Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Big Sur" (2013) : Jack Kerouac's Retreat: Love, Fame, Pain and The Whole Damn Thing!

A film version of the Jack Kerouac novel "Big Sur" was previewed at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and is scheduled to go into at least limited release in North America next month.  Being a fan of Kerouac's writings, I am looking to this one.  Written in 1961, it follows an autobiographical path: Jack Kerouac (the Sal Paradise of his most famous novel, 1957's "On the Road").  The French-Canadian/American writer from Lowell Massachusetts finds his "instant  success"  overwhelmed him.  To many young people, he is the new prophet, but to the establishment he is part of the "beat-nik" world conformists associate with sexual and countercultural excess.    Robbed  of the privacy he needs to work by the demands of fans and media hawks looking for a quick story and a quicker buck he needs a respite to continue his multi-volume Proust-like novels--known collectively as "The Legend of Duluoz". He flees from his public and takes a cabin in the woods near the famous California Coastal community to continue his writings, of which "Big Sur" stands as one of his most important, along with "Dharma Bums" and "The Subterraneans".  
A still from the film, set partly in early 1960's San Francisco,  featuring actors John Marc-Barr and John Lucas as  Kerouac and Cassady, along with an insert of the real men.

The novel deals with a period a dozen years after the events of  "On the Road"--the early post World War II America, where Jack Kerouac had finished his studies at Columbia and the New School for Social Research in New York City, ended  one marriage, written a novel, "The Town and the City" (1950), that was not   widely received and not in his true "voice" as a writer. He had met a group of literary friends (including the "beat" poet  Alan Ginsburg and the eccentric, iconoclastic writer,  William Burroughs)  that would form the core of his peer friendships. He had also been heavily influenced by the vibrant outlaw, hobo, womanizing  free spirit and hard-as-nails railroad worker, Neal Cassady, known as Dean Moriarty in "On the Road" and as "Pomeroy" in "Big Sur" . Below, an interview with the actor John Marc-Barr:

 It was this relationship more than with any author or professor that fueled Kerouac's liberation from copying the style of Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe and toward a more revolutionary writing known as "spontaneous prose".  America itself of course was an influence as well, the people Kerouac met as he hitchhiked and drove across the USA back and forth--tramps, cops, drug addicts, barkeeps, cotton pickrs, spiritual seekers,  roving reprobates, hustlers, jazz cats and women looking for a man to both love for his exuberance and energy and tame for herself.  He opens himself to experiences only he could translate into words with as much verve. There is a sense of desperate grasping for all "the mad ones" still plying the concrete and steel trails of the giant frontier nation before it sinks under the weight of its  own material success.  Further dimensions were fueled by his explorations into Buddhism and those then-unique "Bebop" jazz--he and other white hipsters hooked into.  The African/American jazz clubs with sometimes anonymous sax and trumpet players exploring intimate recesses that their brethren in New Orleans decades earlier had pointed towards--it was all coming to a new experience in music from San Francisco to Chicago and New York and all points between. .    

I haven't had a chance to see this film but from the reviews and the smart people who seem to be in and behind the camera I have some hope that this will be a film that may do justice to one of America's most influential authors.    


  1. Doug, this is one I've been meaning to see when it comes 'round on the indie-circuit. Also a huge fan of Kerouac - his influence is in a lot of people's writing today (including me.)

    1. I second that! Astra, you're one of the best writers on the blogosphere IMHO. Thanks for stopping by and adding me to your circle.

  2. It sounds interesting. Seeing what he wrote about, I should have written a book about my travels across the country before I started loosing my memory so much.

    1. I wish I had kept better track of my travels as well in earlier days, Cal. You still bring a lot to the table I'd say.

  3. This was America's Golden Age of Literature in my view, from the 1930s to the 1960s from Steinbeck to the Beat Generation and nobody more than the Buddhist, alcoholic, Jazz fusion that was Jack Kerouac.
    Thanks for posting on this new film which I hope will be become available on the internet in due course.

    I first read Big Sur in the early 1970s when I was a railway guard at the back of a freight train rhythmically clanking its way through summer dawn fields and the darting rabbits of central England, with a tea-can boiling on the stove and Kerouac in hand it was a university on steel wheels, with china clay from Cornwall heading toward the Staffordhire 'Potteries'.

    The second time I read the Big Sur was in Big Sur, California 30 years later I went there for precisely that pupose after celebrating the Steinbeck Centenary in was a sojourn in honour of my youthful heroes which took me to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Book Store, having already undertaken the first phase in Greenwich Village and Manhattan's Lower East Side the year before.

    No other literary movement anywhere has ever inspired me to such a pilgrimage as the Beat Generation has and always at the head of the pack there was Kerouac, the massive contradiction the wilderness dwelling mommies boy, the alcohol guzzling bhodisattva, the jazzy cool dude and navy reservist, fire watcher, dope fiend and bar brawling bard of All-American anti-hero.

    Kerouac was never as politically radical as let's say Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg, nor as psychopathic as Burroughs (bless him), but like them his writing style was rooted in American post-war prosperity. In the Beat movement this collides with the mystical Trotskyism of the Jewish New York literatti that nurtured Ginsberg and Bob Dylan to become household names, Tuli Kupferberg less so perhaps, but just as important.

    Just as Steinbeck wrote about the marginalised working class in Depression hit America, Cannery Row and pre tourist Monterey....Kerouac wrote about the burden of freedom in conservative America, the space both topographical and spiritual of the coalescing American Empire...Dharma Bums are only really possible in places with a lot of space like Desolation Peak in Washington state where Kerouac's firewatching fuelled at least 3 books and a lot of imaginations worldwide.

    Thanks for raising our awareness of this film Doug I will definitely look out for it, the fascination remains a life-long commitment to Beat principles even against the anodyne brutality of the global 'system 'and what I see as the fundamental abomination of capitalism, now in an utterly corrupted terminal stage of gangsterism
    We're all Desolation Angels now I think..
    Cool video of Kerouac plus the Jazzers of the old world order before the Fall, an excellent blog Doug, thanks for the heads up.

  4. Although are experiences are different, AA, count me in as a celebrator of Mid-Century American Art, a devotee of the vibrant movements in genre-cinema, literature, groundbreaking and non-academic music, It seemed for a time all the world of ideas that came out of the broken places in Asia and continental Europe and other places converged and reconstituted themselves in the back streets of San Francisco and NYC's Greenwich Village . They boomeranged back to England and other places as modern mass culture would do and reformed and came boomeranging back again...

    I agree Kerouac was a man of phenomenal contradictions, of this there is no question. Like Orwell, a o"fish out of water", but unlike that unique Edwardian-bred English traveler not a man I agree so much with politics on his mind, but a "Man Awake" with a vision of his whole life as it stood in the Realm of Being. He was a worthy successor to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Carson McCullers, et al, as well as a friend of all the wild angels among the Beat crowd.

    All these writers were different, but I'd say they all wrote the way they did because of the nation they came up in, molded them and made their voices the best the nation could offer for all the land we stole from the natives, all the slaves we took away from their homes and all the ideas of Rome and Greece and Paris and The Scottish Enlightenment we tried to make work here and maybe they did for a time but, know the rest.

    Kerouac was a Seeker in the Desolation as well, that American vastness of space, with all its lonely shacks fire-look out posts and empty rail-yards and cold and dark highways lit only by headlights and vibrant imaginations, all the cheap hotels and dive bars and chicken shacks with jazz on the juke box and the dirty USA underground stations (subways) that Paul Simon said the words of the new prophets where written on.

    When I first read Kerouac I was both impressed by that sense of freedom in his verse and I admit now and a bit appalled at how Kerouac and his companions were so rootless and sometimes even self-destructive. This bothers me much less now. Take him as he was and still is, I say: Our Jack was a man who would raise a glass to Buddha, Jesus, Allah, Yahweh and Lot's Wife and all he cared about and so many caught on and even those who didn't got on some road to somewhere. This is America too, I'm happy to say, words from the eyes and minds of the Beat Generation and all they inspired now matter how weird or banal things got in between the messages.

    I haven't read as much of him as you have but from picking up his works again recently I feel a liberation myself at being able to accept him just for himself. It is quite appropriate I think, AA, for you to read his books as a railroad guard. -The Beat who wrote about his experiences as a Southern Pacific brakeman in the Bay Area for "Railroad Earth" and other short pieces would have been pleased to have such a reader I venture to say!

    Of course "Cannery Row" was more of a tourist spot in modern times, but all the better that you likely saw it when it was given its due---ditto to the legacy of Steinbeck in Salinas with that museum, a place that finally appreciates its Native Son. "East of Eden" is one of my favorite book ever.

    These places were all too easy for me and others to get to and I forget how much they were mini-Meccas. I hope to see some of them next year, if time and the Great Spirits around us permit.

    And thanks, AA, for helping me appreciate the magnitude of the literary gift this part of I grew up near contributed. I hope this film lives up to both our expectations and even if it doesn't we all have the books!

    You are most welcome AA for heads-up.

  5. I think you make a very interesting point when you distinguish Kerouac as a "Man Awake" from a political animal. There was this mystical vibe about the movement that had me reading DT Suzuki and Hans Kung too.
    I took a close interest in comparative religion and belief systems back in those days and I still retain an interest today, but now more from the perspective of a commentator than that of a 'seeker' I think.
    This 'freedom' theme in Kerouac's tales is in my view a preoccupation in affluent societies that tends to be ousted by a 'survival' theme in pauperised or impoverished societies.
    This is I think what historically situates Kerouac firmly in the post-war reconstruction boom years of increasing access to credit and debt that fueled the unprecendented growth in consumerism during the 50s and 60s, bouyed up by military industrial expansionism during the Cold War period.

    As you know I have a theory that there is a direct existential link between the Cuba Crisis and the Summer of Love and the forerunner of that was the link between Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Haight Ashbury Zen twenty years later.

    If the point of Buddhism is the abolition of desire than Kerouac probably didn't make the grade for Nirvana, but if by Nirvana we mean the end of the cycle of becoming and the oblivion of self Jack Kerouac was indeed a true master.
    That last point is I think a serious one Doug. While I think you are absolutely correct that Kerouac is quintessentially American as is the Beat Generation and jazz itself of course...I can also see some connections between his writing and that of European writers like Herman Hesse and in its journalistic style, the literary writings of people like John Paul Sartré and Albert Camus too. Perhaps the latter imagined paralells are just about the Gallic connections though?
    Anyway I do hope this film shows up online soon Doug, I look forward to seeing it.

    1. Now that you bring it up, AA, I agree there is are important non-American interconnection writers like Camus, Hesse and others with the Beats. He like others was a spiritual seeker who saw America as you intimate when it was on the cusp of becoming an heavy materialistic society on a broad base--possibly the most of in the history of the world until the rise of the Arabian Oil shiekdoms in the 70's. As a young man, he and Neal Cassidy had a taste for the fruits of alcohol and casual sex, but his journey seems to be deeper. But it would be a mistake I think now, as I did earlier, to put too much emphasis on that youthful adventuring to the neglect of his Buddhist commitments and earlier Gospel-based Christian influences.

      Example: In the last part of "On the Road" he and his friends head down to Mexico City and they contrast the sights, sounds, terrain and friendliness of the rural people of the region along the jungles and mountains of the Pan-American Highway. This is Terra Incognita for them. He revels in everything that is different about the people, perhaps an early reaction to the post-war boom of boxy stucco suburbs, hulu hoops, preoccupations with war and political conformity, and of course big cars going on in the Colossus of the North.

      Keruoac's appeal as an artist, like that of Bob Dylan, was not only profound but infectious and popular--no small achievement Both men started or at least fueled an entire social movement that they were not entirely comfortable with. I would argue modern celebrity makes it impossible for real artists to grow and change and distractions from super fans and leaders of causes want to use the images they have already shed by the time the become popular---that is if they truly are "original". What becomes of a self if everybody else wants you to be their image of you?

      Dylan seems to have weathered that storm better than his older peer. A friend of mine who is a lifelong keen student of Kerouac and other writers of the "Beat" group made the point to me that Jack's best work came out of the time before he achieved his late 50's success. Obviously his earthly desires could be fulfilled in the last decade of his life , but this did not seem to make him more fulfilled. Of course I haven't read works like "Satori in Paris" (1965) and other later novels to fully see where this his head was at.
      Thanks for adding so much more to this short review, AA.

  6. Revisiting your post Doug I think you make some very good points about Kerouac and his spirituality, his Buddhism rather than his alcoholism which only intensified with celebrity I think. One of the attractions of the Beat Generation for me as a young man was that very theological hedonism and soul searching anarchy. Buddhism allowed everything, or so it seemed...Zen especially meant bad habits don't matter, they are just Samsara and the atheism frees us from all external moral accountability. As the Nazis arose in Germany Steppenwolf sees the same Zen in the Berlin Jazz club...after the defeat of the Third Reich karma has Steppenwolf reborn a Dharma Bum in Cold War America. Even after all these years I still consider the Bhodisattva Vow the most perfect expression of human intelligence Kerouac had a hand in that Doug.