On The Road

The beats are my not-really-guilty pleasure. However much I know I should feel bad about my enthusiasm for them, I just can’t bring myself to. Sure, they’re long-winded, self-satisfied, sexist, blind to their own privilege. Sorry, just this once, I don’t care.

Two beat sacred texts, Howl and On The Road, have recently been transposed to film. Howl, in the form of a documentary, was premiered in Berlin while I was living there. I’d just spent a manic winter treating the poem as some kind of talisman, mouthing it to myself as I dashed about through the snow.

Nonetheless, I never saw the film. I didn’t want to jinx my euphoria, and besides, I’m not good at seeing films I care about. Sitting through too-slow hours of footage is inherently painful, doubly so when I care about the subject. I’d much rather admire the ripple-effect of the film on culture, as it moves through the media propelled by PR. I’m glad it’s there, and glad to have it nudging us all in a particular direction. Still, I’ll leave it to others to actually watch the film.

Now comes the film version of On the Road — Kerouac’s novel of bums drifting across the US, the countercultural cliche that’s simultaneously so American it hurts. The cultural ripples are already showing their effect among my friends, winkling out people who I never would have imagined having an interestin Kerouac.

On the Road has been showing at Cannes, with the result of this entertaining article in Le Monde. OK, OK, partly because of how I started cackling to myself at encountering the phrase “l’American way of life“.

But then we hear about the ‘monastic discipline’ of the director preparing to shoot the film. It’s on one level ludicrous — learned exegesis of a text on drifting. Cue awkward self-recognition; I’m the kind of person who would write a PhD on how to chill out, only to emerge tenser than ever. But sometimes you need to try to hard, especially when it’s the only tool you’ve got. And the same tension between working and experiencing was certainly present for Kerouac, Kesey, Ginsberg — eulogizing the wildness of Neal Cassady and others, while retaining enough distance from the party to write and create. So maybe the correct remembrance of them is an earnest film in praise of carelessness.

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