As someone fascinated by the Beat Generation, its auteurs and their Bay Area haunts, I’m probably the ideal target for director-screenwriter Michael Polish’s faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel, Big Sur.
The source material, for all of its stream-of-consciousness poetics, is considered at least semi-autobiographical in its portrayal of the by-then-renowned author’s unstable mental state a number of years after his seminal novel On the Road began serving as a de facto primer for the youthful seekers of the 1950s — some of whom came to be known as beatniks. It would go on to inspire the beatniks’ subsequent hippie brethren in the 1960s, but for the hard-drinking, nomadic, and admittedly “bored and jaded” Kerouac, the fame of On the Road would become a burden by the time he was in his 40s. From all accounts, it appears that On the Road set an artistic standard he could never live down — nor, in his mind, could he live up to the power and reputation embodied in such an influential work.
Big Sur the movie deals with the time when, plagued by angst and self-recrimination, Kerouac took advantage of an offer from his friend and colleague Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The acclaimed poet, publisher and proprietor of the landmark San Francisco book store City Lights, Ferlinghetti owned a cabin in the sylvan glades of Big Sur, down the coastline from San Francisco, and he offered it as a getaway to Kerouac. Though Kerouac was torn, frayed, and more than likely to get hammered and pass out in a Skid Row flophouse, he did go to the Big Sur cabin on a few occasions — alone and with his running mates, including Neal Cassady who was the legendary real-life model for free-booting Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Out in the beauty of nature, Kerouac still agonized, but his Big Sur experiences and his fitful romance with Neal’s mistress back in S.F. are represented as fuel for the novel Big Sur that seems to have been largely nonfiction.
Rather than use the book’s fictionalized names in his film version, Polish couches the movie as a hither-and-yon docudrama about Kerouac and the people in his life at that time. It shimmers with exquisite cinematography depicting the truly lovely coastal vistas in and around Big Sur, and gains verity from period-dressed location shooting in San Francisco (including sequences at the revered City Lights Books and the beloved Tosca Cafe). There’s even a witty anecdote recounted by a Kerouac crony who attributes the tale to none other than Herb Caen. But Polish’s Big Sur is also heavy with word-jazz narration adapted from the book and delivered with appropriate disenfranchisement and pain by Jean-Marc Barr, whose performance as Kerouac is the weary soul of the film. It’s not so easy to gain sympathy for a self-loathing talent whose success hasn’t brought him happiness, but Barr creates a compelling figure on a downward spiral.
In general, the cast does right by the material. In addition to Barr’s rough, tattered, reluctant sage and herald of a generation, there’s rowdy Josh Lucas as good ol’ boy adventurer Cassady (fuming under his cavalier exterior); Radha Mitchell as Cassady’s lovely but long-suffering wife, Caroline; a luminous Kate Bosworth as pretty, tormented Billie, Cassady’s mistress turned Kerouac’s lover; and Anthony Edwards, avuncular and steadfast as still-living legend Ferlinghetti.
We get drunken revels at house parties populated by tormented artists and their acolytes, and road trips along craggy cliffs overlooking the beautiful churn of the Pacific under glorious Central Coast skies, often to the sound of cool be-bop. There are muted confrontations between Kerouac and Cassady. There are Kerouac’s enlightened or twisted moments of solitude. Driven mad by notoriety, his words are as much a nihilistic, anti-celebrity manifesto as an outpouring of sadness from a man uncomfortable in his own skin and unwilling to embrace praise and favor.
If anyone thought the book Big Sur was unfilmable due to its episodic, fragmented, anecdotal, philosophical nature, Polish evidently disagreed. His first splash as a filmmaker was directing the 1999 festival and art-house sensation, Twin Falls Idaho, wherein he also played one of a set of conjoined twins alongside his actual brother (and co-screenwriter) Mark Polish. So there’s no way that Big Sur could have been an insurmountable challenge. As for any suggestion of the material being too dated, naive or innocent in its occasional notes of ecstatic Zen spiritualism, it should be noted that the Beats may just be getting their due on the big screen these days. In fact, Big Sur is coming on the heels of Kill Your Darlings – a fine feature about the early, tumultuous days of Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsburg in New York City during the late 1940s. The latter is far more of a conventional narrative than Polish’s film, yet even taken as a sort of visual tone poem, Big Sur moved me.