Director: Curtis Hanson; Cast: Jamie Foxx, Owen Wilson, Adam Goldberg, and Will Smith as Allen Ginsberg; Inspired by Kerouac: A Biography by Ann Charters
Anne Charters asked Jack Kerouac a simple question: “What do you think about On the Road?” To which he replied: “I spent half my life writing On the Road and the other half living it down.” Simply put: No one took Kerouac or anything he wrote as seriously after Kerouac achieved such great success so early in his career. The power of Curtis Hanson’s new film The Beat Generation is the tribute he pays not only to the author of On the Road, but to the legions of wayward souls that read it and found solace in what they perceived as the “story of their lives.” This, however, isn’t the core of Hanson’s film. On the contrary, On the Road, and the actual road trip(s) that spawned the novel, are only window dressing on the layered complexities of Sal Paradise.
The camera pulls back from the side of the road and pans across the green leaves of corn stalks standing erect in the Midwest as a 1945 Buick roars past. We’re now in the passenger seat with two of the most iconic figures of post-war, beat-down America: Jack Kerouac (Jamie Foxx) and his accomplice Neal Cassady (Owen Wilson). These are two young men who (like this film) embody all that was wrong in a time when the world was recovering from World War II, but also represent youth, beauty, and what’s ever-present and possible in the human condition. That being said: Foxx and Wilson aren’t really part of America. Their dialogue concerns Schopenhauer and the thing in and of itself being this or that sign or signifier. They are roaring through the backbone of the American breadbasket but their minds are strolling the gardens of the Buddha while their bodies are temples to Venus or Apollo.
Hanson maneuvers his characters through a world that should be familiar—is familiar—but at the same time is a disjointed homage to the aesthetic of what would become the Beat movement. The Beats were not musicians even if they wandered the world with bongos. No, the Beats had been “beat down” and the smack dab that Hanson performs on his audience is a dissociative one: he splits the viewer from the familiarity of location and casts the audience into disenfranchisement. Though the diners on the road are as familiar as the apple pie served in them, the conversations and personalities, scrolls of paper, and Benzedrine binges in which Foxx hunches over his Underwood typing at a frenetic pace, all approach the saintly beatitude of bygone eras that’s altogether foreign to the landscape of America, and present the audience with a fundamental question: Whose America is this?
Foxx isn’t a natural fit for the role of Jack Kerouac, but he brings to the film a certain natural dislocation that from the first scene marks him as a Cain figure. No one ever questions that Foxx is meant to stay at the Docks in San Francisco, or that any decision he makes is truly his own. Quite the contrary, the more Foxx’s Kerouac rebels against that which appears normal, that which appears sane, the more we cheer and find ourselves in need of profound revolution.
Kerouac falls into a circle of miscreants and social pariahs called artists. Eventually the spectacled king and high priest of Doric romance walks out of a bathroom in a Soho loft party amid a cloud of smoke so thick a ghost would feel lost—it’s Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg (Will Smith) is immediately attracted to Kerouac, a figure who bridges the world of the American male and the nineteenth-century dandy, a gruff, blue-collar exterior with a gentle and honed sense of beauty within. Ginsberg floats like Balanchine to the side of Kerouac, and without affect, says, “Cigarette?” The offer of a smoke between the two men hangs as thick as caramel in the air; Foxx and Smith lock their eyes in a duel like Ice and Bernardo until they drop their ocular knives as recognition takes hold and the word “brother” manifests in the sugar between them.
We know all too well what’s to come amidst New York hipsters. The scene is thick with binge drinking and benny popping that fuels this intelligentsia’s love affair with itself, but that’s not the only love afoot: Ginsberg sets his crosshairs on a slowly eroding Jack.
The late fifties weren’t kind to Kerouac. He suffered both physically and spiritually, finding himself a kind of joke among those that went on the road and then got off of it, opting instead to sire children in the booming suburbs. Kerouac is a remnant of the past while Ginsberg has evolved into the icon of tomorrow, not only adopting the west’s taste for eastern spirituality but wearing his appetites on his sleeve. The meeting between the two and the familiarity it spawns is a tender moment in the film. Smith’s Ginsberg is a veritable bodhisattva of compassion as he witnesses Kerouac’s pain and lamentation. The pain is that of second-class artists who would only be acknowledged many years later by the academy and in the cafés. The audience realizes that this is just how it is: only rock stars find instant fame and glory in their own age; the other arts wait for death to pitch them forward to the stars. Kerouac’s final words in the film are, “How’s a man like me to be loved who can’t ever learn to love being a man like me?” To which Ginsberg replies calmly and coolly, “Jack, I love you. Don’t you know that I’ve always loved you?”
The film could end here, but Hanson takes it all the way to the deathbed of Ginsberg, who remembers his many loves, writing his last poems, and fondling a small daisy. As his mind wanders and he recalls the summer of sixty-nine, when the world changed into a world where Kerouac was no longer a part of it, the pain written on his face and twitching beard are not for his loss, but ours. Ginsberg makes us believe in a few short minutes before his own passing that his world isn’t complete without Kerouac, that when he lost Kerouac we all lost a piece of the true America, the diner mystic, the gas station saint, the yeoman magician, all of these magical creatures that will forever be immortalized for us, on the road.
Hanson brings down the house quietly through Ginsberg, who lived like a titan through some of the most tumultuous decades in the development of America’s still-adolescent psyche. What we are left with is not the satisfaction of revering Kerouac or of accepting Ginsberg and his flawed volumes of poems but for the gems of “Kaddish” and “Howl.” No, Hanson leaves us uncertain of our own surroundings and the world we inhabit. It won’t matter if you see the film in Duluth, New York, or Bahrain—the effect is the same. This is the America of a 1950s imagination soaked in the kerosene of eastern philosophy.
Len Shneyder has published poetry and short fiction in Sidebrow, Poetry Flash and elsewhere, and his photographs have appeared in San Francisco Magazine. He lives in San Francisco where he is working on more reviews of upcoming movies.