Review: On the Road (film)

So I got infected with the Kerouac bug late, toward the end of college, when I fell out of the computer thing and suddenly needed to read everything I saw to learn how to write.  I locked into On the Road and loved it.  It wasn’t cool to love it – I don’t know what it was cool to read at that point in time, because I’ve never been cool.  But I liked the way the central character of the book wasn’t Dean or Sal as much as it was the blacktop-twisted terrain that made up the country between the two oceans, the open road, and how the change of seasons and passage of time was reflected in his prose.  There was also something I liked about the bond between friends, and the way these people lived on the fringes of a society that at the time was straighter than a stainless steel ruler.  I know everyone thinks of beatniks as 60s creatures, and maybe Kerouac as a 50s rebel, but this book was written about the late 40s, in the strange vacuum after the war, when a nation struggled to redefine itself, and quickly slid into a cold war.

I read a lot of Kerouac in the mid-90s, although I later got pulled into the Burroughs maze and then elsewhere, but I used to read OTR every time I travelled, be it a flight to the midwest, or a trade show in LA.  These voyages were far, far removed from what Kerouac did, but there was something relatable, the crossing of a continent, the worship of a road map, the feeling of watching the world pass you by, 65 miles an hour at a time, while you meditated and ruminated on the thoughts in your head.  And during those early years of my voyage into literature, Ginsberg was still knocking around, and he and Francis Coppola were screwing around with the idea of making this great book into a movie, which made everybody cringe with fear.  I remember them doing some blind casting call in New York, and the rumor mill churning with names like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp.  And there was a part of me that wanted to see the film, especially since I did like Coppola’s work, and spent far too many times watching Apocalypse Now over and over and over.  But there was a much bigger part of me thinking, “don’t fuck this up.  Don’t make a hipster doofus Gap commercial out of this great book.”

The big problem with making OTR into a movie, regardless of director or producer, is how to condense this non-novel work into a flat, linear, two hour film.  We’re talking a 320-page book that consists of five parts, three giant roadtrips, and a hell of a lot of internal monologue and plotless “kicks” that relies a great deal on observations of a backdrop, rather than the plot-driven arc of a modern novel, which half the time is based on the formulaic plot arc of the typical movie, anyway.  Really the only two ways to do it is to try and compress and consolidate the scattered bits of adventure within the trips, making it into one or two action-packed blazing-fast roadtrips, or do a completely nonlinear, art-film collage of images and snapshots of the journeys, and hope that enough people who read the book would go to see it, and that you didn’t get skewered alive by people who are so ADD-addled that a Transformers sequel is not plot-driven enough for them.

I saw the movie yesterday, not really planning on it, because I honestly didn’t even know it was out yet.  And… it didn’t suck.  But it wasn’t incredible, either.

First, the film looked great.  Visually, it was astounding.  Walter Salles did a lot to capture The Road, the huge fields and pastures and ribbons of blacktop and canvasses of clouds and snow and rain and sun and everything else that makes America between the two coasts America.  And it was, for the most part period accurate.  I had fears they would recast this into a bunch of hipsters in the 2010s driving around in old ratted-out Ford coupes and saying “Daddy-o” a lot, some kind of Tarantino wet dream of old mixed into new.  And it wasn’t that.  It was the old Hudson and the old New York and San Francisco and Denver, done in such a way that it captured 1949 exactly.  I’m sure you could go over this frame-by-frame and find a doorknob that wasn’t manufactured before 1967 somewhere, but for the most part, it looked great.  And it was uncanny how some things fit the narrative so exactly.  Like there were many scenes were Sal and Dean were out on the fire escape of the Harlem coldwater flat, catching a smoke, and it looked and felt just like that famous picture of Kerouac on the roof of a New York apartment.  This all got nailed so exactly.

The acting was decent.  All of the main roles were competently done.  Garrett Hedlund was a decent Moriarity.  Tom Sturridge did okay with Ginsberg, and didn’t play him as a crazy zen hippy freak, but rather the Ginsberg he was before he devoted himself to that persona, when he struggled with who and what he was, which I really liked.  The only “known” actor to me was Kirsten Dunst, who you’d think would curse the whole thing, but she made a pretty believable Camille.

But…  something was missing, in a huge way.  The film just plodded along, from scene to scene, from season to season.  I could do it without a plot, but the touchstones weren’t there, something was missing from the movie, and it just had no soul.  If you didn’t have the book practically memorized going into this, you’d be hopelessly fucked. And if you did, you’d recognize the little scenes, and be able to piece it all together, but it would be like eating nothing but bread for dinner.  Even if it’s the best artisanal sourdough whateverthehell bread fresh out of the oven, and looked and smelled incredible, you’re still eating 137 minutes of bread and nothing else.

There were slight jabs at an agenda that bothered me, too.  I mean, when you put some distance to it, Neal Cassady was a stone cold asshole, a prick to the nth degree, dropping babies into every inviting crack he could find from Atlantic to Pacific, stealing and hustling and scamming and screwing and swindling from shore to shore and back.  Free to be you and me, but to anyone with a social conscience, this is pretty cringeworthy behavior.  And there’s been a small cottage industry of calling attention to this, led by Carolyn Cassady.  She wrote a book of memoirs called Off the Road, which painted the sordid picture of Neal and crew being a bunch of drunken assholes that left her and other women behind to fend for themselves.  And I’m not choosing sides here — I think she’s got a valid opinion here and think she’s entitled to it, and hearing about this side of the story made me that much less interested in Neal worship.  (I never read Off the Road either, and it’s possible it’s completely different than what I’m mentioning here.)  Anyway, the film threw in a few jabs of Camille yelling and screaming at Dean and throwing him out, which I guess is in the book anyway, but it seemed like they hung on that a bit to give that viewpoint a little more press.

The one thing that I really, really liked about the film was Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee aka William S. Burroughs.  There wasn’t a lot of time to this story on the screen, but Viggo was dead on Burroughs, the speech and mannerisms and quirkiness, walking around his beaten Louisiana swamp ranch, croaking about revolvers and orgone accumulators.  The slight downside was Amy Adams cast as his wife; she simply did not fit into the movie at all as a drug-addled Joan Burroughs.  She’s a great actor, but far, far too perky and cheery to do something like this.  But Mortensen – man, he was incredible.  There was a scene with him sitting on the floor with a toddler Billy Burroughs, helping him draw and color on some construction paper, drawling on about vampires and sharp teeth to drain blood from people.  It was absolutely, positively brilliant, and made me wish there was a whole new reimaging of Naked Lunch with him taking over for Peter Weller.

Kristen Stewart played Marylou, which is sort of the butt of many jokes, and her lack of acting ability.  And honestly, she wasn’t bad.  She wasn’t incredible, and she certainly did not look 16, but she filled her minor role well.  Oh yeah, don’t go with your mom to this one — lots of sex, lots of fucking, and a couple of scenes of dudes kissing dudes, so this one won’t ever get shown in the midwest.

Overall, it could have been much worse.  Instead, it just wandered.  I guess that’s what the book did, too.  But books can wander like this a lot more than films, so what are you gonna do.  I’d give this a weak 6 out of 10, but honestly, the best you could possibly do for a commercially viable product is probably scraping the bottom of an 8.


New York, Again

It feels like I was just here, but I guess that was almost a year ago.  And it feels like I just lived here, but that ended six years ago.  Six years?

Anyway.  Woke up early.  Packed a carry-on and a personal item.  Drove to SFO and left the car at the wrong terminal, the one equidistant to the Virgin America gates.  Sat at their little desks with power plugs and banged out the morning’s writing.  I’m still writing in OmmWriter half the time, and it was somewhat ironic that the fake-ass ambient drone music in the headphones was the sound of being on an old train, the clacking of the rails, and I’m in a super-futuristic airport that looks like a Kubrick wet dream, watching giant Airbus spaceships launch into the skies at near-Mach speeds.

Full flight.  No meal on the plane.  I cobbled together a fake meal of dry goods, and then realized that eating tuna while sealed in a tiny tube is a dumb idea.  Couldn’t write on the plane so I read half of Fight Club in one clip on my Kindle.  Reading a book about insomnia, being crammed in planes, and a lack of life fulfillment isn’t advisable when you haven’t slept, are crammed in a plane, and aren’t feeling fulfilled with your life.  Good book, though.

The wait for a cab took a half hour.  I was behind two women who were fresh from London, and bitching about the cabs and how you couldn’t just take the “tube” from JFK.  Well, you sort of can, but it’s not advisable.  It was raining, 30 degrees, just trying to snow.  I got a cab, headed in, and it took about 90 minutes to cover that 9 miles, as the snow started to stick.

And now I’m in my old neighborhood, the LES.  I’m staying in a hotel right by my old house.  This really freaked me out last time, and it’s doing it even more.  It’s my old hood, my old McDonald’s just down the street, my old subway stop just a couple of blocks away.  Allen, Orchard, Stanton, Delancey. We used to go to Clinton Street Bakery and Alias and walk up and down these side streets almost every day.  We’d order from Schiller’s and wait in an impossible line at the Rite Aid while they fucked up our prescriptions and talked on their cell phones instead of actually working as cashiers.  My current office is my old office, and the walk to work will be the same tomorrow morning.

I just emailed John about something and remembered how he stayed here with us at our old place, right before we left in 2007.  I know I hated a lot of things about New York, and I know I could never live here again, but I really do miss our place over there – it was the most tolerable place I’d lived here, a real gem of an apartment.  Lots of light, a deck, a nice view of a park below us, big rooms, and my own little office to hide in and try to write, although I don’t think I got anything substantial done the whole time we lived there.

My nostalgia really tortures me sometimes.  I think the ironic thing is, I’m slowly losing my memory, and I fear that at some point in the future, I will remember nothing of the past, won’t have any idea if I already ate the sandwich I’m holding in my hand, and the only thing left will be these unbearable pining feelings for certain eras of my life, specific times or places or feelings or moods that can be summed up by the menu of a restaurant or the pair of jeans I used to wear.  So I sit here, a few blocks from my old apartment, and miss that era, that feeling, even if I’m making more money and living in a nicer place and married and way more productive.  The nostalgia is overwhelming and depressing and uplifting and impossible to capture, but impossible to avoid.

It’s past my bedtime, but of course I’ll be wide awake for three more hours due to the magic of time zones.  I was so starving, I went to the sushi restaurant in the hotel, sat at the bar lined with raw fish, and ordered a cheeseburger and fries.  I’ve been impeccably good with weightwatchers for the last couple of months, but snapped, ate a day’s worth of food, and now I’m pumping with insulin and not ready to sit down and write, but I must.


The Economics and Practicalities of Lofts

I live in a loft.  This isn’t about that.  (Maybe the coincidence somehow means it is, though.)

I was playing this game yesterday, where I tried to write every single event I could remember about a person from twenty years ago, every time I could remember us hanging out together, to try and brainstorm past just the stock two or three or five things I always remembered about them.  I’m trying not to fall down the endless nostalgia k-holes that make me want to write books about what happened back at college, because we all know how well that worked out the last time I wrote a 600-page book about college and tried to get people to read it.  But sometimes I need to write something, just to type, and this is a way to do it.

During this exercise, I remembered a strange little concept I’d almost completely forgotten: the loft.

When I lived in the dorms in Bloomington, you got two beds per double room.  They were these tiny twin beds, with a metal spring frame that hung between two wooden headboard/footboard pieces.  But when you had two people living in a single room, that meant floor space was at a premium, and the solution was to go vertical.  You could loft a bed by replacing the headboard/footboard pieces with taller frames that had pre-mounted brackets that would accept the pins on the spring, and raise the whole thing from the normal height of about a foot to somewhere around five feet off the ground.

Lofts were not included in room and board charged for the dorms.  You could probably buy a loft, maybe from someone graduating, but it seemed like a crap investment to make, especially since most people only lived in the dorms for a year.  And unless your dad was Bob Vila, you probably weren’t building one of these contraptions on your own.  This need was met by a whole network of loft rental companies.  I don’t remember the exact prices or vendors, but I seem to remember the White Rabbit book store renting lofts, plus there were lots of flyers posted on phone poles from outfits of more questionable repute offering to shave ten or twenty bucks off of the prices of the more legit renters.

A common layout was to have one bed lofted, and the other bed halfway under the other one, in an L formation.  That left half of the under-bed area free for dressers, a mini-fridge, or a beanbag chair or other odd furniture.  My first roommate bought his own loft from — I was going to say craigslist, but this was a decade before craigslist, so maybe it was one of those bulletin boards at a grocery store or in the student union.  Maybe it belonged to his brother.  I don’t know.  All I know is I didn’t want my bed half under his loft, because I didn’t want him drunkenly falling into my bed, and I also had a semi-legitimate fear that the whole operation would scissor over onto itself and collapse, killing me.  Maybe that was just an urban legend, like the guy who killed himself and the roommate getting all As.  I also remember hearing similar tales about people drunkenly falling from their lofts and cracking their head open, but that could also be Rod Stewart/stomach pump territory.

I remember there always being a weird politic, especially with females, about who got the top bed and who got the bottom bed.  As a guy, my bed was my bed, and I’d never think about swapping beds with my roommate, especially with all of the various microscopic bugs and jizz and everything else probably inhabiting a mattress after a few months.  But I knew a few women who had a system where they would swap top and bottom bunks every month or every other week.

I don’t remember how many people lived in the dorms at IU, but it must have been in the low five figures.  When I started there in 1989, I think the total grad and undergrad population was something insane like 38,000, and there were too many people for the dorms, so RHS turned a bunch of common lounges into dorm rooms until people quit or transferred or died and they could relocate them into real rooms.  And it seemed like almost everyone had a loft, and most of those were rented.  At the beginning of the school year, you’d see these huge U-Haul trucks double-parked at every dorm, these 38-foot long monstrosities, completely filled with these giant H-shaped braces made from 4×4 lumber, along with crews of handymen hustling the heavy pieces into the dorms.  It’s strange to think of this whole economy centered around what was essentially a half-dozen pieces of dimensional lumber and a quartet of metal brackets.

The other thing, which I remembered during this free-write, was that there was always this clusterfuck during the last couple of weeks of class, because the loft rental companies had to come and pick up all of the lofts before the end of the semester, which meant you had a week or two, usually during the mad dash to study finals and finish the school year, where you had to revert the room layout to the default two-on-the-floor bed situation.  In 1993, I was dating this freshperson over at Forest, and when her roommate was up in the top bunk, we could sit in the bottom bed at night and not really disturb her.  But in that last week, when the two beds were right next to each other, that shit would not fly.

Did other schools have this same situation?  Do they still do this?  I haven’t thought about it, and wasn’t sure if I went back to a dorm in 2013 if I’d still see the same pieces of lumber that were knocking around the halls of residence in 1989, or if there’s some new, modern, brushed aluminum, iPhone-related invention I don’t even know about that’s used to elevate beds.


Sycophantic Mezmerization

I have been writing a lot, which means I have not been writing here.  That happens.  It makes me wonder what the hell I should be writing here, especially since blogging is essentially dead and I should just be posting pictures of my cats.  (Here is a picture of one of my cats.  I have more.  Don’t tempt me.)

I feel like blogging about all of the exciting stuff that has been happening lately.  There hasn’t been any, so here is other stuff.

  • Last week, I stabbed myself in the finger with a knife, pretty much down to the bone. I have this little CRKT knife and was hacking at the tape on a box in a way you should not hack with a knife, and my left hand was holding the box, and I stabbed it into the side of the base of the finger, and it went about as far as it could.  My first thought was that I should go to the hospital, but fuck hospitals.  I’d probably have to wait hours, behind at least two or three people who were just shot by Oakland police officers, and all they’d do is get me hooked on Oxycontin.  The knife was brand new and extremely sharp, so it made a very clean slice.  I put a bunch of Neosporin in it and closed it up with a bandage, and it’s slowly healing together.  It’s made playing bass interesting.
  • I am in a weird funk with bass playing.  I feel like I would need to dedicate a ton of time to it just to advance a small amount in my ability.  It’s times like this that I feel a need to spend way more money on better gear, which is of course a sickness.  I just spent too much money on a new bass last January, so I can’t buy another one.  I still do like to turn the Zoom B-3 onto the Cliff Burton setting and play minor scales over and over and over.  Sounds cool.
  • I have been reading that Jennifer Egan Goon Squad book, and I really like it.  I went through a long run of not liking stuff I’ve been reading (aside from your book, if I just read it – that was great) and the structure of this one is really blowing me away.  It reminds me, not in content but in structure, of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, which I really loved, and truly wished I could write.
  • I was at a conference last year, waiting for a lecture hall to open so we could go in and sit down, and me and Jonathan Lethem and someone else were standing next to each other, and I had my copy of the aforementioned book in my bag, and I did not say word one to him, because I am a stupid introverted fuck and never know how to talk to people.  There’s also that meeting heroes thing, or whatever.
  • Similarly, Marie once sent me Mark Leyner’s home address, and I never did shit about trying to contact him.
  • I put an SSD drive in my computer.  It’s faster, I guess.  Everyone says it makes it way faster to start programs, but the thing is, I never reboot my computer and all of my programs are always open.
  • I am over 70,000 words into the next book and have no idea what it’s about.  I am starting to get ideas about the overall structure.  I feel an overwhelming need to make it radically different than the last few books.  I also feel a strong need to get it done asap.  These two things are not compatible.
  • I saw the Oscars and they were horrible.  I bet when various outside countries like Syria or Iran look at us, they probably think we’re insane because out of all of our movies, the “best” of the “best” involved killing a terrorist, rescuing people from terrorists, and a civil war.  And pretty much everything else was franchise necrophilia of some brand that was beaten to death years before and needed to be remade because Hollywood is out of ideas, except for all of the jingoistic terrorist stuff.

Blah blah blah.  I need to get back to work.