After decades of fits and starts, production on the movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is finally in gear and the flick is on course to hit our screens sometime next year. So just what makes a good road movie run?
Since Kerouac’s iconic novel, the notion of hitting the road to “anywhere but here” speaks to us not of grand rolling landscapes, but of an emergence into a truer, freer, state of being than our everyday routines allow. In this sense, the road movie evokes the notion of freedom and exploration. But what is it an exploration of, exactly, and what are the freedoms the protagonists obtain?
Two very different “road movies” will serve well in this exploration: Apocalypse Now (1979) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001).
Beginning with the latter, Alfonso Cuarón’s contemporary classic follows two Mexican teenagers, Tenoch and Julio, looking for kicks with a Spanish acquaintance, Luisa; the very distillation of their pool-spunking desires. Having lured her into a road trip to an imaginary beach they’ve named ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, the boys have to first secure a car.
Notably, they obtain it from Tenoch’s left-wing sister. The car, of course, being the symbol of freedom, of escape; as sez the angel-headed Kerouac to youths across the world in the American century only now passing. However, the male duos’ pursuit of pleasure without hardship, the capitalist dream encapsulated by the road trip, is revealed to be tainted with blood. An anonymous narrator punctuates their journey with observations of past and future time; revealing a Mexico marked by the lingering shadows of those long gone, and already scorching from the heat of future consequences. The disembodied voice prophesising, for example, how the fishing community who bring the trio peace after stormy conflict, is destined to be run out of their idyllic beach by the touristic ventures of corporations to come. All of this the great fear of the left-wing.
And while the narrative is driven by Tenoch and Julio’s attempts to lay Luisa, this desire dissolves with their very touch. Quite literally, with their poor sexual performances, but more notably in the understanding that their sexual acts bring. Each encounter with Luisa is followed by a revelation of betrayal between the two best friends. The anger re-shaping the contours of their desire, as the film progresses we discover their obsession lies not with Luisa, after all. Their trip ends with their attaining freedom from such adolescent heterosexual delusions; Luisa slips away, leaving Tenoch and Julio in a homosexual embrace.
Apocalypse Now is a wildly different kind of road movie. For one thing, here the road is exchanged for a Vietnamese river, “that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable and plugged straight into Kurtz.” Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece follows the journey of Captain Willard, sent on a mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, an AWOL officer whose compound has become a horror show of dead bodies and decapitated heads, inhabited by a makeshift army operating under his command as a God on Earth.
Yet here we find a similar relationship between the film’s road movie narrative and the obsession that drives its protagonist’s journey.
We first meet Willard stir crazy in his hotel room; waking nightmares of napalm, the ceiling fan as angel of death. Returned to the war after finding “home” no longer exists, he takes on the mission despite its absurdity – “Charging [Kurtz] with murder was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500” – in order to gain an understanding of the war, of what it all means. But despite this desire for understanding urging him forward, in its structure as a road movie Willard’s journey is instead punctuated by stops of increasing irrationality.
The insanity has a symmetry. There’s the ludicrous disparity between the elite in command and the grunts on the ground – Willard’s mission briefing finding a commander offering him shrimp whose consumption meant “never hav[ing] to prove your courage in any other way,” a tactless ignorance later trumped by the arrival of Playboy Bunnies performing to sex-starved, death-drenched soldiers. Then there’s the celebrated Kilgore sequence in which a helicopter squadron decimates a village to the booming sounds of Wagner, just so some soldiers can go surfing. “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz,” reflects Willard. An ethical ambiguity later revisited in its starkness, when Willard himself murders an injured innocent, just so he can keep his mission moving.
And this shaping of Willard’s understanding of his desire to obtain an understanding of the war is reflected in the ultimate symmetry that bookends the movie. Just as Kurtz ponders “what is it called when the assassins accuse the assassin”, his voice haunting the mission briefing via a tape reel, the film ends with Willard murdering the murderer at his compound. Finding there a raving, visionary, Kurtz – what Willard really finds is the freedom from his obsession. He recognises that there is no understanding to be had. Kurtz’ insanity is the psychology of the Vietnam war, and, embracing that conclusion, Willard completes his mission.
What we see in both films, then, is that the climax of a road movie is a freedom from the protagonist’s obsession; the narrative of such flicks an exploration of their desire.
The road traversed is a physical manifestation of their yearning for that elusive object of their obsession, each stop en route, the structure of such films, offers a change in the contour of their desire, a development in their understanding of their craving for that forever absent. Until finally, the protagonists reach the end of their journeys only to find the object of their obsession not only absent, but pretty vacant, too.
And, of course, we find just such an obsession-in-dissolution driving the narrative of Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). In this novel, the character Sal Paradise follows Dean Moriarty in three round trips across America. While the spatialising of time and the re-envisioning of the frontier are further fascinating themes, the plot of the novel essentially traces the changing relationship between Sal and Dean; the avatars of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, respectively. Dean is the object of obsession that finds Sal hitching across the continent. First appearing to him as a “Holy Goof”, or “Saint”, over the many years that the tale recounts Dean eventually transforms into an “angel”, then a “God”, a feverish soul finally escaping into the beyond at the novel’s postscript.
Sal begins his tale as a pent-up firework looking to be lit by those who “burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. But as Dean’s transformation progresses, we find Sal’s own interests diverging, his admiration becoming coloured with enforced humility, wariness, sometimes anger. His understanding of that fascinating creature known as Dean Moriarty feeds into the broken mirror of his self. For to be Dean – God – is to be elusive of commitment, feverish for gratification, isolated from the warmth of long wrapping limbs. And it is this loneliness that Sal realises he needs to kick rather than embrace.
Sal begins the novel “feeling that everything was dead”, and it is his many stops and expeditions through unknown America that brings him back to life. However, by the time that continent is exhausted, when Sal’s exit to Mexico is tainted by “a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating towards me across the road, approaching like a cloud”, we reach the dissolution of his obsession; the realisation that that free-wheeling holy conman is a false idol after all. It is Dean that notes how America is best encapsulated by “the enormous loneliness that differs just a shade and cut hair as you move across the Mississippi.” And Dean who exclaims that Mexico – Sal’s “magic land at the end of the road” – is a place where: “They’re never alone. Nobody’s ever alone in this country.” Yet it is Dean that leaves Sal writhing in a Mexico City sickbed as he returns to New York.
The enduring desire driving this novel, then, is revealed to be a loneliness, or solitude, that makes one impervious to the harm forever thorny from the very many that surround us. The harm being the interests, affections and emotions of others; the loneliness a solitude that can be equated to selfishness. The urge to embrace all the world’s joy, kicks, darkness without any care for consequence. A loneliness that Sal realises he cannot fully embrace; always letting his heart open to those to which he would reach – whether it is Marylou with whom he rejects a superfluous relationship in hope of a meaningful one, only to be rejected himself; the sixteen year old Mexican prostitute who ‘moved like a queen’ and he could not dare to corrupt; or Dean himself, the holy conman he followed across the continent and down, only to be left behind at his weakest.
The dissolution of Sal’s obsession finds him erecting a wall of arms around himself, his marriage to “the girl with pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long”, refusing Dean’s offer to return to Frisco with him on another wild journey. Leaving Dean to exult in his beatification, his destruction of language, his ineffable free-state of being, his loneliness.
These two filmic and singular literary journey demonstrate that real road taken is one of self-discovery.