On The Road Movie Review

Featuring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams
Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera (based on Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road)

Australian release date: Thursday, 27th September 2012
Review 1: rolanstein (one-word verdict: great)
Review 2: Karen (one-word verdict: pointless)

In late 40s America, young aspiring writer Sal Paradise hits the road in search of inspiration and adventure. His hipster travelling companions include the magnetic Dean Moriarty, hyperactive ex-jailbird, mad genius driver, sex fiend extraordinaire. Embracing black jazz culture and the dissolute lifestyle that goes with it, Sal, Dean, wife/ex-wife/lover Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and crew criss-cross the country as their fancy takes them, plunging with reckless and initially joyful abandon into a drink, drug and sex-fuelled odyssey of sensual excess.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Apparently Francis Ford Coppola bought the movie rights to On The Road decades ago, intending to write and direct the film himself. He made several false starts over the years, eventually abandoning taking on the crafting aspects. His efforts to handball the writing and directing to others almost came off several times, but obstacles kept popping up. Finally, he found his man, Walter Salles (director of The Motorcycle Diaries). Sucked in, Walter.

Lawd knows, you’d have to be courageous, foolish, or both to take on the daunting project of adapting this celebrated and despised work to film. It was divisive as a novel, derided by academics and the literary establishment as indulgent, pretentious drivel glorifying profligacy, venerated by the young in ecstatic terms as the subversive bible of the Beat generation and a major literary breakthrough signalling the beginning of a new age of American bohemianism.

As a film, it risks being spurned by both camps.

The fuddy duddy snob bunch will have judged it harshly in advance on the basis of the perceived shortcomings of the book. This mob dismisses the Beats and their art, with no correspondence entered into. How are they going to bring even a semblance of open-mindedness to a film adaptation of a novel that is a manifesto of a movement that offends their aesthetic – and moral (let’s announce the elephant in the room) – sensibilities?

Devotees of the novel, on the other hand, are going to apply standards impossible to meet. Kerouac’s extravagantly lyrical prose is manic and hyper-charged, crackling with electric energy. How the hell is that going to be transposed to the cinematic form?

Well, it ain’t, no way no how, because the intensity and poetry of the book is essentially literary in quality. The film is always going to come off badly in any comparison with the novel.

In any case, shouldn’t a film be judged on its own terms – as a film, not a filmed version of a book? To state the bleeding obvious, the media of literature and film are intrinsically different. It is simply invalid to hold them up against each other.

Which leads to a huge and probably insurmountable problem. If you’ve read the book – and if you are even mildly culturally engaged, read, and are past adolescence, odds are you will have – how do you come to the movie with a fresh slate (an ideal for the reviewer)?

I say you can’t. I speak as one with a foot in opposing camps.

I was utterly inhabited by the novel when I first read it in my early twenties. This was a pure, naïve reading. I embraced the entire mythology of the book, caught in the sheer youthful romance, the subversion, the reckless abandoned energy of it all. One of a few hugely seductive novels that inhabited me and changed my life (not necessarily always for the better), it was a major influence behind one of my best ever decisions – to quit work on a one-way ticket to hitchhike my way around the UK and the Continent.

A decade later, I re-read the book. This time I found myself uncomfortable with aspects of it. I was taken aback by the rampant sexism (well, not by the sexism as such, which was merely typical of the era, but by the realisation that I had not even noticed it first time around) and contemptuous of the hero, Dean Moriarty, whom I now perceived as a selfish jerk, irresponsible in the worst of ways. And I was irritated by Kerouac’s gushing, although still swept along by the poetic force of his writing, still enthralled by irresistible elements such as his rapturous descriptions of the music of the jazz cats the Beats embraced. But the luminosity, the magic of my first experience of the book, was gone.

Years later again, as a mature-age student I studied Beat literature during my degree course, and wrote essays on On The Road. By this time I had found a balance, appreciating the work for what it was, but distanced from some of its qualities that had so entranced me in my youth. It is my contention that only the young can get the best out of this book.

I would argue the same about the movie. Don’t listen to the old fart reviewers dissing the movie with curious relish – their time has come and gone (if it ever came at all). They are part of the Establishment Kerouac and the Beats were raging against, the forward shift in chronology notwithstanding.

Don’t listen to me, either. Firstly, I’m also an old fart (although an immature one, which works in my favour here – there’s a first for everything). Secondly, I freely acknowledge the On The Road baggage that I bring to my assessment. It is impossible to view this movie completely objectively, because it is impossible to set aside the novel and one’s response(s) to it. That goes for every reviewer who has read the book, or has a position on it. Don’t trust any of us with this movie. Especially those who claim objectivity.

A long, long preamble, yes. But necessary in this case. If On The Road was just a novel, it would be different, but it’s not – it’s a true cultural icon. It has a life and cultural impact way outside its parameters as a work of literature. That’s why this film cannot be viewed as just another cinematic adaptation of a novel.

To the review, then.

Well, hang dry and quarter me slowly, but vastly contrary to my expectations I loved this movie! I can’t imagine it being done much better. Of course it doesn’t capture the amphetamine energy of Kerouac’s writing, or its lyrical pyrotechnics – how could it? I’ll say it again: literature and film are different media; the essential qualities of one cannot be transposed into the other.

Excuse me while I alight carefully (arthritis) from my pedestal. That’s better.

The movie opens with someone walking down a road. Walker’s POV, looking down on their dusty boots. Their breathing is audible, a little laboured. City slicker, not road fit. Pant pant…step step step…the rhythm of the road. I am transported back to my early hitching days in the UK. It was just like this in the beginning. New backpack, tired shoulders, fixed on my boots as I trekked along a road waiting for a car to come by. Steps in synch with breathing. Perfect.

The camera draws back. If we’ve read the book we know it’s Kerouac/Sal Paradise. Good likeness, Sam Riley. Easy to believe in him as Sal.

A pickup truck comes past, one of those classic old American farm jobs like Superboy’s old man drives. Sal thumbs it down. Dragged up the side and into the back by one of several other drifters. They chat, joke, someone produces a bottle of spirits and they pass it around. Harvested wheat fields roll past. The blokes are on their way to jobs. “You goin’ somewhere?” one asks Sal. “Or just goin’.”
“Just goin’.”

What a glorious sense of freedom and excitement, being on the road. I had almost forgotten, but the movie brought it flooding back, tapped right into the feeling. I could have whooped for joy at the memory, but the cinema was packed and I’m a reserved soul.

If you’ve never experienced the exhilaration of hitching on the open road without a care and jagging a lift through splendid surrounds to wherever the driver drops you, you’re probably not going to get the rush I got from this great intro. You mightn’t find it remarkable at all. I thought it was pitch perfect, magnificent. See how subjective this reviewing shit can be?

I’ve already made the point that any cinematic attempt to capture the wild energy and breakneck pace of Kerouac’s writing is not going to work. It’s going to end up like a beatnik version of 24 Hour Party People on fast forward. That is, unbearably intense. Unwatchable.

So, the only workable option for Salles was to do the film as he has – slowed down to a pace suited to film, while doing his best to stay true to the spirit of the novel. Some ask! Characterisation is of primary importance in pulling this bunny out of the hat. If the characters ain’t right, nothing else will be either.

They’re spot on. The actors have done a superb job, in the main, in taking on the roles of Kerouac’s characters. Sam Riley delivers on the promise of his opening scenes. The Allen Ginsberg-based character, Carol Marx (Tom Sturridge), is full of pretentious poet-speak, but that’s how he’s supposed to be. He’s a young poet feeling his way, trying for irreverence and irony while taking himself oh-so-seriously as a wordsmith. Always a touch embarrassing. The Beat lingo could have come across as laughable, but is sensibly toned down in most of the characters, leaving Carlo to carry the torch in this respect. Kristen Stewart seems a bit miscast – she doesn’t quite have the 40s look – but there’s nothing wrong with her performance. And she’s damned hot as the sexually liberated, moody Marylou. Kirsten Dunst as Dean Moriarty’s second wife, Camille, is a weak link, the only obviously miscast actor. She doesn’t come across as Dean’s type, or he hers, and her appeal for him – “respectability” – doesn’t ring true.

Garrett Hedlund pulls off the very challenging lead role as the charismatic Dean Moriarty with panache, radiating the arresting charm and compelling energy that is so necessary in mitigating against his near-psychopathic selfishness. His Moriarty is not quite the romanticised figure of the novel, whom I recall as a god of hipster cool. Here, his flaws are writ far larger.

He is presented as a leader of the pack with a black hole at his core, an abandoned child who can’t grow up, still yearning for the love he never had, unable to give in order to receive. This psychological complexity and depth may have been there in the novel, but it struggled for oxygen in the excesses of Kerouac’s romanticisation of the character. Hedlund manages to arouse pity by overtly humanising the hip god, in effect demythologising him.

My favourite character, though, is morphine-addicted Old Bull Lee (based on William Burroughs), who is given an engaging eccentricity and wry comic touch by Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen makes the absolute most of his limited screen time.

The narrative is sprawling and loose, as in the book, mirroring the characters’ experiential live-for-the-moment-and-see-where-we-end-up approach to travel and life. The point is the journey, not its destination. And to wring the most out of it, every minute of the way. Which means wild parties (one party scene just blasts, marking the tribe’s hedonistic high water mark), sex, booze, drugs (mostly “weed” and Benzedrine, the latter sourced from inhalers broken open to release the kickin’ white powder within), soaring jazz – and of course, tearing down the highway with manic Dean at the wheel keeping pulse rates high and patrolmen busy.

All quintessential On The Road stuff. All very bloody well executed.

However, while the movie is as far as possible a faithful and respectful rendition of the book, it is larger – one of its saving graces – in that it shows consequences. The Beat culture is youth-orientated; the intensity, recklessness and hedonistic abandon cannot last. You can’t go on burning, burning, burning. Eventually you tone down or burn out. Nostalgia-inducing and sad, but even sadder is the raging Peter Pan, the Dean Moriarty, who doesn’t know when the party is over – or doesn’t want to know. There’s pathos in that, fully exploited as the movie draws to its inevitable close, which is predictable and right. No prizes for guessing how that goes, more or less.

But it’s the getting there that counts – and I enjoyed every well-crafted frame.

Review 2: (Karen)
Watching On the Road is like being straight and sober at a party where everyone else is wired or drunk and morals have been thrown to the winds. I sat disapprovingly through the entire 137 minutes, hoping for a payoff, a redeeming feature, or any clue about the point of this film.

I don’t ask, I should point out, about the point of the novel, which has a well-deserved reputation as a seminal text of its time, and has at its centre a portrait of a damaged, clever, charismatic figure: Dean Moriarty in the book, Neal Cassady in real life. I’ve read On the Road more than once, and have been interested enough to read biographies of Cassady and Jack Kerouac, its author, as well as other key members of the “Beat” scene. So I was keen to see how the filmmakers would pack the amount of detail in every page into a film.

And the answer is: they didn’t. They have simply left out huge contextual chunks – the bits that for me made sense of the whole catastrophe. Some of these missing bits characterised Dean Moriarty and made clear why he was tolerated by his intellectual friends: the mystique that preceded him, his huge curiosity, his enthusiasm for the intellectual life, his appreciation of their talents, and his vitality.

What is left is a misogynist petty criminal, drug abuser and alcoholic…and that’s at the beginning of the film – he goes downhill by the end! Mmm. Garrett Hedlund as Dean has little to work with. Where are his manic dialogue, his thirst for reading? A scene where he persuades his companions to enact his sexual fantasy by stripping naked (etc!) while driving along the highway, and a couple involving music and dancing, are the sort-of fun exceptions to the dogged and apparently joyless pursuit of sexual or drug-induced release. There’s a whole thread about his search for his father that is only briefly mentioned in this film; an opportunity lost, I think.

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, the Kerouac figure and the “eyes” of the film, is a more successful realisation. But the film writers have meddled with the facts here, too. The film-Sal goes on the road with Dean after the death of his father; the book-Sal does so after splitting up with his wife. It’s quite a difference, and sets up film-Sal as something of an innocent and potentially a follower; while book-Sal is quite clear-eyed about his relationship with Dean, as befits someone who was well-educated and some years older. But his commitment to his writing, and his technique of joining up paper so he could type without the interruption of winding in new sheets are well depicted; although I don’t forgive the shocking cliché of the writer pulling out the unsatisfactory page, crumpling it and discarding it on the floor.

Other characters make occasional or brief appearances: Carlo Marx, the fictional representation of Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) and Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs, played by Viggo Mortensen), without demonstrating the full extent of the relationships that existed in the novel or in real life. The women, Dean’s first wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his second wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst), and Old Bull Lee’s wife Jane (Amy Adams) are peripheral to the business, each in her own way damaged by the behaviour of their men and/or their own general fecklessness, and exerting minimal agency, except for Camille, who has the good sense to send Dean packing.

The squalor and grind of it all give little sense of how the road trips fuelled any creativity. There are only a couple of scenes, too, that suggest the freshness and immediacy of Kerouac’s writing style: particularly the scene of dancing, where the colour, movement and swift choppy editing correlate with the detail and repetition of the prose.

As a road movie, it lacks enough of the episodic encounters that typically teach the main characters life lessons. (There’s one, for example, where Sal joins an itinerant cotton-picking team. He beds down with a young woman travelling with her father and her young son – presumably the result of a previous brief encounter – and then goes on his way, drawn back to his own life. She seems completely okay with this, and he certainly is; but I’m not sure who has learned anything, and it comes across as a shallow colour piece.)

And I can’t not mention one of my film bugbears: a scene where a driver converses with his passenger and takes his eyes off the road for long periods of time. CHEESES! This drives me mad. I know that the actual car is probably on a flatbed truck, and no actors will be harmed in the making of the film, but hello, directors, verisimilitude?!!!

I can’t imagine what a younger audience, and particularly those who have not read On the Road, would make of the film. Are they more likely to enjoy it, or less? For me it doesn’t work as a book adaptation because it misses out on so much detail, and doesn’t work as a film because it doesn’t have a compelling narrative line (and is without other compensations).

If you want the On the Road experience, read the book. Or hit the road yourself.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

11 thoughts on “On The Road Movie Review”

  1. Mmmmm. I reckon we’ll agree to disagree on this one.

    A couple of things, though. “[S]houldn’t a film be judged on its own terms – as a film, not a filmed version of a book? To state the bleeding obvious, the media of literature and film are intrinsically different. It is simply invalid to hold them up against each other.” I take your point, up to a point … and for me, as I said in my penultimate paragraph, On the Road doesn’t cut it as either a film in its own right, or as a filmed version of the book.

    Also, I thought the character of Camille actually somewhat resembled Carolyn Cassady, but because so much context was missing, the relationship didn’t make sense. Film-Dean just didn’t have the charisma that book-Dean and real-life-Neal clearly did.

    However, I totally agree with you that the book is for the young. They can be sucked in by its energy enough to withhold judgement; whereas old fuddy-duddy me, the only thing I’m sucking in is my lips, to a disapproving cat’s bum.

  2. Well, Karen, you can probably anticipate my response, at least in part.

    Re: “On the Road doesn’t cut it as either a film in its own right, or as a filmed version of the book.”
    Frankly, I don’t think you were able to give the movie any sort of fair assessment in its own right – almost every criticism you made came from a direct comparison with the book! But I’ve gone on at length in my review about my stance on this, so no point in restating it all while pointing accusingly at your review.

    A couple of questions: how do you know whether Camille “somewhat resembled Carolyn Cassady”? You’re only going on someone else’s observations, whatever your source (Tom Wolfe or Ken Kesey, I suspect). Or are you talking about appearance only – photographs, perhaps? More importantly though, why does it matter? Again, it seems to me that this is one of multiple instances of externals influencing your take on the movie. For me, going on the movie only (as far as that is possible for me), Dunst was miscast – I saw that as the main problem, rather than a lack of context/information deriving from “real life”. The relationship was only briefly sketched in the movie though, so I take your point that far.

    Similarly, how can you compare the “real-life-Neal-Cassady” with film Dean in terms of charisma? Again, you only have written accounts to go on! No validity in that judgement IMO.

    Besides, how do you compare charismas (if there is a plural, which I suspect there isn’t!)? What’s the unit of measurement? I mean, the Dean of my first reading of OTR was incandescent. On the second reading, I thought he was a prick. Whether he was charismatic didn’t enter the equation (which means that he wasn’t charismatic second time around for me). Think you get my point…

    Something that intrigues me: why the extreme reaction against the film, the relish in putting it down? It’s not just you – so many critics I’ve now chased up seem to have something personally invested in dissing this movie. I find it baffling.

    Take your parting shot: “If you want the On The Road experience, read the book. Or hit the road yourself.”

    Wha? Again, there’s this confusion of media. The movie is always going to be worlds away from the book. I don’t see how any movie experience is going to be transferable to a book, and vice versa. The original work – the novel – is always going to be the default reference point, surely? No movie is going to replace it, and of course neither should it!

    As for “hit the road yourself” – well, that’s not an “On The Road experience” (assuming you’re talking about Kerouac’s OTR) – it’s a travel experience! Nothing to do with the Beat world of Kerouac’s book OR the film. No travel now can remotely resemble anything in On The Road. Far too much has changed.

    I honestly think this movie has brought out some of the worst reviewing I’ve read, and that’s nothing to do with my assessment of the movie differing from the mainstream critical view. I can only think it’s for the reasons I alluded to or canvassed directly in my review.

    Anyway, keeps it all interesting!

  3. I haven’t seen the movie (yet) so these comments must be viewed with that rather limiting factor in mind. I fully agree with Roland that the movie should be a cinematic experience rather than a literal translation of the book onto the screen. In fact, you could say that the book itself is limited by its need to evoke things that can’t be put into words and that a film version can provide at least a taste of these only partially-expressed entities . Kerouac’s writing is an attempt to capture something very concrete but it often fails to do more than EVOKE . What people see as “manic” I see as desperation.

    I’m surprised Roland describes Dean as a “God of Hipster Cool” in the book. He’s rarely “cool”; in fact, he’s downright CONSUMED with his many contradictory impulses. He can hardly sit still for a minute. And Karen’s belief that he’s somehow more SUBSTANTIAL than the way he’s portrayed in the film – hey, this guy READS! in the book (but not in the film) – doesn’t quite tally with my observations. In the book, he’s very flawed and Sal’s feelings about him are both mixed and increasingly sceptical. And Karen’s view that context provided by the book is badly missing in the movie again doesn’t tally with my reading; there really isn’t a lot of “explanation” or analysis in the novel. It’s almost wholly an attempt to capture a feeling (or conglomerate of feelings), something I think it only partially achieves, and I’d imagine the movie should attempt to reinforce and perhaps do a better job of doing the same.

  4. Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention – I’m glad Viggo Mortensen is being given his due (at least by Roland). What he does nobody else does in QUITE the same way.

  5. Rolanstein, yes, I meant pictures of Carolyn Cassady, and also some of the details of her life that I’ve read about. I only commented because you said you thought Kirsten Dunst was miscast, and I thought she was not, at least partly because she actually somewhat resembles the real life person the character of Camille is based on.

    I think it’s a fair thing to judge a film on its own merits, to critique whether or not it’s a faithful representation of a book of the same name, and any combination and weighting of both.

    Keyser, thanks for your thoughts, and do go and see the film and write some more! Yes, book-Dean is seen as flawed, but there are plenty of observations and context in every page of the book; my criticism of the film is that he comes across as flawed with few redeeming features. The book provides the context of these redeeming features (and, yes, they are less and less appealing to Sal as time goes by).

  6. Good to have some observations from you, Keyser.

    Astute observation re Dean being “downright CONSUMED with his many contradictory impulses” in the book. Not sure this precludes my image of him as being “a god of hipster cool”, though. For a good portion of the novel Sal seems to be infatuated with him, blinded by his charisma, and romanticising him as per my god of cool quote – at least, that is my memory. Yet, I relate to your view of him as well, which is more or less how he is presented in the movie (from my review: “He is presented as a leader of the pack with a black hole at his core, an abandoned child who can’t grow up, still yearning for the love he never had, unable to give in order to receive.”).

    BTW, it occurred to me that your take on Dean is a very “adult” one. Just curious – when did you last read OTR? It’s interesting to me – though probably not to anyone else – that on the character of Dean I seem to have defaulted to my ecstatic first-reading memory (at 20yo or so), having dismissed my second reading (a decade later), this far down the track, as too negative. Truth is, I suspect both readings were unbalanced! Time can do tricky things to one’s recollections, and of course perceptions often change over time, with increased knowledge, life experience etc. It’s been 25 years+ since my last reading of the novel. I need to read it again to update my views, I suppose, but I doubt that I will. After this review and the follow-up comments, I think I’ve had enough of OTR for this incarnation.


    Re: “…you thought Kirsten Dunst was miscast, and I thought she was not, at least partly because she actually somewhat resembles the real life person the character of Camille is based on.”

    I think physical similarities between Dunst and a real-life person her character was based on in the novel are irrelevant in all but the most superficial ways to any discussion on the merits or demerits of her casting in the movie. For me, she simply didn’t work as a character in the movie, for reasons previously outlined. If she did for you, was it purely or mostly on the basis that Dunst looks like Camille as you’ve seen her in photographs? If so, that explains our differences on this point: entirely different criterion (in my case, criteria) of assessment.

    Or was it partly because Dunst was like Camille in other ways (I refer to your “some of the details of her life that I’ve read about”)? If so, would you mind clarifying these ways/details? Just seekin’ to understand our differences here. It’s ironic, doncha reckon, that one of my few criticisms of the movie is the only positive you got from it! Could it be that you’re being just a tad contrary? It’s a state not unknown to moi, so could relate to that if so.

    Re: “I think it’s a fair thing to judge a film on its own merits, to critique whether or not it’s a faithful representation of a book of the same name, and any combination and weighting of both.”

    We fundamentally differ here. I think a film review should be of the film on its own merits. Of course, with film adaptations of novels it’s a natural inclination to include some observations of comparison, but I recoil from the notion that it is fair to critique a film purely in terms of how it stacks up against the source material, or that “any combination and weighting of both” [criticism of the film itself and of how faithfully it represents the source novel] is all fine and dandy.

    I am not contesting that it is a valid exercise to critique a movie in terms of how faithfully it represents a novel from which it was adapted – my contention is that an article of that nature is another creature, not a bona fide film review. And I think a writer-with-a-reviewer-hat-on taking that tack should announce it from the outset.

    Similarly, it’s valid to write a Marxist or feminist interpretation of a work of literature, say, but neither would be remotely interesting to me as a reader. I expect the author to announce their critical criteria clearly from the very beginning so I can decide not to waste any time on such a reading.

    Ditto with a film review. I think the reader has the right to expect that a film review will focus on the film itself, and that the reviewer should remain mindful of this, and signal any departure likely to not meet reader expectations of review form and content.

    Hardliningly yours

  7. Roland, I’ve read (or rather, listened to – in its audiobook form) OTR twice over the past couple of years. So it’s fresh in my memory. As for Sal’s view of Dean, he’s besotted with Dean’s ABILITIES. The novel is full of references to how Dean can do almost anything without having to go through the arduous process of learning how to do it. He’s like a God in this respect. However, as the novel progresses there’s a sense that Dean is somehow wasting his talents. Sal never overtly disapproves but the disillusionment is still there. I assume the movie made this a little more explicit than the book.

    As for Dean being an exemplar of “Hipster Cool”, this is about as far from the Dean of the novel as you can get. He is “mad”, with a “rage to live” – how does that comport with the understated artificiality of the “cool”? Both Sal and Dean are devoted to bop and Charlie Parker (HOT HOT HOT!!!!!) and the novel takes place before the new Cool movement of Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker had taken hold from 1950 on. And the Pose which the pursuit of Cool made de rigeur is completely missing in Dean. He’s a natural; when he does someing striking and enviable it’s completely unconscious. That’s what makes him unique. Carlo Marx and some of the others are WORKING at being hip; Dean never even thinks about it. There’s a scene in the movie about Neal Cassidy starring Nick Nolte (I forget the title) where Neal is in a San Fran bar and some hip dude comes up to him and starts talking hipster argot because he knows he’s talking to the “God of Hipster Cool”. Neal just looks bemused – what is this shit this guy is talking about? – and goes back to drinking.

    That’s the real Dean, not some self-aware poseur.

  8. Keyser,

    OK, I see where you’re coming from re “cool” now. Everything you say about Dean I relate to. Our only difference here is terminological. My understanding of “cool” is different from yours.

    As mentioned above, the “god of hipster cool” I was referring to was the Dean of my first reading as a 20yo (or so). I did not have the sophisticated understanding of the term cool you demonstrate above – and still don’t, really. Thanks for filling me in on the finer points of the condition! (I mean it).

    I have the added disadvantage of being an eternal observer and outsider, never having experienced cool clique membership and being glad about that – and sharing good ol’ Holden Caulfield’s extreme aversion to fakes and poseurs (I strongly suspect you’ll relate to that). That sorta cut me out of any opportunity of an apprenticeship in cool (you gotta fake it afore ya make it). I just had to rely on my own ideas as to what was and what wasn’t. But enough of excuses…

    What I saw as “cool” about Dean way back then was that he was the charismatic centre of this group of bohemians – the Beats – that clearly influenced the rock scene of the 60s and 70s that I was fanatically into. I saw the Beats as epitomising cool, and Dean as the mainman. That obviously says something about me. Dean pulled sexy chicks without effort, was a maniacal but expert driver, lived at warp speed and always in the moment – “burned burned burned” in Kerouoac’s words. That added up to ubercool for me, simple as that. I confess I’ve never challenged that perception until your posts, although my second reading left me with the conviction about Dean that cool ain’t cool. Which narrows our differences on the character to just about nothing.

    Always find your comments stimulating and thought-provoking.


  9. From the West’s ‘entertainment’ page today:

    Kristen Stewart finds “cool guys” attractive.

    The actress is currently promoting her new movie ‘On the Road’, based on the classic novel by Jack Kerouac. The story follows some of the Beat Generation’s antics and features the protagonist Dean Moriarty. Stewart can see why free-spirited Dean – played by Garrett Hedlund – is so appealing to the opposite sex.

    “Honestly, the man that Dean Moriarty represents was so … we got to talk to a lot of people who knew him and read everything about him,” Stewart told MTV News. “But generally speaking, yeah, sure, girls like a guy who is cool.”

    She added: “Yeah, sure, cool guys are cool.”


    Dumb Stewart utterances aside, just goes to show my youthful perception of Dean M as “cool” is not mine alone. Hopefully it’s not Kristen and me against the world. That would be worrying. Whatever, I’ve been put right. Kristen clearly needs educating from an connoisseur of coolness like thee, Keyser!

    PS: I never saw the Dean character as a poseur, or someone whose coolness was studied or self-conscious. There’s poseur cool and cool cool – Dean came under the latter category for me. But it’s been a long time since I cared either way.

  10. Yes, I was probably being overly scholarly in my castigation of Dean’s characterization as a “God of Hipster Cool”. Of course, he IS – in a generalized kind of way; it’s just that it doesn’t tally with the way Dean is presented in the novel. He doesn’t talk “hip” at all, doesn’t pose, doesn’t think of himself as cool or hip; he just IS. Of course, being oneself is often considered to be the essence of cool but that’s not quite true. An obsessive geek or eccentric is never thought of as cool, no matter how true to themselves and oblivious to external opinion they may be. Coolness ALWAYS betokens a certain kind of behaviour and most would-be cool people work very hard at this. Dean, as I’ve argued, is the antithesis of this.

    Understanding the fifties war between the “hot” and the “cool” in jazz is helpful in reading OTR. The “hot” was considered the authentic while the “cool” was in turn the effete and decadent form of the music. There’s no doubt on which side of the divide Dean and Sal stood.

  11. Keyser,

    All cool on cool!

    Re: “The “hot” was considered the authentic while the “cool” was in turn the effete and decadent form of the music.

    Yes, I inferred this from your earlier comment. Ta for this elaboration. The contrasting ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ camps in the jazz of the time is not something I was aware of until now. Jazz ain’t my music. Think a couple of exposures to jazz clubs a couple of decades back ruined any possibility that I might at some stage investigate the genre in more depth – can’t stand the fans (and speaking of poseurs…)!! Nothing like dismissing an entire form on the basis of not much…

    That said, the very brief scenes in the movie where the crew were getting off on live jazz did convey some of the excitement – I sorta “got it” momentarily. I can imagine it was pretty wild at the time, especially for a bunch of whiteys infiltrating the scene and embracing the lifestyle that went with it.

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