CANNES 2012: Walter Salles’ ON THE ROAD

CANNES 2012: Walter Salles’ ON THE ROAD


Walter Salles’s painfully literal-minded On the Road is a chore to watch. Unlike its source material, Jack Kerouac’s sui generis, fictional beatnik opus, Salles’s adaptation is flat-footed and monotonous. Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera counter-intuitively eschew Kerouac’s anecdotal and dizzyingly nimble style of stream-of-consciousness prose to attempt a straightforward, narrative-bound film of it.

The film's narrative is at its best when it veers into impressionistic territory showing us isolated images of an itinerant Sal Paradise’s (Sam Riley) feet or the symbolic road whizzing past him, echoing Kerouac’s immortal bohemian poetry. Unfortunately, Salles and Rivera rarely allow viewers to think for themselves or to appreciate the agony and ecstasy of the nomadic romantic lifestyle. Instead, they superimpose voice-over narration, often taken verbatim from Kerouac’s book, onto these beautifully spare images. Everything in Salles and Rivera’s On the Road is explicitly spelled out, nothing is left to the viewers’ imagination, and no one scene ever feels as alive as Kerouac’s novel.

Sal’s narrative begins and ends with his friendship with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the leader of a pack of vagabond writers. In Salles’s film, Dean is more of an emblematic personality than anyone else. While Dean’s mistreatment of his wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) is ostensibly addressed at the film’s end, Salles and Rivera are ultimately more interested in making viewers pity Dean. By film’s end, Dean’s disillusionment speaks louder than anyone else’s feelings, making Salles and Rivera’s On the Road more of an artistic manifesto than a turbulent account of artistic self-fashioning. According to Salles and Rivera, the end of Sal and Dean’s story is the end of a boho dream.

Sal and Dean travel the country several times over with a couple of friends and lovers, stealing food, doing drugs, and having sex with each other whenever they can. These characters are in the process of creating a new life for themselves, ignoring the mandates of a square society that isn’t, as Sal puts it, as “mad” as Sal and Dean are for experiential pleasure. This makes squares like Galatea Dunkel (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss), the wife of the dowdy and largely absent-minded Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan), semi-sympathetic obstructions to Sal and Dean’s free-wheeling good times.

But Kerouac’s story should feel like a long and alternately wonderful and alienating trip, not a joy ride whose cheap thrills are sometimes hampered by the periodic jettisoning of human baggage. Therein lies the main problem with On the Road: Salles and Rivera indulge their protagonists, and then sometimes acknowledge the consequences of their actions, when in fact the book was less programmatic.

The weakest aspect of On The Road is the thoughtless way Sal and Dean are immortalized. Kerouac’s protagonists were never heroes, but rather people who experienced things that radically changed their points of view. Just because these characters periodically say that they want to do exactly what they wound up doing doesn’t necessarily make their actions good, valorous, or un-problematically romantic. Salles and Rivera love On the Road’s characters and world too much to know how to properly represent them.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago.He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Cluband is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal.His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

A New Press Play Column: 10/40/70: Melancholia

A New Press Play Column: 10/40/70

This experimental film column began its life at The Rumpus, and we are very excited to see it continue here.  The column freezes the frames of a film at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks, using these points as the foundations for an essay.null

10 minutes:

The remarkable thing about Melancholia’s early, just married, journey-to-the-castle scenes featuring newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is that, in retrospect, you come to understand that Justine was just play acting. In probably the freshest use and subversion of the Dogme 95 style since The Celebration, these early scenes convey a spontaneity and naturalness (as opposed to the elaborately staged, slow motion prelude) that is highly expressionistic and self-consciously artful. Although the prelude has received the lion’s share of critical attention, it is the scene in and around the limousine, as it maneuvers a sharp turn in the dirt road that leads (presumably from “the Village,” which remains off screen and implied) to the place where Justine’s depression will first express itself. Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia’s cinematographer (the film was shot digitally on an Arri Alexa), has said that his “aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves.”

And so this moment, at the 10 minute mark, we have the tenderness of Justine’s hand on Michael’s cheek, a gesture which seems so genuine but which, in a fine example of delayed decoding, suggests a different meaning, one in which Justine (who will end up having sex, in just a few hours, not with her new husband, but with a young man she is introduced to by her boss at the wedding party). The great English literary historian Ian Watt,, in a study of the works of Joseph Conrad (whose romantic determinism has something in common with von Trier’s), defined delayed decoding as “the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning.” It is, perhaps, only at the end of Melancholia that we remember the early lightness of spirit around the 10-minute mark and wonder: was this all a heroic feat of acting by Justine?null

40 minutes:

Having disappeared from her own wedding reception, Justine is tracked down by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). At the 40-minute mark (which comes during his line “On whether or not we have a deal” from the exchange below), we see him in near silhouette profile, his face filling nearly half the screen:

JOHN: Do you have any idea how much this party cost me? A ballpark figure?

JUSTINE: No, I don’t. Should I?

JOHN: Yes, I think you should. A great deal of money. A huge amount of money. In fact, for most people, an arm and a leg.

JUSTINE: I hope you feel it’s well spent.

JOHN: Well that depends. On whether or not we have a deal.

JUSTINE: A deal?

JOHN: Yes, a deal. That you be happy.

JUSTINE: Yes, of course. Of course we have a deal.

John seems to be speaking not only to Justine here, but to us as well, as the film’s (or any film’s) audience, demanding that we acknowledge “the deal” (the relationship between the film and ourselves) and that we uphold our end of the deal by being “happy.”  In other words, did we get a good “product” for our ticket? (John, as a totalitarian in the realm of feeling, does not instruct Justine merely to act happy, but to be happy.) On one level, John’s instruction is a weird reversal of Jonathan Franzen’s distinction between, in fiction, the Status model and the Contract model. In the Status model, Franzen’s argument goes, the feelings of the average reader simply don’t matter: if readers don’t “get” the book, they are philistines unable to appreciate the complex work of genius. The Contract model, on the other hand, presupposes that “every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust. This is the Contract model. The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.”

John, from this angle, is von Trier’s sly stand-in for a tyrannical director (“do you have any idea how much this [movie] cost me? A huge amount of money”) who orders his actress [audience?] to “be happy.” And Justine has pretended so well up until now. She flees the set in costume, the ridiculous costume that is her wedding dress, and is cornered in the dark by her dark director.null

70 minutes:

Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) near the beginning of Part 2, on the phone with Claire, who has re-entered the orbit of full-blown depression, a depression which brings her fatally close to Claire. “Hello, darling, how are you?” Claire asks Justine, John hovering and speaking in exasperated whispers (perhaps giving voice to our own “common sense” as viewers, the part of us that resists seeing Justine as the noble, tormented sister who dares to face the truth of extinction, unlike Claire), “Just do as I’ve told you. There’s a taxi down the street, waiting for you. Just open the door and get in. Just get in the cab, darling.” Claire is caught in motion. She passes through frames more swiftly than her sister, as if movement can help her elude the inevitability of the internal catastrophe that is her sister’s fate and her own.

The in-between moment of this frame is un-reckonable, the looming of a vast Disorder.

The Village cannot be reached.

The horses will not cross over.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. For more entries from the 10/40/70 series, check here.