Finally watched the film version of On the Road recently. Anticipating disappointment, Walter Salles’ 2012 effort lived down to expectations.
I imagine when the project was pitched and possible directors were suggested, Salles emerged a natural fit. After all, the Brazilian had done a tender job helming The Motorcycle Diaries, the sort of movie that makes most American audiences eyes glaze over yet rewards patient viewers. You know, solitary figures sitting in the dark interested in more than excessive explosions and stunted adults wallowing in juvenile humor.
For multitudes having avoided The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 title unfolds a segment of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s life. He was an Argentine bourgeois whose conscience would be roused through a gap year South American motorcycle sojourn. Experiences along the journey convinced him to reject comfort and contentment and veer into what became armed class struggle.
Most North Americans know Che as an iconic t-shirt image. One worn by countless teens transitioning into adulthood. Through that silk screen do they hope summoning depth from his genuinely fermented rebellion? Nope. Those garbed in Che’s specter know nothing of his revolutionary history. To them, it’s just a cool shirt.
His is a romantic image. So he must’ve been a romantic. And what youth doesn’t want to be seen as dreamy? Even if it’s only through association? So Che is a South American Robin Hood.
One hopes the Joker would have a good laugh at that.
Instead, if modern lovers spent a few hot seconds researching him they’d discover he served insurgent causes dedicated to demolishing the status quo for nebulous change. Those sporting his image might’ve earned his ire rather than gratitude.
Today in many precincts Che is regarded heroically. Time burnished him. Powers Che intended usurping labeled him a scourge. The Motorcycle Diaries barely alludes to the swoony martyr he became.
Before acquiring gravitas and posthumous reverence, Che was just another vacuous young man. Given opportunity, he would’ve styled a “Che” t-shirt because of facile associations behind wearing it, not because of any inherent subversion.
Salles did a good job of showing a carousing future peoples tribune expanding into and absorbing class awareness. Such growth is a concept beyond much of the American viewing public. But should one be a movie studio exec exclusively shaped by filmmaking (Books!? They don’ need no steekin’ books!), shadow and light are greater substances than imprints left on printed pages.
No “message movies” for this generation of Americans. Just pretty pictures and no contrarian soliloquies.
On the Road became the sort of scriptwriters fantasy twisted through front office myopia. Dedicated people who knew no better must’ve convinced themselves if Salles could reveal Che on the way to being “the Che,” he could’ve somehow just as adeptly illuminate the moody, bebop-backed, Benzedrine-hopped On the Road of Jack Kerouac’s marginal America.
Only in movies does that kind of thinking make sense.
The Beats, of whom Kerouac wrote, who thicken his biography, left a beguiling legacy. But it comprised chipped tiles inside the America mosaic.
Yes, the Beats bequeathed art, poetry, and prose. Dobie Gillis and Moondoggie, too. Mostly myths next generations, who as susceptible undergraduates must stumble across the novel, will read passages that answer their own still forming, jumbled selves. Then, having gulped jive, those readers now acolytes of “the real gone truth,” ape On the Road’s accumulation of disarticulated experiences. Or given how facile deep thinking currently is, some approximation of what passes for expansive mind-blowing.
The residue of On the Road (the novel) is the impossibility of appropriating others’ “cool.” Its drug-fueled riffs guised as inner excavation, the misogyny accepted as love, aimless travel masking vague escapes rather than purposeful arrival, could with slightest tweaking become a serial killer’s manifesto. But in that era’s design for fringe living, it was either blurred nights into days into nights and likely DT’s afterwards with the Beats or Ayn Rand’s soulless and sober Objectivism. (Talk about a choice between laughing with sinners or crying with saints.)
So while outrageous, the Beats, not particularly exceptional, left little notable. Unlike Che.
With Salles directing, no doubt producers hoped for the same kind of artful awakening that imbued The Motorcycle Diaries. Maybe the movie could’ve achieved it if Protestant North America looked upon our hemisphere’s faceless, voiceless and ignored with the equal charity of Catholic-stamped Latin America’s.
Ah, no. Not here.
Thing was, Che grew and expanded through his travels. On the Road hammered exclusively on spontaneous destinations. Jagged movement does not allow thoughts to settle and congeal into solid ideas. Unfortunately for Sal, Dean, Big Dog, Carlo Marx, where each wound up ultimately dissatisfied him. Chasing enough next things forms circles. Akin to junkies’ highs, durations between fixes always shorten. The new jolts never rise to any previous bliss.
Besides, who can see Che in an orgone box? Yeah. Not hardly likely.
A more suitable task for Salles might’ve been adapting Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day. Shortly after World War II, Madame de Beauvoir toured the United States. Despite France having been shamed by ignominious defeat and Occupation, then having slyly indicted her nation’s intellectuals through The Mandarins, a terrific example of roman a clef by the way, she didn’t simply update de Tocqueville.
De Beauvoir’s American observations were sharp. And her affair with Nelson Algren developed from cool adult desire, not mere opportune rutting. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Had Salles assayed America Day by Day, the result might’ve been a finer merger of visions. De Beauvoir’s material would’ve matched his rhythms. Assigned On the Road, well, Salles just didn’t grasp the time, people, the focus of that America. But then isn’t On the Road one of those books that refuses transferring to screen? Like Remembrances of Things Past.
At the Second World War’s conclusion, the United States exuded the most confidence it ever shall. Watching Salles’ On the Road effort, those ignorant of American history (oh, like most Americans) would be mistaken believing its young cognoscenti were unmoored, jittery, seeking “meaning” for their now bomb-crowded lives.
No, most Americans inhabiting that stratus yearned to have drinks at the St. Regis in San Francisco. Preferably with so charming a visitor as Mme. de Beauvoir.