Praying while blindfolded: Light and Darkness inside El Paradiso in Walter Salles’ On The Road
Upon its release in 2012, Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road was heavily criticised by pop culture film critics, most of whom who seemed confused by why an attempt had been made to transform Kerouac's famous prose into moving images. At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw declared that Salles' adaptation was "directionless and self-adoring," with other critics agreeing that the film was "disappointing" and was nothing more than "a rambling outlaw vision."1 Salles' On the Road was not the first attempt to adapt a Kerouac novel into film form, with previous attempts including The Subterraneans (Ranald MacDougall, 1960) and Big Sur (Michael Polish, 2013). Regular attempts have also been made to translate Kerouac's personal legacy with the written history about the Beat Generation (a literary and cultural movement of the 1950s and ‘60s Kerouac was part of) into condensed biographical film narratives. These semi-autobiographical biopics have mostly been produced in the United States and often star high-profile dramatic actors, such as Heart Beat (John Bryum, 1980), co-starring Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek, The Last Time I Committed Suicide (Stephen T Kay, 1997), with Keanu Reeves and, more recently, Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas, 2013), featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. In stark contrast to critics who have declared On The Road as unimportant and unviable, as a fan of Kerouac, I intend to show where we can find meaning in the film – that is, through a study of Salles' aesthetics. This adaptation of On The Road is an invigoration of the specific cinematic, musical and literary rhythm of Kerouac's prose. The film does not try to fit the narrative of Kerouac's novel into the pre-existing constraints of the American road movie genre, nor is the film a Hollywood attempt to glorify Kerouac further in Western culture. Additionally, Salles does not ask his audience to critique the morals and lifestyle choices of the leading protagonists, nor does the film demand one to know extensively about the political and social turmoil that surrounded the Beat Generation. The film instead asks its viewer to watch how Kerouac's interests and obsessions with the fine arts, bebop jazz and Catholicism have been turned into impressionistic montages from their original written words.
Prior to Salles' adaptation, On the Road had been in ‘development hell' for decades. After purchasing the rights back in 1979, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola consistently failed to develop his screenplay into fruition, with names including Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, Gus Van Sant and Billy Crudup all rumoured to be attached to the project over the course of three decades. The novel was considered unfilmable by Hollywood because of Kerouac's highly specific writing style that he called "sketching". Sketching' demands that one write their poems on-the-go while they wander around American cities, a kind of meandering and fixation on city life that mimics the style of a street photographer.2 As a manuscript, On the Road is famous for the manner in which it was presented to its publisher: a 120-foot long single-spaced paragraph typed on scroll paper. Kerouac's writing was also highly informed by his obsession with jazz music, specifically, bebop jazz. Inspired by Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, in his writing Kerouac created rhythmically complex, improvisational approaches to prose. In Kerouac's books, words are used like music notes: they spit, fly past their pages and do not follow conventional forms of grammar, spelling and paragraph editing. Instead, Kerouac's words are linked together by their sounds, their beats, their moods. Kerouac's spontaneous style allowed his memories to flow onto the page without any editing. This lack of editing proves highly challenging for filmmakers, as editing is a central component of cinema. In order to accurately represent Kerouac's unedited and impressionistic prose, the filmmaker must use editing techniques to make moving images appear as though they are organised in a fleeting, random order, rather than appear as tightly constructed and pre-planned.
During the pre-production of On the Road, director Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera used the original 1951 typewriter scroll and the 1957 published version of On The Road as primary source material, rather than relying on any of the earlier screenwriting attempts; thus, On the Road makes a specific attempt to put in touch Kerouac's personal obsessions with the modernised, contemporary era the film is being produced within.3 One obsession of Kerouac's that Salles and Rivera focused on was the author's search for the spiritual essence which inhabits all creation. Despite identifying as Buddhist later in his life, Kerouac was a devoted Catholic from childhood and he was greatly concerned with the concept of suffering on Earth as some sort of redemptive human quality. As a child, Kerouac often prayed to his favourite Catholic saints, St Francis of Assisi and St Thérese, and he also had a personal collection of holy pictures and statues he kept of them both.4 A scene that displays Kerouac's fixations most explicitly happens in the final third of Salles' film, in which the lead characters Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) find themselves at a whorehouse somewhere in Mexico. When the characters enter the building, Salles combines Kerouac's passion for jazz and his Catholic upbringing together to display a swirl of light and dark contrasts that display the wealth of Kerouac's aesthetic and rhythmic influences.
When Sal and Dean enter the whorehouse, both men think they have found "the light": an excess of uninterrupted fun, free-flowing alcohol and women. The men have entered a whorehouse entitled El Paraíso, which roughly translates to "paradise" or "heaven" in English. But, what kind of heaven do we see here? Inside the whorehouse, the mise en scène is dominated by the colour red. Badly cut pieces of sheer red material hang as makeshift curtains on all the windows, turning the sun's outside glow into a red, hazy stain inside the rooms. In the shot, Salles' camera frantically pans, diagonally zooming in and cutting rapidly to capture the entire phenomena of the house. One cut is of a close-up of a traditional Mexican painting showing a naked man foregrounded against a black background, drawing our eye to a bright red water cup that he is holding. What is quenching his thirst? Another cut finds Salles' camera closing up on another painting depicting five pin-up girls sitting in a line wearing frilly red dresses. We then see five Catholic statuettes (four are praying angels, the fifth is of St Francis of Assisi) foregrounded against a statue of a bronze crucifix and a Spanish painted icon of Jesus of Nazareth. What is crucial to note about the statuettes is that each one has a tiny piece of cotton material wrapped around its eyes. While the statuettes are all blinded, the eyes of Jesus on both the crucifix and icon remain uncovered. Some eyes are kept in the shadows, while others witness all that happens inside El Paradiso.
Upon entering El Paradiso, Sal and Dean begin to dance to a highly charged jazz track lead by charging bongo drums. Dean's body moves feverishly and wildly as he follows the rhythm of the song. The camera zooms in on their bodies – we see their sweat glistening and illuminated like the free-flowing alcohol under the glowing red light. While dancing, Dean's head moves back and forth jerkily, he sticks out his neck and swerves his shoulders side to side ignoring the rhythm of the women dancing to a different beat beside him. Can Dean's rhythm be heard by all inside the whorehouse or is it just inside his head? Is he improvising his movements or is he performing a dance he has seen before? Dean is a stark contrast to the painting of the pin-up girls that hangs on the walls who are all sitting in the same pose. Underneath the dark red glow, Dean is free from order, from convention – both musical and personal.
The beauty of Walter Salles' On the Road is that it is a great invigoration of the specific filmic, musical and literary rhythm of Jack Kerouac. Salles' film is not asking from its audience to critique the lifestyles of the protagonists, nor does the film demand dense political knowledge to understand its narrative motivations. The film simply asks for the view to join in and participate with its rhythmic journey, the love of Kerouac's prose in film form.