November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment
“I hope you get where your going and be happy when you do.”
It sounds like an Irish blessing, something that has come down to us over the years, something that is said when people get married, have a drink, consecrate a death, or begin a journey. “I hope you get where your going and be happy when you do.” How much more simple and beautiful can you get?
But it isn’t an ancient blessing. It’s a throwaway line in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” — appearing on page 134 of the scroll version, and it’s said by an old hobo called Mississippi Gene that’s hitching a ride on the back of a truck out in the midwest. (The spelling used in the phrase is Kerouac’s.) It’s good, practical advice, something that sounds right coming out of the American mid-west at night, and I suppose this is what made me think of Clint Eastwood, and made me think that if there was anyone on the planet that could turn “On The Road” into an honest movie it would be him.
Eastwood may be the last living, working American filmmaker who was around at the time the book takes place. He must have heard that language spoken in the book as it was actually spoken and travelled the open roads the story takes place on. “On The Road” was written between 1947 and 1949. This is a story of Wild West Week in Montana and old Indians hanging out at bus stations at night, and of off-road diners where you can buy beer at midnight.
Eastwood can remember that. He was born in San Francisco in 1930 and he would have breathed the same air and heard the same sounds Kerouac describes, like those parts when he’s stuck in Marin County and driving into San Francisco at night trying to pick up girls. Eastwood has that California cool in his bones. He’d be the perfect director for an “On The Road” film.
The heartbeat of the story is not just Kerouac, of course, who seems sadder and more disaffected in the scroll version than I remember in the heavily revised Viking version. There is also the famous madman Neal Cassady, who had a patois and joy of life that others around him (Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, etc.) found not only infectious but inspiring. Ginsberg wrote Cassady into “Howl” and of course Kerouac begins “On The Road” like this: “I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead.”
Neal Cassady would reawaken Kerouac’s zeal for life, and you get a feel for Cassady when Kerouac writes down the way he speaks: “‘Now darling here we are in N(ew) y(ork) and although I haven’t quite told you everything that I was thinking about when we crossed the Missouri and especially at the point when we passed the Bonneville reformatory which reminded me of my jail problem it is absolutely necessary now to postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal lovethings and begin thinking of specific lifework plans…’” This is how Kerouac recorded Neal Cassady.
And this made me think of Jack Nicholson. Nicholson (born 1937) undoubtedly knew the beat scene of the late 50s and he certainly was familiar with Ken Kesey, of course, because he had played Randall Patrick MacMurphy and Cassady had been an integral part of Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s, having driven the bus. But that isn’t why I thought of Nicholson.
When you hear or read an interview with Nicholson he has that kind of speech that you hear Neal speak above: Nicholson has a very unique, very specific way of speaking — something that rarely if ever comes through in his acting. It’s Nicholson jazz geometry. It’s concrete and oblique at the same time; and beautifully filligreed. And you never misunderstand what he’s saying. Nicholson has a fascinating personal language all his own. But since he’s also a writer, he would be the perfect writer to turn “On The Road” into a script.
Nicholson would get the hipster angle, and he would empathize (and probably sympathize) with the driving heartfelt artistry that is inside these characters, and their desire not to do what they are supposed to do but what they want to do. “This is the story of America,” Kerouac writes at one point. “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” Nicholson understands the burning need to not do what you’re supposed to do, but to do what feels right, and to have that turn out right.
“I have finally taught Neal that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud,” Allen Ginsberg says at one point about Neal Cassady. “But he keeps rushing out to the midget auto races.”
This conflict — the outsider trying to play the insider’s game — is one that Nicholson has spent a lifetime delineating on film.
I was thinking then, as I read again through this beautiful book — one that has eluded filmmakers for more than 50 years — that Eastwood and Nicholson may be a great combination to give us this story on film.
We are also now blessed with an actor, James Franco, who would be perfect as Neal. Franco has that American handsomeness, and the keenness of mind and talent to play Neal Cassady.
This is my version of having a fantasy football league but only for movies. Eastwood at the helm, Nicholson as screenwriter (and playing Mississippi Gene so he can deliver that line), and James Franco as Neal Cassady.
One more thing: “On The Road”, unlike “The Great Gatsby”, still has relevance beyond the beauty of its language. The book still speaks to people on a visceral level. I realized this the other day when I went into Baldface Books, a used bookstore in Dover, NH, to get the standard paperback edition of “On The Road.”
“I don’t think I have any,” said the owner who, in fact, didn’t. “Anytime I get some copies, the kids come in and take them right off the shelves.”
June 30, 2007 § 1 Comment
In one of the opening scenes in “Easy Rider”, Peter Fonda — aka Captain America, aka Wyatt — throws his wristwatch into the dirt. Then he and Dennis Hopper (Billy) speed off on their choppers, out onto the open road, out into an unsteady America, out into a place they or any of us, hardly, even really knows.
So begins the journey.
We get a glimpse of our emotional panorama in this remarkable film, in part because Fonda and Hopper played the two sides of our national coin: Fonda is the truly free one, and Hopper, while enjoying the trappings of an unfettered society, is still pretty much constitutionally and philosophically rooted in a more conservative age. He’s pretty uptight for a longhair. He seems to prefer his booze and cigarettes and easy women over the more modern pharmaceutical and societal choices.
“I gotta get out of here, man,” Hopper says to Fonda after they have spent some time at a commune.
“Hey, man,” says Fonda, “We’re eating their food.” It was a gesture to say they needed to show these people some respect.
It is while they are at the commune that Fonda says to the stranger they had picked up on the highway, played by that wily actor Luke Askew, that he is “hip to time, man.” I always thought it a mournful thing to say for the guy who threw away his watch.
So the journey continues.
Apparently made on a budget of about $400,000, I was struck, as I watched the movie the other night, just how reverent it really is toward our country, and this is because of the photography by Laszlo Kovacs. In the scene at the commune, just as they are about to say a secular prayer over the food they are about to eat, Kovacs takes his camera and takes the time to spin slowly around the room so that we get to see all the faces, the faces of these hippies, and you can see the faces of almost every type of person there: the defiant ones, and the frightened, and the carefree and the concerned, and the lost, and the faces of the children. It is truly a beautiful moment in film.
He also captures the mid-west landscape beautifully, the Indian burial grounds, Monument
Valley — this is John Ford country — the highways of an as-of-yet overdeveloped country. The country stores are still there. The little Mexican cantinas (which reminds us just how much of a cultural mixture our country has always been between what we consider American and Mexican. It has been blurred since the beginning.) There is the little farm they stop at to fix their bike. When Fonda and Hopper share a meal with their hosts, Fonda says to the farmer: “You should be proud. It isn’t every man who can make a living off the land. Doing his own thing in his own time.”
It’s a hippy line, but still a goddamn good one. And then they move on again.
It’s interesting, in a back story way, that when Fonda and Hopper and the rest talk about the film, they talk about how much they were aware of what a successful commercial venture this was going to be. They knew they would make their mark, and undoubtedly earn a bucket of cash. The film was nominated for two Oscars – one for the screenplay (credited to Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern), and one for Jack Nicholson. I wonder if these guys were disappointed when they lost, which would be an institutional reaction, one would think.
It doesn’t matter, though, because I think they made an honest film. Some of Fonda’s spiritual “live and let live” attitude doesn’t play so well today, but then we can always look to Hopper to give us some acerbic realism.
I looked at the cover of the DVD and was somewhat amused by my own warm reaction to the photo of Hopper and Fonda out on the road. It seems nostalgic and romantic to me, and I am continually surprised how much I like these guys. After all, they make their money at the beginning by selling a batch of cocaine (to a nameless cat in a Rolls Royce played by music producer Phil Spector). These are not my guys, but the screenplay is also savvy enough not to portray them as saintly.
When they are refused a room at a seedy roadside hotel, Hopper yells out after the owner has turned on the “NO Vacancy” sign: “Asshole!” That would have been enough justification for turning them away, I suppose. So it isn’t just a couple of carefree, harmless guys trying to make their way in the world. But the important question to ask is: Who among us is? Who wants to be treated badly for who people think we are, rather than what we actually might be?
So the journey gets complicated.
Nicholson plays the voice of the audience. He’s a lawyer, George Hanson (who does work for the ACLU) and a juicer, and he has some pull in the little community where Hopper and Fonda get tossed in jail. Nicholson is in the pokey, too, cooling his heels after a night of drinking — not much different from the old Otis character on the Andy Griffith show. We can feel comfortable with this guy, even though he’s slightly off his rocker.
The scene in which he tells the bikers how the Venutians have quietly infiltrated our society is a riot — even more so because at one point Nicholson obviously breaks character and bursts into laughter — and later when he is murdered you feel cheated. The violence is unnecessary, as it always is. He was OK, that guy, just a little troubled. Who among us is not?
As the end of the movie came nearer I felt a little uneasy, even though I knew what was coming. It’s abrupt and sadistic — this is not the ending of moralists, or free-thinkers, but the ending of people who feel despair over the kind of self-proclaimed freedom they are promoting. I don’t know if I like it. I wonder what our thoughts on the movie today would be if Billy and Captain America had lived, and I certainly wonder what effect it would have had on the box office at the time. Was it a reaffirmation to those who went to see the movie seeking comeuppance for these two bikers? Or was it a reaffirmation to the hippies themselves who always knew they would never be accepted? I imagine a little bit of both. The hippies faded away, but many of their ideals and habits remain, both good and bad, even in a society that strains to keep its conservative side its public-facing persona. Since the movie was filmed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the ending seems a logical extension of those two horrific events.
I think I might have tried to spare our fictional heroes in light of how many real ones were getting murdered. But I can’t make that decision now and what do I know, anyway? It does seem to fit into the context of how hopeful and bleak those times seem to us now.
The journey of Billy and Captain America ended, but the ambiguous, unanswered effects of its aftermath continue. And I guess that is a gift.