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Curing Kerouac's misogyny


On the Road (MA). Director: Walter Salles. Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Tom Sturridge, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst. 140 minutes

'If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain.' The words commonly (though falsely) attributed to Winston Churchill are pragmatic to the point of pessimism; the idealism of youth is necessarily supplanted by the wisdom of experience.

American singer-songwriter Ben Folds had a more sardonic take on the same concept: the titular character of his 2001 song 'The Ascent of Stan' is a 'textbook hippy man' turned corporate middle-management cog. Stan once 'wanted revolution', now he is 'the institution': 'How's it feel to be The Man? It's no fun to be The Man.'

It's hard to know what is to be achieved by producing in 2012 a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's seminal and autobiographical 1957 novel On The Road. The book sprang from and helped to define 'beat' culture; heir to the hipsterism of the 1920s and forerunner to the hippy movement of the 1960s, and characterised by culture-busting creativity and experimentation with sex and substances.

In it, Kerouac's alter ego Sal Paradise (played in the film by Riley) sets out on numerous adventurous road trips with his somewhat idolised acquaintance Dean Moriarty (a mythologised Neal Cassady, portrayed here by Hedlund). 'The road' is a living metaphor for exploring life and the search for meaning, and for eschewing the shackles of conformity in favour of freewheeling. The trips are fuelled by sex, jazz, drugs and male camaraderie.

But surely this book, if any, was a work both of and for its time. Today, not only the original readers of On the Road but also several subsequent generations have grown up. Whether you ascribe to the 'Churchill' conception of 'with age comes wisdom', or Folds' lament about selling out to the comfort of conformity, the book's once counter-cultural themes are so entrenched and well-traversed as to be clichéd.

This is made abundantly clear as the rugged, relentless poetry of Kerouac's work is reduced on film to attractive landscape cinematography and a string of loosely connected episodes that, when you can't feel the author's own questing, gravelly yet melodious narration surging against your eardrum, simply don't amount to more than the sum of their parts. Even the sex and drug use in Brazillian director Salles' On the Road seem passé.

This, despite a distinct heightening of the homoeroticism that is arguably innate to any 'boys' own adventure' story and certainly simmers not far beneath the surface of On the Road. Kerouac's is a book about male bonding; in the film the sexual, even romantic tension and jealousy that exists between the blokey triangle of Sal, Dean and 'Carlo' (beat poet Allen Ginsberg, played by Sturridge) is intense and intimate. It's a strength.

Of some note, too, is the film's treatment of gender issues. Kerouac's book is essentially misogynistic. Women are objects of hedonistic possibilities in the same way that drugs are. They are 'dumb' or 'sexy' and rarely more than that. Even Sal's humorously self-deprecating accounts of failing to impress a virginal lover or to bed the girlfriend of a sailor at best belittle, and at worse marginalise the women in question.

The film, perhaps reflecting a view that it is aimed at a more enlightened audience, seeks to rectify this by giving flesh to its female characters, in particular to Dean's respective wives, Louann (Stewart) and Camille (Dunst), and ruminating on the consequences of Dean's ill treatment of them. It is not entirely successful in this, due to the limitations of Sal's perspective, and particularly to the limitations of Stewart's abilities as an actor.

At best, Salles' film is a nostalgic remembrance of a particular book, and a particular time, that never had a chance of living up to the rawness of the source material, coming half a century too late. At worst, it is something like an undergraduate video essay that explores without illuminating Kerouac's original work. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, On the Road, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, beat culture



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Existing comments

Later Carolyn Cassady summed up the situation of 'On the Road' by saying that the men all ran around playing silly boys games while the women sorted out the many problems created by this behaviour. At the heart of 'On the Road' is a glorification of non-stop male energy. The antidote is Kerouac's last books, where he is an alcoholic living with his mother and trying to escape fame, craziness, hippies, and all that unexamined energy. The women are incidental to male bonding rituals in 'On the Road', or simply victims of it. Gore Vidal says that the great American novel is about unresolved homosexual desire. He cites 'Moby Dick' as the main example, but 'On the Road'is certainly part of that literary line. Neal Cassady, the self-important manic main inspiration of 'on the Road', was bisexual; one wonders if that has been brought out in the film. There are also questions about whether life 'on the road' could be the same now as it was in 40s and 50s America. Does the film ask these questions?

Philip Harvey | 27 September 2012  

Always enjoy your insightful reviews. Passed this on to a (male) fan of the book. He enjoyed the film for different reasons. Your words gave him a lot more to think about and appreciate. Thank you.

Carol Robertson | 27 September 2012  

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