Jack Kerouac wanted Marlon Brando to play Kerouac's libertine muse, Neal Cassady, all the way back in 1957, for a film adaptation of his seminal Beat novel, On the Road. Vastly influential, Kerouac's book set the tone for a generation of writers, thinkers and dreamers.
A chronicle of the '50s subculture and the ill-defined rebellion of ideas that rose out of post-war America, Kerouac's drug and sex-fueled memoir was a counterpoint to the establishment's status quo. Along with the writings of contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (and to a degree, Truman Capote), their work refuted the bland, Eisenhower narrative of American life, a hagiographic portrait that is coveted by conservatives to this day.
Eye on You. Israeli security officers enjoy video conferencing in The Gatekeepers.
Dad went to work. Mom stayed home. The kids were raised to love God and Country, without question. There were no misfits, and, even if there were, they could be dealt with by the responsible adults: the war-torn, MacCarthy-beholden, Greatest Generation who wanted nothing more than cultural uniformity. Everything was all right at home -- a polished hull on a doomed ship, crossing a sea of change.
Fifty-six years later (and long after producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights back in 1979), On the Road finally finds its way to the big screen. Albeit, without Marlon Brando.
The characters generally have real life alter egos. Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, Control) is Kerouac's alter ego, a New York writer who, after his father's death, meets the personably chaotic, Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund, TRON: Legacy). Dean is married to the 16-year-old love of his transient life, Marylou/LuAnne Henderson (Kristen Stewart, Twilight) while also being in love with, Camille/Carolyn (Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia), an intellectual as separated from Marylou as Dean is from any sense of conformity. He aims to marry her, too.
Dean convinces Sal, Marylou and their friend Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge, Pirate Radio) to go on a road trip to see America as it is (and to hook up with Camille). As they travel from place to place, the vague idea being to get out West, the band of would-be writers fall in love with each other and the idea of heralding something more than staid conformity. Drawn by Moriarty's magnetism, Sal discovers hedonistic illumination, a way of life that he never would have imagine --one defined as much by excess as by thoughtfully sustaining it.
Threesomes and speed -- Kerouac used to brag that he wrote the book in three weeks -- fuel a Homeric quest for new human truths: the need for the young to conquer the old, not to destroy the system as much as naively enlightening it. History still judges the efficacy of Kerouac's idealism, but no one disputes the importance of his influence.
And if that seemed a clumsy synopsis, well, that's because the narrative of On the Road is so beautifully indefinable --which also makes the overall film a frustratingly lovely clusterfuck.
Adapted by Jose Rivera (Letters to Juliet) and directed with grace by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), On the Road almost relies on the audience's awareness -- aimed directly at fans of the book as much as a cineaste love of vérité character study.
Contextually, the film is a mess of scenes that tie themselves together with excellent actors: a sort of negative space to fill out a gorgeously shot, travelogue adventure. Plot is somewhat secondary to the performances and Éric Gautier's (Into the Wild) lush cinematography, though Rivera and Salles do ham-fistedly give it an arc. But it's an arc that dilutes the collective chemistry that On the Road establishes with its weirdly lucid execution. It's okay not to know where the road is going. While its twists and turns enigmatically compel, On the Road's trite dénouement feels like a half-hearted orgasm after some great sex.
Garrett Hudlund shines as Dean Moriarty. If TRON were your only bar for his screen presence, On the Road will open your eyes. He plays the scoundrel muse with charisma and bravery -- in essence he's the star of the book, too -- almost to the point of scenery chewing. He finds his equal in Dunst, as Carolyn, who delivers a vibrant supporting performance, genuine in every scene she's in.
They almost mute the others. Riley, is fine as Sal/Jack, but affected by an accent that feels like imitation, an artifice worsened by some clumsy narration. Kristen Stewart, unsurprisingly, stays in stoned character -- she gives up some skin while still managing to be fetchingly boring. Tom Sturridge is fine in his scenes, but again their import is diluted by the screenplay's unconcern with context. Moriarty is the fulcrum, and when he's absent, On the Road meanders, though almost always beautifully.
Salles fills the periphery with notable faces. Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings) pops up as William S. Burroughs, with Amy Adams (The Master) playing his soon to be dead wife. Steve Buscemi shows up as a guy who can help Moriarty find his delinquent dad in exchange for some sex (if you've ever want to see Mr. Pink as a willing bottom, this is your flick).
On the Road succeeds at drawing us into Kerouac's ode to writing, though not as completely as it would like. It's too late. The 21st century is as fertile a ground for his poetic idealism as was the 20th. The only difference now is that it feels like a bit of a eulogy.
The establishment already won the war.
The last thing this column needs is an opinion about the Palestinian solution. The politics have become too dense. If anything, the war of opinion and the nuances of reality were fought out in this year's Oscar race.
5 Broken Cameras told the contemporary story of Israeli aggression from the perspective of olive-growing peasants who foment a non-violent, low-tech movement against a separation wall that threatens their heritage. The Gatekeepers, conversely, recites the history of terrorism against Israel, and the extreme, hi-tech measures its premier security service, Shin Bet, takes to ensure that Israelis are safe from the terrorists who, with arguable cause, retaliate against the yoke of occupation. Searching for Sugarman beat both.
OH MY GOD WATCH OUT FOR THAT TRUCK! Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund are not driving instructors in On the Road.
The Shin Bet is what amounts to the Israeli CIA and NSA rolled into one. Protecting the state since the initial 1967 conflict, the security service and its leaders have been involved with practically every national security decision made by every prime minister to lead the fledgling nation.
Told by the retired heads of the shadowy organization, director Dror Moreh crafts an amazing history, from the initial wars to the decades of conflict and the Intifadas that followed, painting a portrait of a nation bent on survival by almost any means necessary. The Shin Bet wrote the book on fighting terrorism long before the first suicide bomber strapped on a belt -- and conversely, helped to push the oppressed to such extreme measures.
The logistics are fascinating. From the time of the initial occupation, the Shin Bet gathered data and crafted tactics -- with no real strategy from the politicians -- to keep their citizens safe. There was a learning curve. Taking a census in the occupied territories could be easily misunderstood, as a simple inflection of a non-Arab speaker's accent could make the difference between asking to "count" the occupants of a house or "castrate" them. Such subtleties informed the leadership who, more often than not, seem to prefer an end to the conflict and a two-state solution -- though they feel no real power to influence that outcome, beyond eventually finding and stopping fundamentalist Jews from hitting the Palestinians where it hurts (i.e. bombing the Dome of the Rock). Forced to combat extremists on both sides, and usurped by politics and circumstance, the Shin Bet goes through an organizational crisis when they start dropping the ball on things like the Intifada and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by his own people.
Director Moreh gets amazingly candid interviews from the principals while recounting the long history of the conflict and the compelling perspectives of the main players, with an Errol Morris-like authority and visual panache. While it offers no answers, The Gatekeepers enlightens us with a secret look inside a secret organization that has done as much to inflame tensions as it has to quell them. It's all fascinating, and surprising -- and perhaps itself a bit of PR for a country that finds itself eyed more critically with every year that passes without a viable, free Palestinian State.
The Gatekeepers is an amazing document of a history that is still in flux. Whatever your feelings on the conflict and its politics, it's a film that defines the unresolved reality that we still live in. And reminds us why the blood is still being shed.
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