‘On the Road’ with a feminist

Last week I took myself out on a date to see On the Road, the movie based on Kerouac’s novel of the same title. I read the book this past year while I was in France, and I really liked it. I mean, I’m obsessed with traveling and rambling kooky prose so, how could I not? I had some trouble totally sympathizing with the main characters though, and watching the movie I realized why.

Without the rolling writing drawing you into the perspective of Sal Paradise (Kerouac), the movie is a bit empty. Apparently much of movie-going America agrees. On Rotten Tomatoes, ratings for On the Road stand just under 50%, making it officially rotten. Perusing through the top critic reviews, I noticed that about half love the wild, meandering journey of the movie, while the other half don’t think it’s wild or lost enough compared to the book. One of the problems with translating books into film is that you lose the language of the narrative and any character thoughts. Movies (including On the Road) often try to eliminate this problem with near-POV shots and adding splashes of character narration, but it doesn’t really work. What happens instead is that On the Road, the novel, is stripped down for the audience to see what it really is as a story, and it’s not that flattering. As a visual experience, I was able to see clearly what bothered me about the book: it was not the romantic ramblings of a restless youth searching for some answer/alternative to the cookie-cutter American dream of the post-war 50s; it was a bunch of lost white 20something males getting bored with privilege, and partaking in sex, drugs, and slum tourism to try and fix their woes.

As David Haglund of Slate and Linda Holmes, NPR, point out, there is a stronger emphasis placed on the women in the movie than there is in the book. While Haglund cites Kristen Stewart’s ability to “hold the camera like no one else in the film” (which would be a first), Holmes hits it more for me by noticing that all the women actors are much better-known than their male costars who they’re “expected to swoon over” and are only there to screw, yell, or hold the men back. I agree with Haglund that Salles, the director, pays more attention to the female characters than Kerouac did (but not Terry, who had more time in the book than in the movie, what’s up with that?) which makes it very poignant how abusive and selfish the men in the movie are in their relationships with others. With Dean Moriarty’s actions right there for the audience to see without Sal’s ramblings, you get much less of the holy-man portrayal than there is in the book – though that is not to say that Dean is portrayed in the book as a perfect person, simply a forgiven one. In the movie, Dean becomes just some wild guy who ruins other peoples’ lives and in the end loses because of it.

The entire plot relies on the characters being white and male in a white patriarchal society. The entire time I read/watched, I couldn’t help but long for that kind of freedom in travel bestowed upon men. I don’t think anyone could succeed in safely navigating that kind of trip these days, but even/especially back in the era of the novel, no woman could’ve accomplished that unaccompanied. Traveling while woman is/was just a bit more dangerous, simply because of the way people generally view(ed) women and assume a right to their bodies and personal space and decisions. But their freedom doesn’t stop there – Sal and his companions have the freedom not given to people of other social strata & races of the time. To top it off, they are seeking a lost American dream – the dream of exploration and discovery. But the American dream of Manifest Destiny is one centered around a sense of entitlement – an entitlement to space and to experience, disregarding the lives of others whom it affects.

The book is essentially a bunch of poverty porn. As Holmes writes of Sal’s character in the movie, “What other people do for survival, he does for the experience. He loves the people he meets in his travels not because of any unique humanity they might possess, but because they fulfill his fantasies about spending a lot of time with earthy simple people who will be great in his book.” And Haglund pinpoints their time in Mexico for what it really is: sex tourism.

When reading the book, I had tried almost successfully to write off most of their slum fun, he-man woman hating, and black jazz bar diving as a product of the times. And in reading the novel, it is somehow easier to see the book as a historical artifact, including all of its “shocking” lifestyle choices. But as a film, does that translate well for a modern audience? Perhaps many of the complainers on Rotten Tomatoes are right, perhaps the antics of the Beats these days have lost their shock value. I mean, what 20something hasn’t gone on at least one Lost Weekend of some kind, experimented with sex/drugs, and/or has been confused about where their life is going / where fulfillment lies? Haglund (seemingly) accidentally references Ginsberg when he discusses the famous quote from the novel also used in the film:

the “only people that interest me are the mad ones,” he says, “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.”

But somehow, when reading it, you forget he’s watching a couple of twentysomethings yell half-baked philosophy at each other on a noisy city night. Watching them on screen, it occurs to you: The Beat generation was just a bunch of guys.

Which is exactly how Allen Ginsberg put it: “There is no beat generation…just some guys trying to get published”. Now, whether this is true in the sense that there was no Beat generation in that there was a genuine movement is debatable, and it’s a debate that covered a few weeks of my very last history seminar without a real answer. However, to sum up the movie, it hits it right on the nose.

If you’re easily swept up into the world of travel narratives and wasteful youth, then yeah. You’ll probably enjoy the movie (and the book). If you’ve read the book, then maybe you’ll experience something close to what I did: watching an interesting, even if accidental, literary criticism.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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