Film review – On the Road (2012)

27 September 2012
On the Road: Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style of writing is an energetic mix of impressions and observations, made visual in the film adaptation of his classic novel On the Road where Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) experiences adventure, drugs, sex, jazz and an intense friendship while travelling around America during a time of great cultural shifts and tensions. As with the novel the film is told from Paradise’s interior view of the world where his nonconformity was part revolutionary and part youthful self-indulgence. The film doesn’t depict the broader social and political issues of the era as Paradise was more focused on cultivating experiences and discovering America via a series of road trips with his best friend and muse Dean Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund and based on Kerouac’s fellow Beat Generation member Neal Cassady).

On the Road has long been declared ‘unfilmable’, which is only worth mentioning to illustrate how narrowly some people regard cinema. A film adaptation of On the Road that conforms to a classical Hollywood cause-and-effect narrative structure probably would never work, but fortunately not all films are made adhering to the Hollywood tradition. While the term ‘art house’ is mainly used today as a catchall marketing label for a wide range of films, it once meant films that genuinely aspired to something different to the dominant product coming out of the American studio system. For example, the various waves of European art-house cinema movements that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately went against Hollywood conventions to focus on things like character subjectivity and challenging established film style to express ideology, inspire active thought rather than passive viewing, and create impressions of places, people and ideas. In America there were various avant-garde and counter-culture movements doing similar experiments with narrative cinema. American filmmaker John Cassavetes’s early improvised and cinéma vérité style of cinema in the mid 1950s coincided with the publication of On the Road in 1957. These are the cinema movements that make On the Road extremely filmable, resulting in director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera’s absorbing adaptation.

The film style reflects the interior focus of the material and captures the essence of moments rather than facilitating a traditional narrative. Scenes at parties and in music clubs are tightly framed, often shot with a disorientating sweeping camera and frequently contain dialogue drowned out by the music. Such scenes have a seductive mix of energy and immediacy that expresses the Shock of the New as experienced by the Beat Generation’s lust for life and experimentation. As a contrast the scenes of the American natural and urban landscapes are warmly lit and soft focused to convey the romanticised vision of life on the road.

While On the Road is a series of impressionistic moments, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as aimless. The relationship between Paradise and Moriarty is a symbiotic one based on the desire both men have to replace their absent fathers. Paradise begins his travels after the death of his father while Moriarty is continually searching for his, based on scraps of information that he is living derelict on the streets somewhere. If the film ever does feel laborious it is during the final part of the film, which initially seems like one sequence too many. However, this is because for Paradise it is one adventure too many while for Moriarty the desire to pursue an impossible ideal and maintain the dream is too strong. The final stages of the film are some of the most powerful in how they portray the dark side to the young men’s adventures, which includes a level of excess that cannot be maintained and a destructively neglectful treatment of the women in their lives. There is also a scene where they go to hear music and cannot get into a club unless they hire coats, suggesting that the counterculture they once embraced as their own has now been absorbed into the mainstream, removing its potency and purpose.

While Riley and Hedlund are superb as Paradise and Moriarty, a real strength of the film is the performances by the supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen who channels William S Burroughs through the Old Bull Lee character beautifully, as well as Amy Adams who plays his wife Jane, based on Joan Vollmer. Kristen Stewart is sensational as Marylou (based on Luanne Henderson), the teenage girl Moriarty marries and then travels with. Stewart portrays Marylou as a wild, passionate, liberated and free willed person while also giving her a melancholic edge since she knows her adventures with Moriarty are finite. As Moriarty’s second wife Camille (based on Carolyn Cassady), Kirsten Dunst articulates the anger and disappointment of a woman who realises she is just a part of her husband’s grand adventure and not allowed to have her own. While the female characters are barely given a voice in the novel, the inclusion of extra details from the filmmakers (some of which came from Carolyn Cassady’s autobiography Off the Road) gives the film a welcomed extra dimension.

While other adaptations of seminal Beat works, such as Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) have incorporated biographical detail with the hallucinogenic imagery and experimental approach from the original texts, On the Road is a much more straightforward adaptation. The film even has the same pleasantly casual tone of the novel where the mind of the reader/viewer is allowed to drift to then come back and pick up on the next sensation on offer. While fidelity to source material is an unreasonable and unrealistic way to evaluate the value of a film adapted from a novel (see ‘The book is never better than the film’), it is remarkable when a film so faithfully captures the spirit of the original text. Salles has done exactly that with the film adaptation of On the Road, resulting in a cinematic treat for lovers of Beat literature and in particular Kerouac’s novel.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012
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Film review – TRON: Legacy (2010)

16 December 2010

TRON: LegacyJust like Lucifer betraying God his creator, a personified computer program named Clu has overthrown his creator, the human programmer (know as a user) Kevin Flynn. While Kevin was striving to create a perfect Utopian virtual world, Clu only sees perfection in totalitarian rule where anomalies, however glorious they may be, are to be digitally cleansed. Prophetically the original 1982 film TRON was about the need for pieces of computer software to fight for their freedom in order to remain unique rather than being homogenised and absorbed into the giant monopolistic Master Control Program. This 2010 sequel is more ambitiously about absent fathers, rebellious offspring and the dangers of trying to create paradise. Yet, for a film that seems to have so much in it, TRON: Legacy feels strangely empty.

The film starts promisingly with a flashback to Kevin telling his son Sam about his adventures inside the grid (not exactly a virtual reality world but a physical representation of the digital world found inside computers). The scene establishes the father/son bond, recaps the essential information from the original film and efficiently provides the required new back-story information. It’s a clever and effective piece of exposition. The problem is that additional moments of exposition then continually infiltrate the rest of the film, constantly dragging the narrative to a halt. TRON: Legacy is a stunningly designed film but the visuals often simply exist as backdrops for the characters to reminisce in front of.

TRON: Legacy - Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and Quorra (Olivia Wilde)

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and Quorra (Olivia Wilde)

The combination of computer animation, back-lit drawn animation and live action in the original TRON is by today’s standards simplistic but it still looks impressive and more importantly every visual element was designed to either drive the story, flesh out a concept or provide engaging spectacle. In TRON: Legacy there are some terrific moments that boldly stand out and just like The Wizard of Oz switching from black-and-white to colour, TRON: Legacy cleverly switches from 2D to 3D to indicate the adult Sam’s entry into the glorious world of the grid when he goes looking for his father. However, it is a world that all too often becomes subservient to the film’s plodding exposition. Furthermore, while there was an internal logic to the way the computer world functioned in the 1982 film, in TRON: Legacy it is an unrestrained fantasy world. So instead, this new film focuses on presenting novel ways in which everyday activities and items are represented digitally, making it the electronic equivalent of The Jetsons.

Reprising his role as Kevin Flynn, Jeff Bridges now plays the character as a techno-age Timothy Leary type figure who channels both The Dude from The Big Lebowski and the sort of quasi-spiritualism that plagued the Matrix sequels. Bridges also plays Clu, the rebellious computer program created in Flynn’s image and made to appear younger with distractingly artificial CGI technology that just isn’t up to speed. The adult Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund, takes centre stage as the film’s protagonist but he’s more of a generic action hero rather than a scruffy but loveable computer wizz like Kevin was in the original film. In TRON Kevin’s proficiency at programming meant that he became physically adept once inside the computer world while Sam in this new film is introduced almost immediately as an action hero in the outside world who is already capable of stunt motorbike riding and base-jumping.

TRON: Legacy - Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges)

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges)

TRON: Legacy does not deserve to be written off as empty spectacle but it really does miss the magic of the original film. In many ways it retreads the original TRON by possessing roughly the same narrative progression with a number of keys scenes being more elaborate versions of scenes from the original film. Feature film debut director Joseph Kosinski cannot be faulted for making TRON: Legacy as an updated homage to the original film and every element does have a suitably futuristic/retro feel to it. The music score by Daft Punk is in particular extremely impressive and frequently drives the film forward in the absence of plot development. However, the combination of high expectations, convoluted storytelling, heavy doses of exposition, faux spirituality with the occasional genuinely spectacular action sequence makes the experience of seeing TRON: Legacy not unlike seeing The Matrix Reloaded for the first time. It is bigger and more expansive than the original film but it ultimately becomes lost in its own attempts at mythmaking to result in a very disappointing film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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