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Gerald Nicosia Headshot

On the Road, the Movie?

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My engagement with Jack Kerouac began in early 1973, when, as a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Chicago, I began arguing with professors who refused to teach him in literature courses there. I had recently read, and been blown away by, The Dharma Bums, which was as authoritatively proletarian as the Jack London books my Socialist Italian father used to read me as a boy, but even more than London, also had an understanding of what poor, workingclass people lived for: food, sex, boozy parties, and the freedom of moving around when you felt like it, the freedom to dig nature, the trees, the mountains, the ocean, the stars, when there was nothing else you could really afford to enjoy. I had been raised workingclass Catholic, just as Kerouac had, and I understood these things in my bones. What I heard my professors say, however, was that this man, Kerouac, wasn't a writer at all. He was a cult leader, they said, the chief of the beatniks, and if he had any literary value at all, it was as a "vortex," someone who had the power to draw other interesting people into his circle, but of little or no value himself.

My anger at those idiot professors had a lot to do with my starting work on a biography of Kerouac in 1977, the book that eventually became Memory Babe. Long before that book was published, in 1983, word was out that Francis Ford Coppola had purchased the movie rights to Kerouac's most famous book, though certainly not his masterpiece, On the Road. And I must admit that just like everyone else, I got caught up in the excitement, not to say Hollywood hysteria, of dreaming about what Kerouac, whose words had opened the doors for my own Flower Power hippie generation, would look like on the silver screen. I remember the writer Aram Saroyan (whose father's works had actually influenced Kerouac) and I would sit around his cottage in the lost hippie town of Bolinas, on the northern California coast, throwing ideas back and forth of what a script of On the Road might look like.

A chastening dose of cold reality hit us when the movie Heart Beat was released in the fall of 1979, and we, those who loved Kerouac like Aram and myself and a few million other fans around the world, realized how badly Kerouac could get mistranslated into the language of cinema. Though to my dying day I'll argue that Kerouac is a great writer (I've actually had that argument more times than I can remember with my friend Herb Gold), it's also true that Kerouac lends himself to clichés more readily than any major writer I can think of. Heart Beat, which purportedly tells the On the Road story from the point of view of Neal Cassady's wife ("Camille" in the novel), fell into the trap of every one of those clichés. Two hunky guys out to get laid hit the road, find plenty of chicks, booze, and drugs along the way, and somehow manage to avoid paying any serious price for their enviable lifestyle. In fact, one of them ends up writing a great book about it, proving that being an outlaw actually pays. Most of us who loved Jack wanted to spew after seeing that movie.

Still, the dream of a cinematic version of Kerouac persisted. Now that the history has been fully told, we know that Kerouac himself was caught up in it, that he had written an almost groveling letter to Marlon Brando, virtually begging him to play Dean Moriarty, the Neal Cassady role in On the Road, so that he, Kerouac, could play the Sal Paradise role at Brando's side! At the time, everyone--probably including Brando, who quickly dropped his initial interest in obtaining a movie option--thought Kerouac was crazy. But looking back at it now, with all the Beat cinematic disasters that have followed, Kerouac might have had the best idea after all, even though what he projected would have been somewhere between a cinema verite trip down the Bowery and a beater, New Wave version of A Streetcar Named Desire, with an angry Neal beating his fist on the hood of a wrecked Hudson and screaming, "Jack! ... Jack!"

When Brazilian director Walter Salles finally got funding to make his movie of On the Road in May 2010, and asked me to be the first "drill instructor" at Beat Boot Camp in Montreal, I felt a heavy responsibility to see that this long-awaited opportunity wasn't blown. I knew how hard it would be not to get swept away by the glamor tide of movieland, even though this clearly wasn't going to be a Hollywood production. I tried to think about what this novel, On the Road, really was--what it mean to its creator, and not necessarily to the millions of people who claim to be its heirs. I thought about the 29-year-old writer, Kerouac, newly married, with no visible means of support, living with his gorgeous but troubled young wife Joan in the temporarily empty loft of a dead friend (Bill Cannastra), taping together Cannastra's 20-foot sheets of thin Japanese art paper to create a 120-foot roll, and sitting down one night to pound out the story of his crazed life up until that point, so that Joan would understand him, his crazy moods, his heavy drinking, his ongoing madnesses.

A lifelong devotee of Dostoyevsky and Proust, not to mention the heavy imprint of Catholicism on all his thought, Kerouac knew about confession. And he was about to unleash on not just his wife, but the whole world, a confession 120 feet long in single-spaced, margin-to-margin typed lines--probably the longest single confession on record. I'm not sure anyone has ever articulated exactly what the unique quality of On the Road is, but I would suggest that its power comes from the sense of Kerouac offering his heart directly to your (the reader's) heart, so that millions of readers have come away with the feeling that Kerouac was speaking straight to them, like a best friend they had never actually met--which in the age of the internet is no longer such a rare occurrence, but no one had expected such a thing from a book, and its directness and honesty caught a great many people off guard, and did even more: that soul-baring frankness made them converts for life. That is to say, there is a deep spiritual quality about On the Road--all the more unexpected in a book about sex, drugs, and jazz--and I knew that unless I somehow pushed Walter Salles to include the spiritual dimension in his film, the final product, no matter how well tailored visually, no matter how well acted, was going to come up short.

I had met Walter Salles four years earlier, when he came to my house in Marin County to interview me for a documentary film that has yet to be released, In Search of "On the Road." I came away from that interview with positive feelings about Salles, but also with a sense that he was a very complex man, perhaps even a cinematic genius, but someone who played his cards very close to his chest indeed, and never really let you know what was going on inside him. If there was anything that worried me about him, it was the sense that he had very deeply-held, maybe unchangeable views about the things that mattered most to him--and Jack Kerouac was certainly one of those things. He was a man "with a point," as William Burroughs used to say about some people, putting his head down and making his hands into horns to reinforce the statement. Salles saw Kerouac as one of the most important revolutionaries of our own time, someone who had opened up a great deal more psychic space for people than they had heretofore been given by family, society, church, government--you name it--space to experiment freely and lead much larger, ultimately more fulfilling lives than would have been possible before the gift of his books to humanity. I couldn't argue with him, because I feel there is a lot of truth to that view, even though some people--including Kerouac himself--carried that freedom beyond any sane or reasonable point, deep into the abyss of self-destruction. But--and here's the rub--Kerouac was an unwilling revolutionary. In his deepest heart, Jack Kerouac wanted to be a good Catholic boy, a dutiful mother's son, a messenger of the Lord on earth like one of the prophets of old. You can call that schizophrenia or a religious vocation, but whatever it is, I knew that casting Kerouac as a political figure was going to be about as spot-on as trying to run Wavy Gravy for President.

We all know where the best-laid intentions lead, and I must admit that once I met with all those stars in Montreal, I got as seduced by all that movieland glamor as any Catholic, workingclass Midwesterner normally would. I told myself that these were just ordinary people, like I was, but finding myself a few feet from Kristen Stewart's cleavage in an unbuttoned shirt, or from incredibly handsome Garrett Hedlund lounging James Dean-like in T-shirt and motorcycle boots, I would begin to stumble over my words, falter, blush, and stare like a five-year-old. Hollywood has done this to us--given us these beings larger than life, who never fail to intimidate us and make us feel small. I would have to keep reminding myself that I was the teacher and they were the students. Which is to say, it was a little hard to push the spiritual qualities of On the Road in that situation.

And yet eventually I did become friends with all the major actors, and we hung out together in our hotel bar in Montreal. I came to like Garrett, Kristen, and Sam Riley immensely, and to feel as if they had as good a chance as anyone to portray the intense and driven threesome of Cassady, Lu Anne, and Kerouac. To know them was to learn that they all had great gifts as well as great insecurities to match up with the people they were playing. Sam had been a small-time rock-'n'-roll musician who got drafted into being a movie star--he actually had some trepidation about what it was going to be like to be famous like Kristen, for whom we always had to enter the hotel through the secret underground entrance to keep from being mobbed by her fans. In that, he was not unlike Kerouac himself, who wanted to create beautiful prose but not to be mobbed as the King of the Beats. Garrett, though physically bigger than the real-life Neal, had likewise followed a similar trajectory to that of his character; he had grown up on a hard-scrabble Minnesota farm, where he calloused his hands in the summers and froze his ass off in the winters--and was drawn as if by a magnet to the dream of year-round pleasure in sunny California, much like Cassady leaving behind the snows and skid-row streets of Denver for the jazz, women, and illicit substances of North Beach. And Kristen--though again, physically quite different from her character, who in real life was large and blonde--had a lot of Lu Anne/"Marylou" inside her. She kept her high intelligence well-concealed beneath her sexuality and good manners; she cared enormously about people, both the ones she knew personally and those whose urgent need seemed to demand that she reach out to them; and, perhaps most like Lu Anne/"Marylou," she had learned to be utterly self-reliant even in her teens, prizing independence above men, money, power, or any of the other lures that Hollywood actresses are known to covet.

The amount of research they had all put in--from director Salles to the lowest members of the crew--was phenomenal. Salles arranged for other instructors to come to the boot camp; and although Lu Anne Henderson herself had died recently, I connected him with Anne Marie Santos, Lu Anne's daughter, who came to Montreal and shared memories, photos, and a great deal else with all of them, but especially of course with Kristen, who has many times acknowledged how much she benefitted not only from Annie's help as consultant, but from her spiritual guidance and encouragement as well. In fact, everything seemed on track for a great movie to be made.

But I remember one incident during Beat Boot Camp that left me more than a little queasy. Among the tapes I had brought for them to hear was a very rare tape of pure, drunken, off-the-cuff Kerouac. It had been recorded in 1964 in the studio of Kerouac's artist friend Stanley Twardowicz in Northport, New York. Originally, the interview, conducted by Miklos Zsedely, whom Kerouac called "Mr. Funny Hungary, was intended for deposit at the Northport Public Library. But Kerouac had said so many shocking and even libelous things on the tape that the library had refused to touch it, and gave it back to Stanley Twardowicz for safekeeping. Twardowicz, a close friend, later gave me a copy of the tape shortly before his death. For those (including myself) who get Kerouac's wacky and confrontational sense of humor, it's hilarious. Think, Don Rickles on steroids, and with ten times the IQ. I started playing the tape in a small room at boot camp, where there was just myself, Sam Riley, Kristen, and Walter. Kristen seemed ill at ease with its crude sexual and racial humor; Sam Riley, ever intent on learning his part, listened intently, silently; but Garrett got all the jokes, laughed raucously, sometimes even wickedly, at everything Kerouac said. Garrett, who by far had led the wildest and most unconventional life of those three actors, was having the time of his life listening to it, and told me he wanted to hear the whole thing, as much as there was of it. None of that bothered me. What worried me was Walter getting up and walking out of the room. I think he left at the point where Kerouac was telling how--to get back at Robert Frank for making a movie called The Sin of Jesus--Kerouac had presented him with a Star of David made of pork sausages. Walter didn't want to hear the tape. When I asked him about it later, he said he wanted me to tell the actors about the world that On the Road and its characters came out of, and how the book changed that world. "I don't want to hear what he became," Salles said. "I know what he became. I don't want to hear the racism and anti-Semitism." When I tried to explain that Kerouac was like that all his life, to greater or lesser degrees, Walter turned away. This wasn't what he wanted to hear either.

I got the feeling that Salles wanted Kerouac to be a kind of American Simon Bolivar, a dedicated and selfless champion of the people. But Kerouac was more like Lenny Bruce or--perhaps more to the point--the paranoid and anti-Semitic writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine. The genius of Kerouac came out of his madness, was part and parcel of it. His stream-of-consciousness writing is like inspired babble, and there is nothing else like it in American literature. It is the closest thing we have to pure visionary writing this side of the ocean, this side of Blake. In fact, the scene in On the Road that Kerouac told Ginsberg was the most important in the book takes place in San Francisco after Neal has abandoned Jack and Lu Anne. Jack, penniless and starving, stares into a bakery window on Market Street and begins to see millions of angels "diving off the plank" into "the holy void of uncreated emptiness" that is earthly life. I've had several Blake scholars tell me that this is the closest literary approximation to Blake they've encountered anywhere--let alone in the normally prosaic world of American literature.

I told Walter that he had to include this scene in his movie, and that he could use voiceover to get the part about the angels. The scene had not been in Jose Rivera's script, which understandably left a lot out. It was not so much what Rivera had cut that bothered me, but that Rivera seemed to prefer Neal to Jack, when the polarity between the two is what makes the novel work (in my view). Neal is the man of action--who can steal a car or seduce a woman at the drop of a hat--and Jack is the man of spirit, whose power is not so much physical, though he once was a football player, but in his ability like any good Catholic mystic to feel meaning and intelligence beneath the surface of the world. In both On the Road and Visions of Cody (a more imaginative retelling of the story), Kerouac sees God's finger in the clouds and feels he is being instructed by a divine power; in Cody, this message is translated as: "Of this world report you well and truly." Rivera liked and admired Neal and his abilities with cars and women; he simply had no interest in Jack's ability to see visions in the clouds.

When I was on the set in San Francisco in December 2010, I spoke with Sam Riley. He was about to go to a little Chinese town near Sacramento the very next day, which would be the last day of filming, to shoot the scene of Jack starving in San Francisco. "Are you going to film the angels diving off plank?" I asked him. "Yes, I'm going to walk the plank with the angels," he answered with his wry British humor.

"And are you going to use voiceover?" I asked.

"Yes, we're using voiceover," he said. I could not have been happier. I felt that I was finally having the impact I wanted on the film.

I was in Cannes in May when the movie essentially bombed there. It was painful for me to see, because there was so much to love about the movie. Eric Gautier's cinematography pulled off the miracle of making the road become an actual character in the film. The jazz sound track is fabulously authentic. And some of the performances I thought were Oscar-worthy, though the Academy did not choose to nominate any of them. I especially liked British actor Tom Sturridge's Allen Ginsberg. He gets across the emotional intensity, frustration, and seething anger of the young Ginsberg better than any portrayal I have seen--suggests the powder keg that Ginsberg was in those early days, and how he could have exploded into actual violence or destructive behavior, but instead put that powder keg inside a poem that blew American literature wide open, Howl. I think it's the emotional power that Sturridge gets into his role that makes it work so well for me, and Salles's general shying from that sort of high-voltage emotion that weakens the movie as a whole. The scene of the angels diving off the plank was not there; what we saw instead, with no voiceover whatsoever, was the destitute Sal Paradise picking up butts off a San Francisco street. Not the hint of a Blakean vision--not even a clue that this was a seminal moment of transformation in Kerouac' life.

The producers and the distributor, IFC-Sundance, agreed that the movie had to be fixed before its American release. One of the things they did was to rent a private screening room for me on Market Street in San Francisco, where I watched the movie over and over so that I could present Salles with detailed notes on how I thought it could be improved. A big problem, I thought, was that there was no focus for the audience to feel emotion. Salles had been urged by John Sampas, the owner of the roll version of On the Road, to base his movie on Kerouac's first complete version of the novel, and so to begin it with the death of Jack's (Sal's) father. The movie went to great lengths to highlight the "father search" of both Jack and Neal, but since the movie-viewer knows nothing about either father, there can be no emotion connected to that search. I told Salles that the real emotional nexus of the novel is the brotherly love between Jack and Neal--the fact that these two very different men take on the responsibility for each other's life and well-being. Salles agreed, and restructured the movie to follow the trajectory of Jack and Neal's friendship, and it became a stronger and more coherent movie.

But I also told Salles he had to get in some of Kerouac's spirituality. I wanted the scene of the angels diving off the plank--or God's finger in the clouds--or maybe the old Walking Saint, as Jack calls him, the bearded Job-like figure that appears repeatedly on the road to tell Jack and his fellow travelers, "Go moan for man." Salles told me, with an anguished edge in his voice, "I'm not allowed to do any new filming ... there's no money for that ... I have to work with what I already have on film." This made no sense to me, considering the amount of money that had already been spent on this film.

What we end up with, then, is a film heavy on sex and drugs--with plenty of eye candy--but a large void in the area of Jack's conflicted heart, the very thing that has drawn so many successive generations to On the Road, made it a perennial best-seller literally around the world. Anne Waldman felt it would have helped to have the movie look a little more gritty, to have the characters appear ungroomed and wearing the shabby T-shirts and worn jeans Kerouac and Cassady normally wore, rather than looking salon-fresh and garbed in what could pass for Macy's sportswear. I think Anne was on to something there, but I think Walter needed to go even further--to present Kerouac's mind and words ungroomed too, to let more of the madness and contradictions come through.

Let me make this clear: we owe Walter Salles a debt for making this film, for transforming at least some of Kerouac's visions into a medium where millions of people round the world can now begin to absorb and contemplate them, easily and quickly, on screens and pads and whatever technologies come next. On the Road the movie is well worth seeing. It is a thoughtful and artful film, with hundreds of lovely small touches that bring Kerouac and his world to life again. I love many things about it, not least of which that these characters actually talk about books and ideas, not as intellectual window dressing, but as if they actually care about them. At one point, we even see and hear Neal reading to Jack from Swann's Way, a book that finds its way unobtrusively into multiples scenes. Surely a movie that tries to put Kerouac and Proust together in the same visual sentence deserves praise, even admiration.

And it's not as if all of Kerouac's craziness got lost in this film adaptation. There are club and party scenes, especially the New Year's Eve 1948 party, where the demonic joy that both exalted Kerouac's writing and drove him to an early grave hit the viewer smack in the face--in such an original way that I have to feel it a travesty that Salles didn't get at least a nomination for Best Director. There is at least half of Kerouac in this film, which is perhaps enough to assure that On the Road will be viewed for years to come. As for the other half, the half of Kerouac that is missing from Salles' movie, it will probably live on in all its frenetic craziness in Kerouac's books, and will happily go on taunting successive generations to try to capture what may well be forever uncapturable.

If that is true, then maybe we can say with some certainty that both Kerouac and Salles have done their respective jobs.