On the road with On The Road
“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.” Jack Kerouac, ‘On the Road’
This is the sixth year of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, which aims to raise awareness of mental health issues and challenge stigma about mental illness. As director of the film festival, I was keen to work with Screen Machine to find a film that would be suited to representing the goals of the festival on the road across Scotland. In On The Road, we found an ideal candidate.
‘On The Road’ has long been regarded as the great un-filmed American novel. Author Jack Kerouac imagined Marlon Brando as Dean Moriarty, while the producer of this new Walter Salles-directed version, Francis Ford Coppola, had previously been set to film with Brad Pitt and then Colin Farrell in the role.
The final choice of Garrett Hedlund may not have quite the same star-power as his illustrious predecessors, but Hedlund makes an ideal Moriarty, charismatic yet careless, determined yet dissolute. The character was based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, and On the Road is largely based on the journeys they took together in the period from 1947 to 1950, during which Kerouac kept detailed notes. Kerouac’s alter-ego is Salvatore ‘Sal” Paradise, played by Sam Reilly.
The relationship between Sal and Dean is the key element of On The Road; Sal is a frustrated writer, while Dean is a free spirit. The travelling alliance between them is a fragile, combustible one, as likely to deliver freewheeling good times as bitter disappointment and regret.
Director Walter Salles, who previously scored a popular success with another road movie, (The Motorcycle Diaries about the youth of Che Guevara), has used a succession of short, unforced scenes to depict the natural rhythms of the friendship, with the other characters barely introduced before being dropped from the narrative, much as they are from Dean’s life.
Kirsten Dunst’s character, Camille is based on writer Carolyn Cassady, Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee is William S Burroughs, and Carlo Marx, played by Tom Sturridge, displays many of the reported mannerisms of Allen Ginsberg. Each miniature portrait provides a short but significant pit-stop along the way; as with the novel, it’s the detail and observation rather than the plotting which is important.
From an opening, overhead shot demonstrating Dean’s dexterous ability to park cars in a busy garage, Salles rises to the challenge of capturing the music, attitudes and feel of the 1940’s period, not in the style on a vintage film, but with a you-are-there freshness thanks to cinematographer Eric Gautier.
Another key element of Salles’ film is the casting of actress Kristen Stewart as Dean’s wife Marylou. Stewart is arguably the most recognized actress of her day due to the enormous worldwide popularity of the Twilight franchise, and On The Road provides her with a more serious dramatic role. This new prominence for Marylou in the narrative usefully counterpoints the difference in the way that Sal and Dean relate to her; Dean sees her as a plaything to be shared with his friend, while Sal can’t help but find a deeper attachment to her.
Stewart’s committed performance makes Marylou a strong character in her own right, but her empathetic presence also helps bring ‘On the Road’ to the sensibilities of a modern cinema audience.
Walter Salles’s On The Road is a sensitive adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel, and one that captures the essence of people passing through a landscape, making and breaking connections in a way that represents the way we still live now. Without shying away from showing various forms of extreme behavior in terms of drug-addiction and free-spirited sexuality, it also artfully depicts the ending of adolescence and the painful, inevitable process of growing up.
On The Road balances fleeting youth against the stability of conformity, capturing them both with imagination and elan.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” Jack Kerouac, ‘On The Road’
On The Road screens with many thanks to Icon, Lionsgate and Screen Machine for allowing it to be screened as part of the programme for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival.