In his book The Open Road, author David Campany puts forth the question: “is America imaginable without the road trip?” Particularly within the world of photography, the curiosity of the road is boundless. Motels, buses, cars, diners and gas stations are now iconic images thanks to landmark photographic works by artists such as Ed Rushca, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and Bernard Plossu. But how is the road trip imagined on celluloid?
In 2012, director Walter Salles released his film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic American novel On the Road. Kerouac’s novel is the autobiographical recount of years he spent hitchhiking across the American landscape with his literary friends such as Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. A film adaption of Kerouac’s book had been in “development hell” for decades. Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) bought the film rights in 1979, but several writers would try and fail to capture the essence of the novel Coppola was after. Later, in 1995, Coppola failed to secure funding to shoot a 16mm black and white version of the novel. Actors such as Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup and even Colin Farrell were sought after to recreate the on screen adventure and of Kerouac’s traveling protagonists Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant was attached to the film at one point. Coppola eventually considered the book to be “unfilmable” until he saw Walter Salles’ road movie The Motorcycle Diaries and hired Salles to direct On the Road.
The novel was considered “unfilmable” mostly because of the narrative construction of Kerouac’s novel. The author loved people, places, cities, alcohol and books – but most of all he loved jazz. The link between New York jazz/bebop and Kerouac’s literature cannot be separated. From jazz musician Charlie Parker, Kerouac was inspired to create rhythmically complex, improvisational approaches to prose writing. From Thelonious Monk, Kerouac emulated the musician’s harmonic intricacies of bebop in his writing. Furthermore, Kerouac had his own private writing style he practiced called “sketching,” which involved writing poems on-the-go while he wandered around American cities – like taking photographs without a camera. Kerouac’s spontaneous writing style allowed his memories to flow onto the page without having to edit. This is perhaps why On the Road is most famous — the manner in which it was presented to its publisher: a 120-foot long paragraph typed on scroll paper single-spaced.
Maybe Kerouac’s style does not seem such a problem yet – considering specific film editing styles (such as film montage) could potentially help to enhance and transform prose to moving pictures. Yet consider a statement in a letter Kerouac addressed to his readers at the start of his novel 1962 Big Sur, “In my old age I intend to collect all my work… [and] leave a long shelf full of books. The whole thing to form one enormous comedy.” How does a filmmaker condense the autobiographical recollections of one man’s life while simultaneously acknowledging the interwoven and overlapping histories of his literary and musical influences to make a film that is as intriguing, personal, and fresh as the novel from which it is based?
I encourage film viewers to take another look at Walter Salles’ eventual 2012 filmic adaption of On the Road, for the simple reason that Salles does not try to fit the narrative of On the Road into the preexisting framework of “the American road movie” (which unfortunately, most critics described the film as such upon first release). As a novel, On the Road existed before the genre of the American Road Movie became popular in 1969. On the Road as a film does not work as a Hollywood response to glorify Kerouac further in Western culture, but as an artistic challenge to adapt the rhythm of Kerouac’s prose to moving pictures. The film emulates the same sort paralysis found in popular still photography of the American landscape. That is, to propose to the viewer a state of affairs (social, psychological, pictorial) to be contemplated – not explained or resolved. Salles film is unique in that it presents autobiography without subscribing to the familiar narrative style of road movies, or even biopics. What exists inside the film’s narrative construction is an unconditional love and desire to play out Kerouac’s rhythm once again.
Taking a look at an early scene, one can see the director’s intention of igniting Kerouac’s spontaneous rhythm. Around 13 minutes in, Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) spend a night in a New York jazz club. Salle’s handheld camerawork weaves in and around the crowds of people dancing, holding the camera over the shoulders of extras to capture the delight in Sal and Dean’s eyes over the awesome wildness of the band in front of them. Salles films the entire sequence in close up- and so close is the camera to the subjects that we can see the sweat stains on Dean’s white t-shirt, and how water droplets roll down from the forehead to the neck of women dancing and men in the band while their hair begins to fall loose and their body movements gather more momentum. Salles’ camera is placed within the movement of the images – not outside it. Whilst the film is narrated by Sal, the lack of narration in this sequence demonstrates an enthusiasm for rhythm and poetry that can be divulged by other senses. More often than not, filmmakers use the medium of film to present pictures that contain some sort of conflict – but Salles’ offers a cinematic space in which this doesn’t have to be the case. Part of the joy of translating Kerouac’s prose to screen is the opportunity to let the hunger for rhythms that speak directly to your soul and make you feel something come alive.
Yet what about the rhythm of the road itself? Salles’ devotes considerable stretches of screen time to sequences of Sal and Dean speeding down country highways in the hopes of reaching something, anything that will light their soul on fire. However there is a gloomy political shadow that overhangs the road trips, and eventually influences Sal and Dean’s perception of each other.
In one particular sequence, Sal, Dean and Marylou (Kristen Stewart) take Sal’s aunt across the country for a trip. Upon reaching a gas station in which the shop clerk cannot be found, Marylou begins to hide food supplies in the pockets of her coat. We watch this entire ordeal from the point-of-view of Sal’s aunt, where Salles’ camera peeks over the dusty windows of the store, somewhat blurring our vision of Marylou’s crime. Seeing that his aunt is shocked, Sal comforts her by saying “It’s like what President Truman says. We must cut down on the cost of living.” Travelling so frequently on the road does not supply much economic freedom. That Sal and Dean frequently abandon their jobs in the cities leaves a hungry imprint on their reason for travelling. Each element of the journey eventually arrives at the point of becoming a desperate necessity. As discussed, the price of food is overlooked to keep the little money saved for gas, and drugs or alcohol are a further deterrent from the luxury of good health to keep their hunger from overtaking their minds. This detail is perhaps why the film was misinterpreted: it is not the desperate search for freedom and escape from society (where films such as Sean Penn’s Into the Wild are closer examples of), but the conscious choice to go out and search for whatever the road and journeying can provide.
Nonetheless, what appears to be the most overlooked detail of On the Road is the very spiritual essence that inhabits all creation. Despite identifying as Buddhist later in his life, Jack Kerouac was a devoted Catholic and was greatly concerned with the concept of suffering on Earth as some sort of redemptive human quality. On the Road does not take on Kerouac’s passion of suffering per se, but what the film does capture is the “holiness” in all people and things that inhabit the world. The film captures the spiritual outlook of Catholicism – humbleness – that allows one man to drop his guard and identify with his neighbour free from prejudice and fear. Often Sal and Dean are seen in the films as “bums” – wearing untucked, sweat stained flannel shirts with sandals or boots with half the soles ripped off, carrying canvas bags and never letting too long of a moment pass before a bottle of spirits passes their lips. This literal closeness to the road allows the film’s protagonists to see and take in what is invisible to others.
One memorable example of this essence is during the sequence where Marylou, Dean, and Sal drive across the Arizona desert in the early morning. Salles’ camera alternates between sitting in the front and back passenger seats, swerving the camera in the same way in which one looks back over their shoulder – quick, blurry pans that capture a wealth of information in under a second. When Marylou pulls the car over for a rest break, we hear her reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way out loud to herself while the men wander off away from the car. Marylou’s soft voice and deep concentration over the way Proust’s words sound is an interesting contrast to Sal’s frequent narration as it is not explicitly self-reflective. However it does prove Marylou’s desire to learn and experience more in the same fashion as her male counterparts. In a later scene, Dean sits slumped in the front passenger seat reading the same pages of the novel. What does this prove? The voracious desire that fuels the three protagonists to find the greatness and holiness in human life. Physical inhabitance of the changing road isn’t enough – there is a desire for knowledge about soul enriching experiences that do not belong to just one culture or one time period.
The same desire for spiritual satisfaction within a different context is seen towards the end of the film. However by this point Sal and Dean’s relationship is on edge. Sal no longer trusts Dean with the same openness and vulnerability as before. Sal is in the process of dismantling the great awesome legend he constructed in Dean’s favor, and begins to see a more turbulent, unreliable friend. When Sal and Dean take a road trip down to Mexico, a young boy who supplies them with drugs ends up directing them towards a whorehouse called “El Paraíso” (“Paradise,” or “Heaven”). Here, Salles uses panning shots to swiftly introduce the comfortable haven of the house, in which the madam welcomes the American travellers with open arms and warm greetings. Interwoven between the panning shots are medium close ups of the exquisite women– Salles reminding his audience that Kerouac’s protagonists hold great spiritual belief in women and female sexuality just as much as the road itself. Here the rhythm of Salles’ editing style picks up the same swift-tempo momentum as seen in the early moments of the film: quick close ups of paintings, angel figurines with a pieces of cloth tied over their eyes and Dean’s rhythmically thrashing dancing to the diegetic bongo-led audio track. While Sal and Dean fall to the spiritual comforts, this time it is the young boy looking in on the scene, rather than the protagonists. Salles’ camera is present within the moment of Sal and Dean’s release but now does not exclude the others who are looking in on the moment.
The beauty of Walter Salles’ On the Road is that it is a great invigoration of a specific filmic, musical, and literary rhythm. Salles’ film is not asking from its audience to critique the lifestyles of the protagonists, nor does the film demand dense political knowledge to understand its narrative motivations. The film simply asks for the viewer to join in and participate with its rhythmic journey, the love of Kerouac’s prose in film form.
 Campany, David. The Open Road. Aperture Foundation Inc. 2014.
 Khoshbakht, Ehsan. Kerouac and Jazz. April 15, 2010. http://ehsankhoshbakht.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/jack-kerouac-and-jazz.html (accessed December 20, 2014).
 Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. United Kingdom: Penguin Books Ltd. , 2012.
 Campany, David. The Open Road. Aperture Foundation Inc. 2014, p. 29
 Ibid p.170
 Lurie, Robert Dean. The Conservative Kerouac. September 17, 2012. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-conservative-kerouac/ (accessed January 10, 2014).
 Campany, David. The Open Road. Aperture Foundation Inc. 2014. p.42Continue Reading Issue #34