I didn’t have a costume for Halloween. I did, however, attend a horror show, in the form of a documentary called One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. After a short junior high love affair with On the Road, I’ve never been particularly interested in Jack Kerouac. But I didn’t have anything else to do, and I miss California, and I thought I could enjoy the scenery and learn a thing or two. In retrospect, I think that my past disinclination to revere Kerouac stemmed from a spooky presentiment that a movie like this would be made about him. The promise of this foul enterprise lurked in every high school yearbook page, in every reference to the mad ones and the roman candles and the burning sensation. In this film, all of the maudlin silliness which Kerouac unwittingly spawned is made manifest.
The premise of the film is as follows: Several fixtures from Kerouac’s life (Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others) were interviewed about Kerouac and specifically, his breakdown in Big Sur. Additionally, a bewildering crew of actors and artists was assembled and given a paperback copy of the book. I’m sure the people involved are great people and good performers in their respective milieux, but they were such a very motley crew, with so little obvious connection to the work and people and places involved, that it was comically weird and distracting. Instead of listening to their insights about Kerouac (such as they were), I spent a lot of time racking my brain, trying to figure out if Donal Logue was in The Lord of the Rings (he’s not).
There is also Amber Tamblyn (her dad was Dr. Jacoby on Twin Peaks, and she is particularly criminal in this movie when she shakes her head and says “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack,” as though he had once taken a pair of her underpants), John Ventimiglia (who was on The Sopranos and has a very nice reading voice), S.E. Hinton (she wrote The Outsiders, which is neat), Aram Saroyan (minimalist poet, novelist, son of William), and Dar Williams (a singer-songwriter who is responsible for the shocking nadir of the film, when she cries on camera). Then there are Tom Waits and Patti Smith, whom I suspect were brought in because they are perceived as having a never-ending fund of “cred.” I have seen Fishing With John, and I know that Tom Waits is a veritable one-man cred festival, but all he does here is flip pages and rub his face and growl.
I will say, though, that Tom Waits did have the good sense not to participate in the beach bonfire, during which some members of the crew hang out in the sand, drink, and talk about Jack (Jack, Jack, Jack). Which was probably really fun to do, but is excruciating to watch.
To make things even more confusing, sometimes you hear this crooning, and you think, “Is that the guy from Death Cab for Cutie,” and it is that guy.
This is a cast that, when describing the purportedly tragic death of Kerouac’s cat, not only makes it not sad, but actually raises a chuckle from (at least two) members of the audience. The film also does the near-impossible and makes San Francisco and Big Sur look hideous. Perhaps this was to show the twisted darkness of Jack Kerouac’s soul. I’m not sure, but the whole thing is very grainy and made for unpleasant viewing.
Carolyn Cassady was a highlight of the film. For one, people who knew the subject are always more interesting to hear from than someone who was on hundreds of unrelated TV shows long after the subject’s death. Also, Carolyn Cassady had relations with both Neal Cassady and Kerouac, and it’s neat to hear what she has to say about it all (I think what she actually says on that particular aspect was something like “It was nice for me,” which I thought was a hoot, especially since it came after a shot of the famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, this photo being why I think they invented the lewd expression about wanting to be the meat in a given sandwich.)
My understanding is that Kerouac and his contemporaries were zany and drug-addled and sometimes brilliant and sometimes just crazy, and as such there are a multitude of stories and anecdotes about all of them; it’s an embarrassment of riches. This movie, in trying to showcase a handful of the riches, is mostly just an embarrassment (I don’t know what Dar Williams’ music is like, but I’m telling you, the crying scene was very, very bad).
I was moderately happy I saw it, though. It is kind of an unintentional laugh riot. Also, the production and most of the commentary are so comically bad that they highlight Kerouac’s writing, which in part narrates the action (such as it is). I have avoided Kerouac’s work for so long that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, how startling and beautiful it can be, even if it is often responsible for bone-chilling jazzy readings and scat flights.
It is marginally interesting to hear from the people who knew Kerouac. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with making a movie about how a group of unrelated randoms perceive a particular work. This group, though, was like a drunken, barely-prepared book club, whose members interrupt one another to say “Oh shit! I loved that part! That was so awesome!” Which, as I said, is fun to do and not fun to watch.
Two thumbs down!