On the Road (15)

Directed by Walter Salles
Written by Jack Kerouac (novel), Jose Rivera (screenplay)
On general release from 12th October 2012

Reviewed by Joe Coventry

Jack Kerouac's seminal 1957 novel hits the big screen with big ambitions. The film charts the ultimate escapist trip around the Americas in a Hudson Hornet – a rebellious kick in the teeth to middle class mores in post-war USA – and Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) does a pretty good job of capturing the immensity of it all.

Sal Paradise is seeking escape from the stultifying alienation of the 9 to 5 existence and Dean 'One more strike and I'm never coming back out, man!' Moriarty is a consummate recidivist. Psychopathically bent on breaking taboos, and their own mental and physical limits, through sex, drugs, alcohol and a jazz infused life-style they tilt for, as Norma Mailer puts it in his essay The White Negro, “the limitless paradise and ecstasy just beyond the next orgasm”.

Dean is the monster of the piece. Running two wives, Marylou alongside in the car, and, after divorce, Camille, he continues to switch between both while enjoying less heterosexual indulgences on the side. All this as they career, with a varied collection of passengers, in beautifully shot, wide-screen vistas at high speed.

Women have to be strong in the Beat Generation's world. Whether it's exploitation or liberation for them, it's definitely freedom for their men. It means, in Camille's case, being left holding down a job as well as the baby. For Marylou, surviving in a free love hothouse.

Dean's attempt at placation is met by Camille's “Liar!” tirade on a flying visit which is doomed to failure. When the boys return from a hip all-nighter, having cavorted to animalistic musical improvisation till dawn, they are thrown out.

Petty theft keeps them in food and petrol while stopovers with friends give temporary R&R. During Mortensen's cameo performance as William Burroughs, Dean helps himself to some marijuana out of the garden whilst his host demonstrates his 'state of the art' Orgone Box (a sort of cosmic portaloo), Wilhelm Reich's aid to attaining the ineffable. But it can't last forever. The male bonding comes unstuck in Mexico. Sal becomes very ill and Dean can only leave him his battered copy of Proust's Swann’s Way for company.

The next time they meet Sal has grown up. On leaving a posh restaurant he is accosted by a dishevelled hobo, Dean, in front of some well-heeled friends. Completing the schism Sal now disowns him.

For explanation turn to Proust. In the novel the narrator describes the two ways a path he walked in his youth diverged. Swann's Way ultimately led to the nocturnal under-belly of Parisian aesthetic life, equating to Dean's continuing proclivities. Sal has settled for formalist conventionality, epitomised by Proust in The Guermantes Way, also deeply flawed but masked in respectability.

Sal has consolidated but for Dean it's the road again – this time a railroad – turning his back on the world in search of another Benzedrine fix. A bit of him still pervades the unconscious of us all in today's dumbed down and paranoid world. The ultimate in cool is caroused on his way by Kerouac's lyrics and music as the credits roll.

Read Kev McCready's review of On the Road here

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