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On the Road - review

A fine reworking of a cult novel unmasks the original.

On the Road (15)
dir: Walter Salles

The temptation to herald On the Road as the most insightful literary adaptation in recent cinema should not be resisted. José Rivera’s screenplay follows the map of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel about his pan-American wanderings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But the film is also an interrogation of the book: its director, Walter Salles, pursues a passionate, even disgruntled, argument with Kerouac.

Any gap of understanding felt by modern audiences towards the beat generation is bridged quickly by cinematic shorthand: roaming camera, jittery editing, a jazz-for-beginners soundtrack of thudding double bass and hissing highhats. There is a British bias in the main cast, with Sam Riley, whose face suggests a prince not quite de-frogged, as the watchful Sal (the Kerouac figure), and Tom Sturridge bringing to the excitable, bramble-haired Carlo (Allen Ginsberg by another name) a playful curl of the lip.

The sun around which they orbit is Dean (aka Neal Cassady). As played by the pretty American actor Garrett Hedlund, Dean is charismatic enough to nip in the bud any doubts about how people tolerate his flightiness, but sufficiently mutable to suggest that the adulation of others will never sustain him. Once the beats’ credo of philosophy and pharmaceuticals is established, the film starts noticing those people exasperated or excluded by the party. Sal and Dean may be kings of the road behind their scratched windscreen, but Salles is meticulous in balancing the ledger. There is no liberation in the film without suffering, no beat generation without its beaten-down counterpart (usually female).

Starting with Sal’s mother, who sits in dim light while he packs for his latest adventure, women in the film tend to be consigned to rooms while the excitement happens elsewhere. It’s perfectly excusable for Sal to leave behind an ageing parent when going on a narcotic voyage of discovery, though I’m curious to know whether dope and Benzedrine, the beats’ drugs of choice, would have the same disruptive effect on his mother’s knitting as they did on spiders’ webs in those 1940s experiments.

The first time we meet Dean’s teenage wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), he is ordering her into the kitchen. Her social standing doesn’t improve noticeably, though she is allowed in the driving seat, literally if not figuratively. She also gets to express her discontentment with Dean, as does his second wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst). While Dean and Sal goof around in the next room, the camera initiates its visual allegiance to Camille, whose life has shrunk to the dimensions of her child’s cot. The picture measures, down to the last teardrop, the historical cost to women of the freedom of men.

Built into the film’s DNA is information that has become a matter of record over the years. Where the novel left Dean and Carlo staring into one another’s eyes, the film shows their relationship to be a meeting of bodies as well as minds. The book’s homophobic asides, explicable from this distance as a case of the beatnik protesting too much, are replaced by analysis; an older man derided in the novel as a “fag” is now a temporary proxy for Dean’s lost father. In common with an earlier draft of the novel, the film starts with the death of Sal’s own father, rather than the break-up of his marriage. That amendment establishes the movie as a Lost Boys’ own story.

This is not so much reading between the lines as pulling up Kerouac’s sentences like floorboards and shining a torch into the darkness beneath. Occasionally this takes a comic form, with jokes expressed in abrupt editing for which there is no literary equivalent – jumping from a wide shot of Dean’s speeding car to a close-up of him pushing the vehicle. That style of cutting, or undercutting, can provide depth. After boasting of his participation in an orgy, Dean slumps into a chair and the film cuts to an image that might be an X-ray of his soul: a field steeped in snow and silence.

If this makes Salles sound like a party-pooper, he still allows the characters lightness. Dean’s exuberance is a source of fun as well as frustration and the film scores some laughs off his  redictable priapism. When he stirs from a nap on the back seat to tell Sal and Marylou that he has a great idea for livening up the journey, chances are it won’t be a game of I spy, unless it’s naked I spy. There is also a palate-cleansing interlude at the Louisiana home of Old Bull Lee, aka William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen), and his wife Jane (Amy Adams). Old Bull is in a morphine daze, a tie looped around his trackmarked forearm and an infant snoozing on his lap, while Jane sweeps lizards out of the trees. Even this unorthodox clan embodies a model of domestic harmony unattainable by Dean.

The cinematographer Éric Gautier achieves an impressive visual breadth, from sun-frazzled Pueblos to New York alleys where lit cigarettes hang like fireflies in the blue morning. You’d expect the director of The Motorcycle Diaries to make On the Road gratifying to the eye. But the key to the film’s brilliance lies in Salles’s insistence on telling the story of the beats through the off-beats. He coaxes out harmonies previously inaudible to the human ear.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis