Monday, September 2, 2013

On the Road: a movie review

Today, I finally got around to watching the movie On the Road, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac.  On the Road is one of those really important American novels, and is a central text of the "Beat Generation," proto-hipsters from the 40s and 50s like Allen Ginsberg who sought lives of free creative expression amidst a very conservative American culture.

I picked up "On the Road" from my local video store, Videomax2.  I find it interesting that they only have one or two copies of that movie, but have many many copies of G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the newest Scary Movie (I think they are on number six?  Geez.)  Like a lot of "art" movies, I feel like "On the Road" just kind of sits lonely on the shelf, while most people rent the latest blockbuster.  

Before getting into what I thought of the movie, I want to dwell for a moment on why people, generally speaking, prefer blockbusters to art movies.  I think the answer is rather simple.  Art movies make you think; blockbusters do not.  Thinking takes effort and energy, and most people, when they watch a movie, are doing it to relax after a long day of work.  The last thing they want is something that is going to turn their brains on.  This is depressing, but, I think, true.  I don't exempt myself from this.  Yesterday, I rented Star Trek: Into Darkness.  But today, I took the leap and rented the "art" movie, and I was glad I did.

On the Road is a semi-autobiographical story of a few years that Jack Kerouac spent traveling around America, in cars, on trains, on foot, by bus.   He's a young writer looking for experiences, and he finds them.  His main companion is a free-spirited dude named Dean Moriarty (based on the real life person Neal Cassady).  Other people he hangs out with along the way include Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg) and Old Bull Lee (based on William S. Burroughs).  

Keroauc's guiding star are the interesting people he hangs around with.  He famously writes, “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.” 

His devotion to a life of travel and experience was, in the context of postwar America, quite revolutionary.  This was the "baby boom" years when most people were primarily interested in the neat and tidy "American Dream" of a family, a house, and a job.  Kerouac, and the generation of writers, artists, and musicians he was part of, had different American dreams--dreams of adventure, of experience, of creative expression.  

As I watched the movie, it struck me how the central dilemma of the book/film remains relevant.  As an aspiring writer/artist, I find myself in constant tension between what is expected of me as a "responsible" adult: stable job, house, etc, and my deep-rooted desire to break away from these conservative conventions--to hop on a train and go anywhere, notebook in hand, ready to live and write and be free.

Freedom is another of Kerouac's concerns.  Somehow, in popular American vernacular, freedom has become associated with military might and "free market" capitalism.  For Kerouac, freedom is not about these things.  It is about following your dream, even if it sometimes means poverty and struggle.  It is about being who who yearn to be, constantly following the open road toward new vistas.  As Kerouac wrote, "Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry."  For Kerouac and the Beat generation, freedom is deeply connected to creativity.  Freedom is about carving out space to express yourself truthfully amidst a society that pushes us toward conformity.

The film is worth the watch, especially if you are someone like me, who needs this kind of inspiration and affirmation that it's okay to be strange, to be a little mad, to push against conventional expectations of what you are supposed to do, or who you are supposed to be, to live fully.  As Kerouac writes, "Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road."

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