Sunday, 28 April 2013

Still On The Road: Walter Salles films Jack Kerouac

            It's generally considered a truism that great novels tend to make indifferent films, and it's not difficult to see why. The denser and more highly-wrought a textual narrative, the less amenable it is to a single, exclusively visual interpretation. Conversely, the greater a story's reliance on non-allusive, unreflective action, the more chance it has of translating directly to the screen. Those few major novels which have also made seriously good films without exception required screenwriter and director to reimagine both original text and their own respective arts to create something different from, but in some way equivalent to the original.

            I doubt that anyone these days would seriously challenge the status of "On The Road" as a great novel. It revolutionised English prose, articulated an identifiably American sensibility that was reaching for the universal, and extended an existing literary tradition or two,  at the same time as laying the ground for much subsequent experimentation in literary, poetic, and journalistic writing. It is also one of those rare books which literally does change lives. So in attempting to film it, Walter Salles must have known he was setting himself up to fail quite badly in the eyes of those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people who know, love, and have their own complex and multifaceted response to Kerouac's 1950s masterpiece.

            Salles opts wisely to begin by placing “On the Road” firmly in the tradition of Kerouac's acknowledged forebears, those painters of continental restlessness Thomas Wolfe & John Steinbeck. The instant ability of film to reveal landscape and the configurations of people framing and inhabiting it , combined with the use of hobo folk song as a soundtrack to rapidly-cut scenes of  cross-country travel, delivers a depth of historic backstory with an economy a novelist might envy. Claustrophobic, scruffy domestic interiors and dull urban lots are set against this Great Outdoors of light and weather. And as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's surrogate, Sam Riley in voiceover sounds convincingly worldweary in a way only a very young person can. It's a great set-up.

In narrative terms, Salles has evidently tried to remain as faithful as possible to the overall structure of Kerouac’s novel, while teasing out certain themes and implications that were dormant – even unacknowledged – in the original published version of  1957. Some of these, notably the strong homoerotic bond between Sal, Dean Moriarty, and Carlo Marx, were present in the legendary manuscript ‘scroll’ from which this was culled, finally published in its entirety 50 years later. More interestingly, though, the automatic 1940s misogyny of the male dramatis personae, of which even Keroauc was probably blithely unaware as he wrote, is cleverly counterpointed by the building-up into characters of some of the women, who feature as little more than sketches in either version of his text. Kristen Stewart – hitherto best known for the clunking, bloodless vampire Bella in the Twilight films – demonstrates astonishingly that she can actually act, putting in a finely-tuned performance as Dean’s sexually-exploited and emotionally-abused teenage wife Marylou. As Dean’s other marital partner-cum-victim Camille, Kirsten Dunst is given a couple of extra scenes to demonstrate the frustration and anger of being a female foil to the glorified adolescent male-bonding culture unthinkingly celebrated by Kerouac. It’s a thoughtful and effective call. In one of those moments where film can offer an instant insight that might take a novelist hundreds of words to lay out, Sal and Dean toast “The old men and the West” above the sleeping, ignored body of Marylou.

Garrett Hedlund’s Dean, monster of egotism though he is, retains the seductiveness and charm which undoubtedly motivated Kerouac to centre On the Road around his original, Neal Cassady.  Hedlund’s laconic, Midwestern delivery carries off  dialogue I’ve  always thought might sound slightly arch, even hysterical, if spoken aloud. Also, for a character written so much larger-than-life, he augments this with a subtle range of facial expression, emphasised in the shaky close-up of certain intimate, interior scenes between Dean, Sal, Carlo, and the occasional disposable woman.  Tom Sturridge’s longsuffering Carlo personifies the undercurrent of sexual frustration, undeclarable love,  & jealousy of Dean which Kerouac himself persistently refuses to acknowledge, except indirectly. It is also a convincing and endearing portrait of a young Allen Ginsberg.

Perhaps the main philosophical strand in On the Road is one which Kerouac’s later interest in Buddhism would more fully explore, that of the busyness of everyday life and its corollary in eternity – stasis, silence, the Void. A fear of placelessness, and the endless, contradictory putting of oneself in different places in order to try and avoid this, is periodically revisited in Salles’s film, as in Kerouac’s book.  There is a recurring quotation from Proust, and the melancholy visualisation of  lonely Midwestern small towns at sunset, seen from hotel rooms where you know neither where nor who you are.

If, then, a film had to be made of On the Road, this one will do very well. It respects the text, while refusing to collude with some of the more obvious elisions engaged in by the author. It also manages to strike a realistic balance between the romanticism of youthful restlessness – which I think is something most of us fall for the first time we read Kerouac – and the more squalid, selfish side of those characters for whom we have fallen. It even allows itself the obvious metaphor, in its closing sequences, of envisaging the ribbon of paper on which Kerouac typed his first draft – the legendary ‘scroll’ – as The Road itself. But since that’s one that the author himself invented (“rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road” he said in a letter to Cassady in 1951) it’s probably still OK.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Barry N. Malzberg: the science-fiction of inner space

Barry N. Malzberg
                It’s standard practice when considering the literary claims of ‘genre’ fiction to point out that some of the canonical works of Eng. Lit. could easily be so ghettoised if they hadn’t long since been accepted as ‘proper’ literature. Where science-fiction is concerned, this usually involves the invocation of Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the collected works of JG Ballard. So consider this done. As Oscar Wilde nearly-but-not-quite said:  “There is no such thing as genre fiction or literary fiction, only good books and bad books.”

                Barry Nathaniel Malzberg has written some very good books. Between 1970 and 1985 he was almost bewilderingly prolific. More than 30 novels on a SF theme appeared in that time, of which the best-known is probably Beyond Apollo (1972), winner of the 1973 John W. Campbell book award. Described by one commentator as “2001: a Space Odyssey written by Samuel Beckett”, it is a series of short, obsessive monologues by one Evans, an astronaut confined in some kind of psychiatric institution,  attempting to piece together a coherent narrative of an abortive space mission during which his crewmate, The Captain, mysteriously disappeared. His accounts to himself and his interrogators are hallucinatory, fragmented, and contradictory. Did he murder the other man ? Was it suicide ? What was the precise nature of their relationship ? Why were they sent into space at all ? 

Typically garish 70s SF cover nevertheless hints at something more than space-opera

Evans’s accounts are highly sexualised, both in terms of his homoerotic attraction to the missing man and memories of his failing marriage. This sexuality is swamped by technological metaphor, highly reminiscent of Ballard (particularly Crash, which Apollo predates by a year), counterpointed ironically by the mission’s putative destination, Venus. The mystery unfolded through Evans’s ravings is never resolved, but the real question is not what happened to The Captain as an individual, but what has happened to the human race since we began to apprehend the true vastness of space and our inability to understand it definitively: “Everything is blind chance, happenstance, occurrence; in an infinite universe anything can happen. After the fact we find reasons.”

                The identity of outer space with an existential ‘inner space’ is further explored in On A Planet Alien (1974): “Lying on the bleak earth of this blasted planet, listening to the wind filter through the trees, it is possible for one moment in the clinging darkness to believe that it is not impossibly removed, that it is not at the far edge of the universe but that it is Earth itself and this has not been a voyage outward but a voyage in, to some other aspect of familiar terrain…” 

Folsom, leader of an ostensibly peaceful embassy to a distant, tribal society, is another narrator whose grip on reality is rapidly loosening. The ‘natives’ do not react with the expected compliance, and appear to have more sophisticated philosophical ideas than they should. The paranoia this engenders in Folsom rapidly develops into megalomania, and is then turned murderously on his supposedly treacherous colleagues, possibly on the whole planet.  Given the date of composition, I don’t think it is fanciful to see this as Malzberg’s Vietnam novel, and it certainly has relevant political content. As Folsom recalls one bureaucrat saying :  “Some of the opposition of course were referring to the program not as one of amalgamation but of ‘conquest,’ the brutalisation of innocent worlds to bring them into the hands of the Federation, render their natives hostage, their resources as plunder. Although everyone connected with the Bureau knew that this was untrue… [A]ll that the Federation was trying to do was make the universe a safe and agreeable place in which all of the races could live equably and without fear…”  We have heard this throughout the history of colonial exploitation.

Still from 1974 movie of "Phase IV", so far the only BNM novel to have been filmed.

 Malzberg is extremely interested in contemporary phenomena and the ways in which they might play out in the future. Like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition (1970), The Destruction of the Temple (1974) explores continuing public fascination with the John F. Kennedy assassination (with walk-on parts for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), positing a repetitive, obsessive reconstruction of the event against the background of a decayed New York City – whose nomadic, semi-feral inhabitants also strangely recall those of Ballard’s later High Rise (1975.)

TNew York in a more recognisable form is the backdrop for two other novels. Overlay (1972) is a blackly comic account of the attempt by an alien interloper to precipitate Armageddon by manipulating the human tendency to irrational belief: “We have to approach them from the edges, concentrate on mysticism, spirituality, the occult… That’s the only way to topple them.”  His choice of a social group to influence is neither ideological nor religious, but a ragbag of small-time compulsive horseracing gamblers – although the combination of illogical metaphysics, all-consuming resentment and a final scene of suicidal terrorism make this tale seem strangely prescient and familiar.

Herovit’s World (1973) satirises the science-fiction milieu itself, the protagonist Jonathan Herovit a hack writer increasingly frustrated not only by the disjuncture between his own chaotic life and the heroism of his creations, but also envious of the character and lifestyle he has attributed to his own pseudonym, ‘Kirk Poland’: “Kirk was a good first name. Nothing insoluble could happen to a man named Kirk once he put his mind to things.” There are no conventional SF elements in this novel, although there are various Malzberg trademarks – emotional and psychological disintegration, sexual anxiety, strange voices. I have no idea if there is anything autobiographical here, but some of the characters – Herovit himself and his monstrously egotistical colleague Mitchell Wilk, for example  – are vividly grotesque.

It is also extremely funny, and illustrates brilliantly the range of Malzberg’s  abilities, both thematic and stylistic. His lack of general recognition in the UK is probably not helped by his books – in their garish, inappropriately spaceship-festooned covers – having been out of print for years. Is it too much to hope that a recently-announced film adaptation of Beyond Apollo might change this ?

This article was originally written in June 2012 for the online magazine "Big Eyes".