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I think it is fair to warn people that the telling factor on whether
you will enjoy this film or not is your relationship with Jack Kerouac
and the writers of that time and crowd. The more you enjoy Kerouac's
writing the more you will enjoy this film which has remained true to
him and his words. If you don't enjoy Kerouac or are not familiar with
him, then you might be tempted to walk out, or pass out with boredom.
M. David Mullen's cinematography is spectacular and the Big Sur coast is stunning even on a bad day. But for the average viewer, this is a film with not much of a story or character development and an often irritating narration (Kerouac's words) that, depending on your love of Kerouac will come across as either evidence of his genius or delusional in it's presumption of profundity.
After watching the "On The Road" movie and reading negative reviews
about "Kill Your Darlings" I wasn't expecting much from "Big Sur". But
I was very pleasantly surprised with how well it was done. The majority
of the dialogue is voice-over in Kerouac's own words and other than a
couple of minor details the movie stays true to the book. Jean-Marc
Barr gave an excellent portrayal of Kerouac, even though he doesn't
sound like him very much or even attempt to replicate Kerouac's accent.
Patrick Fischler was great as Lew Welch and Henry Thomas offers up some
of his best work as Philip Whalen. My only complaint is in the
portrayal of the sub-story regarding the goldfish in Billie's
apartment. Without giving anything away I'll just say that I didn't
think it was handled very well.
Other than that the cinematography is absolutely beautiful and the soundtrack set the mood perfectly throughout the movie. I'm really glad that someone finally made a Kerouac movie the right way, by respectfully staying true to the book. This is easily my favorite movie of 2013 so far.
It's impossible to discuss this movie without putting it in the context
of "On The Road", which could not find an audience. Knowledge of who
Kerouac was is limited in the TV age; and his books, all fictionalized
tales, yet autobiographical in nature (and to some a serialized
mythology of an artist's life) are reduced to a cult-fan base in this
era. If the iconic road story that launched Kerouac into the literary
firmament was rejected by the Superhero loving movie audience of today,
what chance does a psychological internal monologue about an artist's
descent into alcoholism have.
So we are left with a simple dividing line: do you know the work of Kerouac and the milieu of "The Beats"? If you don't, then this movie will seem odd and slow-paced, overwhelmingly pointless and pretentious. If you are a fan, then we are confronted with another question: Is simply seeing the narratives underlying Kerouac's poetic stream of conscious writing brought to life worth dealing with the limitations of converting works of art that are not plot-based to film? Like "On The Road", "Big Sur" delivers a simple enough joy to the Kerouac fan. There it is: a dramatization of Kerouac's iconic writings, replete with tons of required voice-over narration of the jazz-based flowing verbiage that makes Kerouac Kerouac. But, you can't help but think, wow-it's just not possible to make a conventional movie out of a Kerouac story, you must have excessive narration, because Kerouac was entirely about the words - the rhythm, the cadence, the explosion of images and alliterations. None of this is bad, but it requires an acceptance of the source we are dealing with to accept such an extensive override of normal plot-driven movie storytelling.
The movie is well directed. Polish mixes imagery well, establishes mood and atmosphere, and handles the semi-hallucinatory descent into alcoholic stupor with a pleasant restraint.
The actors all do top-notch work, although some of the peripheral characters such as Lew Welch, Ferlinghetti, and Whalen seem to have no emotional connection to the main character or his problems. They are just there. Even Neal Cassady ultimately fades away at the end.
Kate Bosworth enters the movie halfway through the story and become the last lifeline that Kerouac throws away. While undeveloped as a character, she does a fine job representing the last real thing left to hold onto. She fits the role well, and plays out heart-wrenching string aptly, as a character smart enough and jaded enough to cope with her fate.
As a fan of Kerouac, I can say that there is so much good about this movie and it's straight forward attempt at delivering Kerouac's last important novel as a film, that I would recommend it highly to anyone that enjoyed "On the Road" as a film. If you were bored with OTR, or didn't get it, you will not enjoy this subtle intelligent movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a brief review of "On the Road" and "Big Sur", two films based
on novels by Jack Kerouac.
In the years after World War 2, the United States saw the rise of the Beat Generation, a growing group of men and women who rejected the trends, wants, values and aspirations of the post war majority. The Beats sought spiritual meaning, rejected America's docility in the face of consumer capitalism, and were branded by many as "radicals", "dissidents" and "bums". Older generations, especially those who had struggled during the Depression, were thoroughly confused by this movement. Why did they reject work? What was wrong with them? Why did they challenge the sexual, religious and political conventions of the day?
Some historians disagree about the size, influence and importance of the Beat movement, but most trace its beginnings back to 1944, when Allen Ginsberg met Jack Kerouac at Columbia University. Ginsberg would be suspended from school and Kerouac would drop out. Both would befriend the infamous William Burroughs, who at the time lived in Greenwich Village. The trio would bond with other outcasts, and spent the 1940s exploring the Village, writing poetry, novels, listening to jazz, experimenting with drugs, having uninhibited sex and waxing philosophical. Most had no steady employment. Some drifted toward Buddhism.
In 1957, Norman Mailer would dub the Beats "the White Negroes". In his articles he would draw parallels between African-American and Beat lifestyles, both deemed alienated, both deemed to have deviant tastes in literature, music, language and religion. Historian Douglas T. Miller would say "the Beats made the establishment afraid because they were a genuine bunch of dissenters; they were humanitarian, attractively hedonistic, very vaguely left-wing, and most of all, popular. That gave them a dangerous power". Historian Allen Matusow would describe the Beats as "the forerunners of the Hippie Movement". Unsurprisingly, the Beats came under scrutiny of the FBI, which used McCarthyist tactics to squash what they deemed a "subversive group". At a 1960 Republican Convention, J. Edgar Hoover named "beatniks" one of the three menaces to the United States, the other two being "communism" and "intellectuals", which pretty much sums up US policy; keep em' stupid and consuming.
Kerouac would publish "On the Road" in 1957. It would be turned into a 2012 film by Walter Salles. Both works find a gang of young adults on a trip across America. Their unspoken mission? To find a new, more "free" mode of living which exists thoroughly outside of contemporary conventions. More importantly, they seek to find a new way of measuring happiness and success. As such, our gang reject traditional nuclear families and form a kind of polygamous brotherhood. This project fails, as sexism, egos, macho prides and the rules and expectations of wider society (marriage, house, rent, food etc) encroach. Both works end on a note of tragedy, promises shattered and relationships broken, though Kerouac never lets go of a very specific spiritual quest: a quest to create or find something better.
Salles' film is terribly directed, thin, superficial and omits the strongest aspect of Kerouac's novel: the many people his heroes encounter on the road (drunks, travellers, immigrants, workers, addicts etc), all of whom help sketch an America which pushes away as many as it embraces. The result is that Salles' film reduces the Beat movement to sex, brothels, whisky, theft and drugs. Kerouac's internal yearnings go completely ignored. Elsewhere Salles attempts to mimic the book's style (free form, fluid, rhythmical), to disastrous effect. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as an eccentric Burroughs.
Worse than Salles' film is Michael Polish's "Big Sur". Like a cross between a powerpoint presentation, Terrence Malick film and sepia photo, the film stars Jean-Marc Barr as Jack Kerouac, a now famous writer who escapes his adoring public by diving into alcohol, depression and isolation. More than this, upon Kerouac's body is being inscribed the death of a generation. He sees dead animals everywhere (cats, otters, rats etc), finds the sound of crashing waves to be death kneels, and is consumed by a hatred for absolutely everything, unable to find joy or pleasure in a world that has long given up on his own personal ideals. In "Big Sur", Kerouac the voice of a generation - has long died, his body is just taking a while to catch up.
While Kerouac may be a sign-post in American literature, as cinema "Big Sur" and "On the Road" are thoroughly outdated. Why? Largely because American cinema had its own Kerouac: Nicholas Ray. As comparison, see Ray's "In a Lonely Place", "On Dangerous Ground", "Knock on Any Door", "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Bigger than Life". Vincente Minnelli also traded in similar themes ("Some Came Running", "The Sandpiper"). Also of interest are 1967's "Easy Rider" and the existential road movie of the 1970s ("Vanishing Point", "Two Lane Backtop" etc), and even more recent films like "Ghost World", "Ask the Dust", "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "The Rum Diary", all films about writers on similar existential quests.
4/10 - Worth one viewing.
"Big Sur" (2013), based on the 1962 book by the enigmatic Jack Kerouac,
details the author's three retreats to a friend's cabin in the
magnificent eponymous location a hundred miles south of San Francisco.
Sometimes he's alone and sometimes he's with friends. Kerouac can't
handle his fame and success as the leader of the beatniks and so
descends into the darkness of alcohol addiction.
While this is a well-made artsy film featuring narrations from the author himself throughout, it's done in by its subject. At least with 1991's "The Doors," which chronicled Jim Morrison's downward spiral, we got great music, entertaining concert footage and colorful characters. "Big Sur," by contrast, only has Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness verbiage (i.e. "interior monologue") and the beautiful cinematography of Big Sur. Yes, it's professionally made with a quality cast and it kept my interest for the first 45-50 minutes, but then it just drones on to the bitter end. I hate seeing people waste their talents, especially by their own foolish addictions. Of course this is the only way the story COULD end since it's based on real life. Jack was dead at 47. Despite my criticisms, "Big Sur" is worthwhile if the topic interests you and the film's obviously a must for Kerouac fans; it will leave most everyone else bored or depressed.
Interestingly, it was 1957's "On the Road" that propelled Jack to beatnik stardom, but he later confessed it "was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him." Too bad his revelation didn't help him out with his increasing substance abuse.
The film runs a mere 81 minutes and was shot in Big Sur and San Francisco.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
this movie does a great job of capturing the melancholy, listlessness, and pain of the novel, not to mention being quite beautiful on a superficial level (that section of California's coast is just splendid). the acting was understated and fit the subject matter perfectly. Much better than the junky adaptation of On The Road that came out a while back, this film has a sense of subtlety, pacing, and silence that works well with the source material. For the most part the attention to detail is strong. This isn't a film for the faint of heart owing to the graphic depiction of alcoholism, sex, etc. I thought the scene of chopping wood was probably the weakest, no sense of actual energy or reality came across, it seemed like actors whiffing away rather than striking with the sort of emphasis (powerful or not as the case may be) described by the voice-over.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As a longtime fan of Kerouac and reader of many of his works, I'm
accustomed to his spontaneous, stream-of- consciousness writing. As
such, I enjoyed the manner in which the narration was executed as it
represented an accurate portrayal of his style.
"Big Sur" was written at a point in Jack's life during which his demons were beginning to take hold, replacing the wonder and excitement depicted in his earlier works with dread, self- loathing and ultimate despair. The bottle was no longer a means with which to enhance new experiences, rather, it had become a dark and lonely place in which to hide. This is not a feel- good story.
Overall, I felt the film provided an accurate portrayal of Jack at this point in his life and it mostly depicted the various characters as I would have expected, given their descriptions in the book. Neal was a likable wild man who also seemed larger than life and I felt that his persona and magnetic traits were well portrayed.
The only issue I had with the film was somewhat superficial and it concerns the modern hairstyles of Billie and Lenora - especially the latter, woodenly played by Stana Katic, who seemed to be a poor casting choice, in general. In fact, the period-incorrect styling choices of these two characters somewhat detracted from the feel of the scenes in which they were involved, which I found to be a rather disappointing oversight on the part of the director.
The period style issues aside, this is an enjoyable film for those who are fans of Jack's life and writing style. To the casual viewer, it will likely come across as heavy, meandering and a bit depressing.
Jack Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) is almost 40, bored and jaded after his
tremendously successful novel 'On the Road'. He leaves the overwhelming
media attention for the isolation of Big Sur, California to regain his
sanity. There is no booze, no drugs, and generally no people. After
only 3 weeks, his boredom drove him mad and hitchhiking out of the
cabin back to San Francisco where he spends his time drinking with
friends. His friend Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) has his wife Carolyn
(Radha Mitchell), 3 kids, and mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth). When he
goes back to the cabin, he is surrounded by a group of friends. After
he goes back with Neal, he develops a relationship with Billie.
It is cinematic representation of the literary aimless midlife crisis of Big Sur. It has the overwhelming and constant stream of consciousness Kerouac narration. There is no story that is anything close to a traditional movie. This imparts more of a mood rather than an actual story. Jean-Marc Barr is a relative unknown away from Europe. It allows the Kerouac character to exist in a tired and empty state. If a bigger star played him, I think the audience could slip into wondering about the acting prowess of the star. Kerouac almost exists as a hole exerting no force on this movie, but Barr can turn it on if it's required.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Squeezed between the Heroic "Greatest Generation," who conquered the Great Depression, won WWII, and produced seven American Presidents, and the Baby Boomers, who've churned out three U.S. Presidents so far, as well as a million celebrities too numerous to itemize here, was The Beatnik Generation (also known as the Beaten Down Folks) of this movie, BIG SUR. This group, born from 1928 through 1945, produced NO American Presidents (unless you count Puppetmaster Dick Cheney), and has managed little else but a bisexual circle of personalities largely unknown to normal Americans, but obsessed with having movies made about their alleged "heyday" (HOWL, ON THE ROAD, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, and BIG SUR are only four of the most recent). When the surviving "Beats" serve as "technical consultants," their booze and drug-addled brains apparently are not lucid enough to get the main characters--all of whom hung around together--into the same flick. In addition to "notables" featured in BIG SUR--Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Michael McClure--there was a handful of others, such as Allen Ginsberg, homophobic killer Lucian Carr, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson (the latter of whom both George McGovern and Jimmy Carter credit for their Democratic presidential nominations in GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON). BIG SUR drops most of the pseudonyms utilized by Kerouac for these people in his actual books (as only university English majors hell-bent in staying out of the "real world" the rest of their lives have even heard of the fake names) in favor of their real names, except it calls Diane and Curtis Hansen "Billie and her son Elliott," in an attempt to further "smooth over" the bigamy of the circle's one Alpha Male, Neal Cassady. If I haven't said enough already for you to decide whether or not to see BIG SUR, let me conclude by saying there was ONE other person at my showing in the theater, and he WALKED OUT (never to come back) after 40 minutes of this mercifully brief 81-minute effort to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear of a generation (but the scenery is absolutely stunning!).
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