Thursday, 27 December 2012

Old Friend; or I’m getting my act together (and going...); or On the Road: A Review

On the Road is the tale of would-be author Sal Paradise and his experiences over a three year period, most of them with his volatile, free-spirited friend. From there, I sort of run into a brick wall trying to concisely map out what the film truly is. But, is it me or is it the movie?

It’s odd. I saw On the Road some weeks ago, but I’ve been working through (I lie, I’ve been trying to) some semblance of a review for some time, now. Curious thing, a few hours after initially seeing it I sat down to ponder and couldn’t for the life of me think of how to put its “plot” into words. Ultimately, I’m willing to admit that this has less to do with me being a poor movie viewer (heh) and more to the point of On the Road being a defiantly plot-less film (even as it shouldn’t seem to be so defiantly plotless). In fact, so much of On the Road comes off as illusory to me that I’m never particularly certain what to consider it as. Even though it’s about the journeys of Sal Paradise, it doesn’t qualify as bildungsroman, it ends with Sal coming to an epiphany, but I’d hardly call it a coming-of-age film, truly. And, sure there’s a lot of travelling (err, much of it is done on the road) but it’s not really a road movie now, is it? What On the Road could be described as is a meandering journey following Sal’s own three year journey through life and America, most of them with his more colourful friend the expressive Dean Moriarity.
 And, right there I implicitly zero in on one of the most vexing issues confronting the machinations of Salles On the Road. The reason it’s so difficult to map out a explanation of what the film is not because On the Road is an expressly plotless narrative, but because the entire thing unfolds with a decisive lack of urgency throughout. Because, golly, this thing really does meander. Kerouac’s own novel (which I have not read) is apparently a seminal entry in the American literary cannon and its journey to the big screen has been long. That alone suggests an essentialness to the spectacle which the film itself is glaringly devoid of. Sal and Dean travel across the country and experiences zests of Americana and although it’s all gorgeously shot (and, please, I cannot overemphasise that this thing is REALLY gorgeously shot. I’d probably say it’s worth seeing just because of the cinematography which, shame on me for being so susceptible to pretty photography, is really, really stunning) and generally easy to watch it’s only natural to observe the machinations afoot with a feeling of disinterest. Because, Rivera’s screenplay and elements of Salles direction do little to tell us why these are characters worth spending time with. And in a way I get something annoyed at On the Road for being so gorgeously shot and so, oftentimes, mediocre in its development.... Elements of goodness should not amount to something like this.

To be honest, though, even as very much about On the Road seems so mediocre, there’s some of it that’s decidedly not. For one, there’s that gorgeous cinematography I mentioned above (it's sparse production and costume design is worthy appreciating, too). And, for two, it’s well acted. I should probably say somewhat well-acted because it’s not all well acted, and some of it is not badly acted but poorly acted. Still, generally it’s mostly well-acted. The film doesn’t care for its women, but Dunst’s in a few short scenes is particularly on point. I would have been interested in seeing a film about her harangued wife. I sometimes feel like I’m the only one in my corner defending the legitimacy of Sam Riley’s acting and On the Road pays him exactly zero favours by giving him a character that’s more of a nonentity than anything else to play with. And, Riley doesn’t do himself many favours by donning a....questionable accent. But, he’s much better in the role of the cipher than I could anticipate which seems like exceptionally slight praise. But there’s this scene where Sal is on a bed, about to be a part of a threesome and just bursts out laughing in embarrassment and disbelief and it’s one in a series of moments where Riley manages to make a nonentity of a character work. Of course, the general pliability and boring-ness of Sal is rendered even worse when Riley shares the screen with Hedlund who gives a much sharper performance of a much more nuanced character – although, truthfully, I hedge on the word “nuanced” because Hedlund’s Dean Moriarity – like all the characters in the film – is hazily constructed. But, major praise to Hedlund for turning the potentially hackneyed restless wanderer into this moving tragic antihero.

And, therein rests so many of my bugbears about On the Road. What are these men struggling against? What are they running from? And why should I pay them my attention? Trying to sensitise myself with the material after seeing the film there’s the sense that On the Road exists (or should exist) as a tale of men trying to do their best against the society that has done them wrong. But, the film is exasperatingly devoid of ANY semblance of context for me to find out what the issues are that they’re facing. Salles doesn’t seem truly invested in that, and ultimately I’m not either. Salles said one of the reasons he did the film was because "We want to deal with a generation that collides with its society". And, I frown because this film gives us no indication of what the collision entails. When Sal comes to the epiphany at the film’s end it’s clear that Salles and company hope and expect the audience to get that sense of urgency which marks the end of Sal’s journey, but we don’t. I don’t. There’s no sense of jubilation which comes at the close of experiencing the lives of these free spirits. I have spent two hours with them, and I have been charmed - even moved - in parts, but... What I’m left with is abject despondency and feelings of fatigue. And it’s a shame, there are things to appreciate within but the whole of the journey that On the Road is one which leaves me feeling exhausted.

Unworthy of Your Love (but never worthy of your hate either) / C

(Digression: It’s really weird that in the face of the dozen or so movie reviews I’m STILL sitting on, that On the Road is one I felt the need to write some semblance of a review for. Weird because, at best, my response to the film as you’ve noticed – weary. But, apparently I had things to say. Hopefully the writing bug, however meandering, stays.)


ruth said...

Hi Andrew! Great writeup of a movie I truthfully don't know if I want to see. You didn't mention Kristen Stewart's performance, I wonder why?

P.S. I love learning a new word, thanks for giving me 'bildungsroman' :D

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I would guess that the "struggles" they are running from would be the societal expectations for men (and, well, people) in post-War America. Instead of providing a semblance of stability for their loved ones, they're literally running from the responsibility. It's an interesting (to me) portrayal of the other side of post-war fatigue; those men that lived through a time when the answers were so clear, now looking around at their dust-settled surroundings going, "Now what? Is that all? IS THAT ALL?"

Although I, too, wish for some clarity and context on that ending. I never read the book, so I have no idea how Sal goes from Mexico to getting concert tickets in a tux. The hell?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

ruth stewart is fine, but it's nowhere near the best i've seen from her (the runaways) and the film really is uncertain of what to do with its women. glad you learned a new word, too.

walter that probably is one thing they're fighting against and on one hand yay for not beating us over the head with it, but we get zero perspective to the point that they just seem like boys who don't know and don't want to be men. such a weird adaptation.