“The flat Hollywood characterization allows viewers to live vicariously through Ginsberg, Kerouac and the gang, but it almost mythicizes them. Hollywood digs right into the drama — catering to what people want to see — and ignores the very human parts of them. But it may be a hard balance to keep. Even when depicting that soul-searching, it’s easy to fall to sentiment. The Beat Generation’s search for belief ends up being something we believe in. We’re all drawn to the image of explorers after all: modern pilgrims, earnestly due west like Lewis and Clark in Mustangs, toward the unknown destination,” writes Karen Yuan in her closing paragraph to “Notebook: Hollywood shouldn’t glamorize the Beat Generation’s self-destruction” in The Michigan Daily.
With descriptions like “wide, fruited plains,” “all vintage Cadillacs and cigarette escapism,” and “slick cool and soft anarchy,” Yuan’s turns of phrases are beautiful in this article. I commend her attention to language in this journalistic essay about writers. It’s a breath of fresh air from so many dry works of criticism. Furthermore, she brings up a valid point on the complexity of Hollywood trying to encapsulate the human experience. Whether one is a so-called Beat, a journalist, or a movie-goer our lives cannot be easily summed up in one film or three films … or even several volumes of literature, as it may be. Yuan herself makes that very point when she says “But it may be a hard balance to keep.”
Consequently, she seems to have out-argued her own thesis, “However, what [Hollywood] doesn’t realize is that the Beats are nothing to be glamorized,” by acknowledging the intricacy of life and that portraying “clouds of brooding angst” doesn’t create balance or reality anymore than depicting “carefree, YOLO-esque youth” does. Though she rightly suggests the Beats’ perpetual movement is related to their “existential search,” it is unclear what she thinks a more accurate adaptation of On the Road or Big Sur would be or how the murder of David Kammerer should have been told.
I would argue that the film adaptation of On the Road did a fine job of showing both sides. It perhaps doesn’t do the existential search justice but there are intimations of it, particularly in the scenes when Sal Paradise hallucinates among the Catholic saints, with the insertion of Proust, and when Dean Moriarty confesses that he doesn’t know why he does the things he does. The go! go! go! mentality comes to a screeching halt in the closing scene, indicating that maybe all those wild times weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Meanwhile, Yuan says Kill Your Darlings contains “tantalizing hints of murder,” when in fact the film does not hint but tells of the events leading up to a murder that landed three of the Beats in jail, with one of them doing time in a reformatory. It does not paint any one character as the villain, but again shows that the people involved and the events that unfolded were complex. Existentialism is a recurring theme of the film as seen through the New Vision. I haven’t seen Big Sur yet, but I’ve read the reviews of the film, and it seems to me that it’s far from glamorizing Kerouac’s life. More so, I’ve read the novel twice and know that it’s actually the antithesis of glamorizing the Beat Generation machine.
So here’s the question … or rather, I should say questions: Is documenting a life, an event, or a novel automatically glamorizing it? Where is the line between telling the truth and glorifying—when storytelling? Do stories have to be redemptive? If they are not redemptive, must they be cautionary tales? If they do not fall into these categories, are we better off ignoring them?
The pastor of the church I grew up in used to say, “Ignorance is not bliss.” Being downright oblivious or purposely ignoring issues doesn’t make them go away. The truth of the matter is the “intrigue and montages of reckless drug use” were a part of the life of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and so forth. And I would gather that the parties and drugs and casual affairs were a lot of fun as they were happening. That’s why people do those things. To categorically demonize these things does a disservice to the truth. The truth of course is much more complex. Consequences aren’t always immediate or even a given. We can look now in hindsight at On the Road and know that Jack Kerouac died at only forty-seven years old, after abusing alcohol. However, we can cast our collective eye on Burroughs and see a man who did a lot of hard drugs who didn’t pass away until he was eighty-three years old.
Yuan says, “They wanted to rebel against this new middle-class United States and find something new to believe in….” Today’s suburban teens and Ivy League undergrads may very well still be searching for something to believe in. I think the Beats’ stories go on, not because they glamorize illicitness, but because they speak to that very basic human need to feel like more than just a cog in the machine but like we’re actually living, that our lives have meaning. I think this is part of what Yuan is advocating for, and I think it’s actually there in the films and in the literature. It’s just not whitewashed, pristine, perfect. But then again, neither is life.
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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!