Film

'Big Sur' Brings Kerouac to the Screen with Fury and Force

Michael Polish's adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel is a perfect example of how a flowing, Beat classic can be transcribed to the screen with its spirit intact.


Big Sur

Director: Michael Polish
Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas, Radha Mitchell, Kate Bosworth, Anthony Edwards
Distributor: ARC
Rated: R
Release date: 2014-01-14
"And I realize the unbearable anguish of insanity: how uninformed people can be thinking insane people are 'happy', O God, in fact it was Irwin Garden once warned me not to think the madhouses are full of 'happy nuts'."

-- Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

If Jack Kerouac's 1957 masterpiece On the Road defined and exalted the Beat Generation, his 1962 novel Big Sur held this generation up for a not-always-gentle appraisal of its complicated desires and shortcomings. It's a quiet, difficult novel that had never been adapted for film prior to Michael Polish's 2013 effort. Though it has largely underwhelmed audiences, Polish's take on Kerouac features the kind of ephemeral, inexplicable tone that distinguished the writer as a true innovator. Big Sur is a perfect example of how a flowing, Beat classic can be transcribed to the screen with its spirit intact.

Like his novels, Big Sur is a movie that is both about Jack Kerouac and not. In the film, Polish has done away with Kerouac's pretense to call his lead character Jack Duluoz. Instead, we meet a middle-aged Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) who escapes to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's (Anthony Edwards) cabin in Big Sur to try and ground himself. Cinematographer M. David Mullen helps us get lost in Kerouac's Big Sur via static, wide shots of the forests and shoreline near the cabin. It's an idyllic world that is at once wonderfully beautiful and just a little boring.

The viewer needn't despair, though, because we can tell from Kerouac's voiceover during our introduction to the cabin in Big Sur that it's unlikely he'll be able to resist the pull of the city for long. Sure enough, he spends only a few weeks alone in Big Sur before he returns to San Francisco to party with his old Beat friends. When he journeys outside of the city with a group of friends, we meet Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), one of Kerouac's oldest friends and his hitchhiking buddy from his On the Road days. We also meet the beautiful Carolyn (Radha Mitchell), Cassady's wife, and Billie (Kate Bosworth), his mistress.

Relationships are central to Big Sur, and Polish has done a stellar job of playing his cast together to create dynamic, rich pairings. Kerouac and Carolyn share a tender moment in the Cassady's kitchen that seems unmatchable until Cassady introduces his old friend and his mistress. Billie and Kerouac become fast lovers, and the on-screen chemistry between Barr and Bosworth is perhaps the very best thing about the film. Each tender, angry, nuanced moment is narrated by Kerouac so that we hear it from his angle. But these scenes tend to be shot from the perspective of Billie, reasserting the importance of this relationship to the arc of the film.

Quickly worn down by the city, Kerouac, Cassady, Carolyn and Billie head back to the cabin at Big Sur with Ferlinghetti and a few of his friends. In one scene from the trip, where Neal Cassady takes an ax to a log and Kerouac narrates, we're treated to the raw, emotional power of the Beat hero's writing. Here Polish has done an exceptional job of translating a lyrical text to the screen. Of course, not everything can be so beautiful as Kerouac's words. Debating the direction of life and poetry together every evening might have seemed like the perfect escape, but we begin to see the strain appear in the terse way Bosworth's Billie turns away from Kerouac in bed and in the increasingly detached manner with which he treats her (and everyone else).

As the sojourn at the cabin winds down, we watch Kerouac and his friends prepare to leave. They debate what they'll do with their lives, what poems must be written, who is going with whom. The Beat poet, though, sits in a chair outside the cabin and muses to himself, just as he does in the novel, "on soft Spring nights I'll stand in the yard under the stars -- Something good will come out of all things yet -- And it will be golden and eternal just like that -- There's no need to say another word." It's the best possible conclusion for Michael's Polish's rich, slow-burning portrait of the enigmatic Kerouac. Big Sur might not find converts among a wide audience, but it's a perfect treat for fans of American literature and the raw Beat spirit.

The DVD release of Big Sur includes no special features, which is a shame. For example, it would be enlightening for viewers to hear Polish talk more about the process of adapting Kerouac's work for the screen.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Music

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Reviews

Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.

Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.

Books

Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.

Music

British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.

Music

Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".

Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.