely promising, but much of what you take from the film has little to do with its execution. The narration tends to be heavy handed, and the female narrator takes something away from the intimate tone, despite her misplaced protestations to the contrary in the concluding scenes. The film often comes across as self-indulgent, a little too private for public viewing. Cousins ultimately fails to make the experience as much ours as his. At one point he says that it is not a serious film, but we are forced to take it seriously in order to engage with it.

Like Pirsig’s novel, I have found it difficult to get out of my head without being particularly impressed by it at the time. The ideas are there, as a work in progress, but the limitations of the project are all too obvious. The rough approach may be liberating for the filmmaker but sacrifices must be made in the final product. Cousins does not succeed – he does not genuinely try to succeed – in making a film, but has nevertheless captured something tangible and true.

Rob Dickie

The Way

Director: Emilio Estevez
Writer: Emilio Estevez
Year: 2010
Cast: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen

★☆☆☆☆

The Way is set on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route, now used by travellers. It is evidently a personal film. Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in the lead role, and also plays the part of his son. The film was inspired by Estevez’s own son’s journey down the Camino, taken with Martin Sheen. But enough about the family.

Very early in the film, the father, Thomas Avery (Sheen), gets a phone call informing him that his son has died while walking the Camino, and he travels to France to collect the body. Naturally, he decides to complete the journey on behalf of his son, presumably to discover the true meaning of what he has lost, and a world he has never previously desired to explore. It is a simple story, and the ending is known from the beginning.

Despite some beautiful shots, more should have been made of the scenery

Despite some beautiful shots, more should have been made of the scenery

It becomes apparent early into the journey that Thomas will not be travelling alone. He meets a jolly, cannabis-smoking Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a bitter Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), and eventually an irritating Irish writer (James Nesbitt). Each have their own reasons for taking the walk and their own demons to overcome. They are an unlikely group of travellers, especially Thomas himself, who, for most of the film, looks like he would rather be somewhere else. He never seems to believe in it, which becomes a problem. It is difficult to care about his journey when his mind remains closed to it. It seems a duty, almost a chore.

His son (Estevez) also accompanies him. Thomas carries his ashes in a box, and sprinkles them gradually along the way. This works well. However, his son is also there is spirit and frequently appears in person. These visions always appear out of place, and are never anything other than comical. It is difficult to see why they are there.

Watching the film, you also get the feeling that Estevez doesn’t understand travelling. He has an impression of it. There are some unexpected experiences and brief glimpses of what these can mean, but the characters are tourists disguised as travellers and come across as insincere. One scene, in which Avery finds a hostel with everyone dining outside at a long table, is a good example. I don’t doubt that the event could take place, but watching it, I know it didn’t. Everything in that scene was forced. There are other examples. Even the identikit backpacks are difficult to believe.

There are good moments, such as when Thomas has to swim to retrieve his backpack, and when it is later stolen and subsequently returned. The former leads to nothing. The latter is better developed and provides some much needed sincerity, via a gypsy gathering.

The setting should have made up for the flaws to an extent, but, with a few exceptions, it didn’t. It lacks character, lacks threat. It comes across as very tourist board. The direction is bland and extremely safe, unable to bring the scenery (or the acting) to life. The soundtrack is also intrusive and often discordant.

The Way delivers the story it promises, but the execution is stale. It’s an emotional journey without emotion, exploring a wonderful setting without wonder. Due to its personal nature, it ultimately appears self-indulgent, offering mild comic relief but little else.

Rob Dickie