By Jacob Mertens.
How tempting it would be to open this review with some Kerouac quote, a burst of frayed genius from his late stage novel Big Sur to set the tone. No doubt, it would give a better idea of what Michael Polish’s film adaptation sets out to accomplish, how intimidating a task it must be to recapture an inspired, mildly psychotic riff of consciousness, plucked from the loose fabric of a book page and communed to the screen. In truth, I cannot do so, and not for lack of courage but because the book does not allow it. Kerouac’s prose run on rails, careen toward the end of the tracks and then run aground. To take a few words away and hold them to light would be to deny them their form, like describing one great stride in a teetering rush toward madness. It is to the film’s credit that I cannot dismiss it outright, unlike the recent debacle of Walter Salles’ On the Road (2012). But whatever dilemma I would face trying to quote this book, a film adaption faces troubles ten-fold. Still, if Big Sur is not a great film, it can content itself being an interesting one—that’s likely the best the filmmakers could have hoped for anyway.
For those unfamiliar with the book, Big Sur reads like a swan song for the beat generation. The characters effuse the same chaotic energy found in On the Road, the novel that would make Jack Kerouac “King of the Beats” and define a complicated moment in our nation’s history in a way that felt tangible. In fact, both books share the same main characters: Jack and Cody (read also: Sal and Dean, Jack and Neal). However, the bustling energy of the movement, seen as limitless in Kerouac’s earlier writing, now seems to have a cost. Jack and Cody hover over the story like worn out prophets of an extemporaneous beat religion, sloshing through the dregs of life to find revelations that once came to them as second nature. Kerouac, in particular, still captures the awe of his tight knit group but shies from the burden. He turns instead to a bottle for company and as the book finds him, he stands on the edge of his brilliant, short life, ready to toss the whole damn thing away.
In the film, Kerouac is played by Jean-Marc Barr, who both looks and performs the part well. In early scenes, Barr rattles off pages from Big Sur in a frenetic voice over, as the camera captures the macrocosmic gestures of Big Sur’s beaches—stars flitting across the sky in a time lapse, waves crashing into weathered rocks, and towering trees that shake their limbs at an overcast sky—an eternity too vast and overwhelming to hold the man’s attention for long. Barr’s Kerouac sits in a borrowed cabin in the fabled Sur, looking for the grace of solitude, but grows restless. So he returns to indulge in San Francisco’s night life and drinks himself into a hole. From there, he bats around familiar haunts and pulls an old, familiar beat crew out to the cabin, as if they will give the hallowed grounds meaning. By the same measure, he reunites with his former road companion Neal (Josh Lucas), who has been stripped of his fictional name here, and even indulges in an affair with Neal’s mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth). And all this to what end? To drink of life’s marrow and come up wanting.
In truth, Kerouac was a grand soul but he was a vampire. He sought fleeting greatness, a chance to capture some truth of existence that most (if not all) of us can only stumble upon by accident. He looked for evidence of that truth in others, he gravitated to other grand souls, and he attempted to be their dispassionate scribe, to capture their flaws with their perfections. In this act, he drained them of their likeness and committed a version of them to the page that ultimately bore his own unconscious influence and subjectivity. By the time he wrote Big Sur, the nobility of his life’s pursuit had ebbed and he could at times see a creeping hypocrisy intermingled with kindness and a knack for insight. Rather than relinquish his pursuit, he used this novel and others like it to take a much harder look at his own life. As consequence, the personal travails of an alcoholic on a down turn have rarely found so honest and intimate a telling.
Unfortunately, the film strips away much of this intimacy by its own nature. The voice over cannot capture the same feeling of reading a man’s thoughts, though Polish tries mightily by cramming as much of Kerouac’s writing as he can into a 100-minute runtime. Similarly, the rhythm of the book does not depend alone on the mad frenzy of the beat movement but on moments of stillness, an aching beauty that Kerouac combats with liquor and angst. With a film, there is no easy way to pull this dynamic off, for the screen to capture stillness while a man’s mind races—and for that matter there is little room for it. Big Sur elects instead to follow the pace of Kerouac’s writing with its editing, a slave to the source material. And so, any poignancy found in Sur‘s introspection passes by like the headlights of a car on a gloomy highway, hinting at something you can barely give shape to.
To be fair, I admit that while I am keen to grouse when a film adaptation hobbles along on quotes from a book, as opposed to finding ways to recreate the story, the urgent delivery of Barr’s voice over does provide this telling a frantic edge that fits. Barr is also surrounded by a cast that offers solid performances throughout (the latter half of the film even justifies the suspicious casting of Kate Bosworth’s Billie). And while I pause to extol some of the film’s virtues, the cinematography is undoubtedly beautiful and a score by The Nationals makes for perfect ambiance. Nevertheless, it’s an uphill battle adapting a writer who is meant to be read and when the big moments of Big Sur fail to come off, most notably when Kerouac’s bittersweet closing paragraph is made to feel like the hasty inscription of a postcard, you have to wonder why a group of people this talented ever bothered with the attempt.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.