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From parchment to picture: On the Road

The Scroll photo courtesy of Kate Noakes

by tragicoptimist

I first saw saw the Scroll not long after it arrived in Paris. I had just organized a group outing with other poor Parisian poets to see the world premier of Walter Salles’ latest film, On the Road, and a visit to the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts was included in the price of the tickets as part of the massive advertising campaign for the film’s release. Having thought I would’ve never gotten the chance to see the actual Scroll (privately owned, it is only displayed in a handful of shows scattered across the globe at irregular intervals), I headed straight to the nearest métro with my free ticket in hand and rushed towards the Left Bank.

Situated on the once literary Boulevard Saint-Germain, just blocks from the once Beat Hotel, this obscure little museum has probably never seen so much fanfare in it’s life: relocated to this prestigious space only two years ago, the permanent collection does include important handwritten documents ranging from Eisenhower’s cease-fire order to Mozart’s original scores to ancient scrawls of king Henry IV. But none of these usual residents can compare to the wave of interest generated by the museum’s new temporary guest. The Scroll has been brought to France for the first time to promote the film’s opening at the Cannes Film Festival and the entire first floor of the museum has been dedicated to this event.

Like many others of my generation, I first opened Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road at an impressionable age, while smoking my first joint in a friend’s garage. For me, at the time, the novel was the story of American youth fed up with societal restrictions and fueled by an uncontrollable desire to live more and faster. The dream of taking off, of making my way across the great western landscape of America and living rich in the poverty of the road obsessed my youthful angst. Since those first few smoky pages, I’ve read and reread the book several times, on several continents in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that, most recently, has led me to this City of Lights. But each time I pick up a new used copy along the way, each time my eyes dash through Kerouac’s spontaneous bop prose to the rhythm of the bumps in the road below me, with each passing mile, the text has gradually changed from childhood rage into a syncopated expression of living a life off time and beyond predestined fates.

The Scroll

So, sixty years after Jack wrestled with this rolled up tree, I found myself face to face with a material document with a kind of mythological status, something akin to the Declaration of Independence or the even the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first fifteen feet unfurled in front of me under a thin glass container. The aged, yellowing river of typewriter ink pours down and curls up into itself in a hurricane of words. Every few yards a mangled mess of browned tape clings to two edges, holding together the long strips of thin paper. Pounded out in under three weeks on a manually assembled 120-foot roll of teletype paper, the Scroll is a kind of rough notebook version of the later, more “polished” 1957 edition. In reading the dense black block letters, we can see the names have not been changed, the adjectives are fewer, and its author is noticeably less aware and less self-conscious of what was being written.

Beyond this evident materiality of the Scroll, what is most striking is the simplicity of the text. It is clear that in 1951 Kerouac still didn’t know exactly what the Beat Generation was: “in the scroll the use of the word ‘holy’ must be 80 percent less than in the novel, and psalmodic references to the author’s unique generation are down by at least two-thirds; uses of the word ‘beat,’ for that matter, clearly favor the exhausted over the beatific.” There is no sense of stable identity, no greater discourse than a furious attempt to get it all down and the struggle to say what is said. Any broader analysis of the Beat Generation’s refusal of 1950’s American consumerism or ultraconservative social norms are not explicitly found in the text but only as an ex post result of it. Instead, there is an immediacy of unparagraphed prose that drives the reader into the urgency of the moment, the now.


Beat bodies

In order to save a few precious Euros – later spent on warm beer and cheap wine for a post-projection debate along the Saint-Martin canal – we organized a group of 20 young poets and writers from the informal SpokenWord circle to see one of the first showings in Paris. It couldn’t have been more fitting: a loose band of economically impoverished youth, far from home, living between university campuses and underpaid service jobs going to see a film that portrays an analogous experience that took place several generations ago. We tucked our grocery store goodies deep into our bags to avoid detection and took the only remaining places in the front rows of a packed house.

Outside, two hours later, mixed reviews came in over cheap drink and the darkening waters of a dirty canal. Not surprisingly, consensus was found only around one point: Salles’ On the Road is definitely not Kerouac’s novel. As some critics have already complained, the film seems to ignore or forget the main reasons for which the book has been elevated to the status of modern classic: there are almost no explicit references to the oppressive social, cultural and political climate of postwar America and criticisms of consumerism and materialistic attitudes are never mentioned. In short, the elements that make the Beat Generation so great for so many are predominantly absent. But does this make Walter Salles’ On the Road a poorly executed film or a skewed, Hollywood glimpse into the Beat world?

First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind that a successful cinematic rendering of a great novel should not and cannot aspire to any notion of textual fidelity (cramming 300 pages of amazing prose into 2 hours is, at best, a mislead fool’s errand). If we insist on comparing the novel to the movie, we fail to perceive that book and film belong to different semiotic systems, and thus demand an evaluation based on criteria specific to their media. The intersemiotic translation from page to picture, instead, is an attempt to carry meaning from the source system through to a new representation.

Beyond this, we also have to understand where Salles is translating from in the first place. It seems quite evident that, when Sal Paradise is shown typing the infamous line “the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing… but burn, burn, burn, like roman candles across the night”, he is writing the line in the Scroll and not the one we find in the embellished novel. Although the characters retain their fictional pseudonyms from the 1957 publication, the scenes depicting substance use and Ginsburg’s explicit homosexuality in the film are further indications that Salles’ script is rooted in the Scroll and not in the censored novel. On the Road (the film) is, then, the script for the Scroll for the book. It’s the story of the becoming of the Scroll, of a young man fighting to find himself through writing. It’s through his eyes and through this process that we see those who inspire him through their personal pains and inner demons.

In this way, the characters, despite the pretty faces that play them, are not iconic or idealized; their human fragility is the centerpiece around which the film turns, not the turbulent times they live in. As Salles himself said, “what truly interests me are characters’ journeys somehow mirror[ing] the transformations at play in a specific culture or country.” Hence the very voice of Salles’ Sal Paradise is not overenthusiastic and transcendental, it is dark and low when he whispers, from deep inside, “…not long after my father died”. Salles’ Dean Moriarty is a far cry from the aloof and intangible Dean of Jack’s idolization. He appears as a robust corn-fed Iowa boy tormented by the absence of his father and torn between the easy comforts of home and family and the open road. Accordingly, Ginsburg’s incarnation as Carlo is manifested through a sensitive boy coming to terms with his own homosexuality and his unrequited love for Dean. Even the lead female roles of Marylou and Camille are given notably more space in the film than in either the Scroll or the book themselves and they are doted with an emotional profundity lacking in many of the Beat Generation’s writings. The characters are grounded, real and believable.

Salles’ cinematographic framing also reflects this introspective attention to his characters: contrary to Kerouac’s wide and rampant prose, most scenes are extreme close-ups of fleshy, naked bodies writhing in pain or joy, either inside the car, the bar or the bedroom. The sense of place and landscape takes a backseat to intensely intimate shots: the few sparse, wide-open shots of the American landscape are fixed and brief (rendering irrelevant the fact that Salles actually shot the city scenes in Montreal and not New York). The film is saturated with rich, warm colors and the earthy flesh of somas that crowd the screen: we are thrown under the sheets with the musty sexuality of men and women groping for one another in their desperate search for understanding and love. We struggle together with material bodies against loneliness and alienation in postwar America. The viewer is invited to focus on the interior landscapes of these people rather than the exterior world. The movement is internal, personal, subjective.


On the roads

Salles’ On the Road, then, is not the romanticized idea of the fully realized Beat Generation found in Kerouac’s novel that we have constructed since it’s publication in 1957. The film is undoubtedly closer to the Scroll and, really, is probably even closer to the piles of handwritten notebooks that Jack Kerouac kept while traveling cross-country in the late 1940s. The film and the Scroll speak of a circle of friends before they became our contemporary notion of the Beat Generation. The film comes from a time before the real people Jack and Neal and Allen and Luanne and Carolyn knew who they were, before they had an identity, when they were an anxious, unassuming and unpretentious youth clawing at life, taking and reappropriating the present, the now.

As a result, Salles’ On the Road is astutely able to escape the literary or ideological nostalgia of Kerouac’s opus magnum that has haunted every previous attempt to make this film. Salles was clearly aware of the numerous failures to translate it onto the silver screen. As early as 1957, Jack Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando, suggesting that he play Dean Moriarty. Interestingly enough, Jack himself gave a backseat to the wider context, opting for a much more interpersonal vision “with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak.” But since 1979, when Francis Ford Coppola bought the movie rights, several prominent screenwriters and famous faces have tried in vain to adapt the book into a film.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, Salles apparently decided to make a different kind of On the Road, a close-up, material look at the process that would bring the Scroll to life. “What I’m finishing,” he said in a 2010 interview, “is a documentary in search of a possible film based on On the Road. […] It will only truly come to life when we know if we’ll be able to make the narrative film.” Thus his film has much more in common with Kerouac’s actual wrinkled, aging object now temporarily passing through Paris, than with any romanticized past or high notion of Generation. The bodies on the screen don’t belong to the regime of disciplined literary criticism or established sociocultural discourse but to the carnal bodies sitting in the theater seats.

Like the Scroll, Salles film speaks directly to us, now, today. It is a successful intersemiotic translation of the material potency spun up into a roll of yellowing parchment into a moving picture. It speaks to the growing global refusal of a contemporary life conditioned from above by the arrogance of financial governance and austerity. It lives through the 20 poor Parisian poets who sat there in the theater with me. It lives in the desirous energy and vitality saturating the Scroll that, many years later, would become the Beat Generation. It speaks, in the end, to the disaffected youth of the Occupy Movement, to the Spanish Indignados, to Tahir Square and to the youth of Quebec’s extraordinary student movement.

The single most prominent reference to the American society in On the Road is the thrice-repeated citation of President Truman’s maxim “We must cut down on the cost of living”. Is it a mere coincidence that Sal and Dean recite this mantra while stealing food or a few dollars of gasoline? Or they are speaking directly to us, addressing the omnipresent and oppressive condition of our age? I’d rather like to think that this is Salles cinematographic mastery at work, evoking the new generation that is already emerging in the streets, on the roads, today.

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