Storylines In Review

 

This site looks at popular storylines, covered in our various linked feature pages.  
 2017 Blog Posts continued
On The Road At 60
- The ‘road trip’ storyline is still rolling along, 60 years after Kerouac’s classic work was published.

 

Left: The budding writer at work. A pair of screenshots from the 2012 film adaptation by Jose Rivera
Sixty years ago this month, in September 1957, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was finally published. I say ‘finally’ as it took a while to find a publisher. The 4 road trips it covered, mostly between New York and San Francisco via Denver, had occurred back in 1947-50. Using notebooks kept on these trips, Kerouac compiled his account in 1951 in a single month of almost nonstop typing (supposedly @ 100 wpm - he didn’t even put in paragraph breaks), reliving the experience fuelled by Benzedrine. Though he used pseudonyms for himself and his co-protagonists, it’s mainly a straightforward autobiographical account. It was also naively romantic in a way that can be contrasted with the 2013 Coen brothers film about the early-60s Greenwich Village folk-music scene, Inside Llewelyn Davies, which culminates in a miserable winter-time NYC-Chicago road trip. Kerouac tended to be uncritical about his longtime road-trips buddy ‘Dean Moriarty’ [= Neal Cassady, 1926-68], who hustled, stole, was a bigamist who dumped pregnant women etc.

There are several differing accounts of what Kerouac typed his book on, varying from a roll, or rolls, of newsprint, butcher paper, or teletype paper. The back-cover photo here [mouse over] suggests it was the 8 rolls of tracing paper, which he then scotch-taped together to form a single 120-foot roll. This process is shown at the end of the 2012 version. He submitted the taped-together roll to several publishers, some of whom seem to have been offended by the delivery format (this is shown in the 1980 biopic Heart Beat, written by director John Byrum).

Truman Capote famously said, “That’s not writing, 'that's typing,” implying it was nothing but typed-up diaries. But this begs the question, assuming the original journals were the usual factual accounts we see in diaries. In fact it’s a writers’-notebook style early draft, and almost the only changes were that fictional pseudonyms were substituted for his friends’ real names at the publisher’s insistence. (Some sex encounters were also cut.) Kerouac had earlier published a more conventional novel to faint praise, and the road-trip notebooks became the basis of an honest account of youthful experience, all the more remarkable for being written in a language that was not the author’s first (he was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac to French Canadian parents, speaking a Quebecois dialect called Joual). He also tried several earlier drafts before his benzedrine-fuelled marathon transcribing the original notebooks. These were written as if they were letters to a friend. The famous 120’-long scroll was eventually sold for £1.68m /$2.43m, and in 2007 became the basis of Penguin’s 50th-anniversary On The Road: The Original Scroll, so readers can judge for themselves.


Kerouac's 'spontaneous prose' style was facilitated when he found a way to avoid having to stop typing to change and align typewriter sheets. This (and some coffee and benzedrine pills) allowed him to complete a draft of On The Road in 20 days.
Left: Screenshots from the 2012 film adaptation showing the scroll in use.


In September 1957, it became an overnight success after the appearance of a milestone review in the NY Times. (“the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as "beat", and whose principal avatar he is'.”) Kerouac could have said the same thing as Lord Byron: “I awoke one morning, and found myself famous,” when the first two parts of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” appeared in 1812, his autobiographically-based epic poem about a disillusioned youth’s travels on the Continent. In other words, after years of struggle, at age 35 Kerouac became an overnight celebrity, with little hope of an ordinary private life from then on. (Byron fled his new-found fame or notoriety back to the Continent in 1816, where he threw himself into supporting the Greek independence struggle, and died in 1824 of sepsis, age 36.) Kerouac married three times, had one child (whom he refused to acknowledge), and when he died in 1969, he was living in Florida with his 3rd wife and his ailing mother. He died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, an angry alcoholic with a penchant for barroom brawls (his conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism doesn’t seem to have helped calm him down), unable to come to terms with his celebrity status and the hostile caricaturing of him as 'King of the Beatniks'. He did nevertheless complete the balance of his sequence of autobiographical novels in the 60s - Big Sur (1962), Desolation Angels (1965), Satori In Paris (1965), and Vanity Of Duluoz (1968). ('Jackie Duluoz' was Kerouac's preferred pseudonym for himself, supplanting the original 'Sal Paradise' he used in On The Road. His publishers insisted he use a different pseudonym in each novel for each of his friends depicted -online listing here.)


Kerouac's companions and intimates, male and female, also wrote accounts over the years of their road trips and lives together. The last to do so was 'Marylou' [LuAnne Henderson], the first, teenage, wife of 'Dean' [Neal Cassady], in 2011. Second wife Carolyn Cassady ['Camille'], titled her own 1996 memoir Off The Road, her earlier 1980 account of her life, as part of a threesome with Kerouac and Cassady, Heart Beat, loosely adapted for the screen in 1980.


On The Road launched the notion of the ‘Great American Road Trip’ as a youthful rite of passage, a breakout from normal society, a attempt to “find yourself”. Soon, journalists were using the term The Beat Generation for disaffected youth wanting nothing to do with the smug materialist side of Eisenhower-era, full-employment postwar America. What were termed, collectively and unsympathetically, as ‘Beatniks’ (the –nik suffix implied they were Commie-influenced, un-American) appeared as characters in many mainstream works through the 50s and early 60s. These books were mainly set in the Bohemian neighbourhoods of NYC, San Francisco etc, and did not use the ‘road trip’ storyline per se. Nor did Kerouac use it again, but it had caught on as an idea, in contemporary life as well as literature. (Many years later, I myself was drawn into this scenario, with a road trip to San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop - run by another Beat poet - and Big Sur when I was 19.)


A notable mainstream follow-on example of the ‘road trip’ storyline, route 66 (CBS-TV 1960–1964), was similar enough Kerouac wanted to sue. The co-protagonist, Buzz Murdoch, has swatches of ‘poetic’ dialogue written by showrunner Stirling Silliphant, and is played by an actor who resembled both Kerouac and Neal Cassady. However his co-protagonist is a nice college boy and they drive a new Corvette, working in temporary blue-collar jobs to pay their costs. (Its 116 episodes were filmed on location around the US, on and off the actual Route 66, which runs SW from Chicago.) Sponsored by Chevrolet, it was a cleaned-up mainstream version of the storyline with a more middle-class appeal – no drugs or sexual promiscuity here.

The death earlier this year of actor-singer Michael Parks prompted obits mentioning his 26-episode tv series Then Came Bronson, created by Denne Bart Petitclerc, about a newspaperman who drops out and heads off across America on a motorbike after a friend’s suicide. Again, there are no drugs or promiscuity, only the protagonist helping others he meets along the way with their life crises. Its oddly self-aware title implies the protagonist is joining in the scenario somewhat late in the run, in this case 1969, the year of the ultimate motorcycle ‘freedom rider’ version of the road-trip film, Easy Rider. In fact Parks, for a while considered James Dean's successor, had appeared in an earlier road-trip story, the 1965 Wild Seed. This was based on a 1957 script originally developed for Brando, as a young drifter who befriends a teenage runaway hitch-hiking and riding the rails cross-country to California. Brando had already appeared as a leather-jacked motorbike gang leader in The Wild One in 1953, and Kerouac had written to him about playing the lead in a planned film of On The Road.

The ‘road trip’ storyline itself doesn’t depend on the characters having a car, and characters can take a train, (including by ‘riding the rails’ hobo-style aboard a freight train), hitch-hike, take the bus cross-country etc. For his own trips, Kerouac himself went by car, took a Greyhound coach (“riding the dog”), and occasionally hitch-hiked, while onscreen characters use these and other modes of travel, from backpack camping to 'camper 'vehicles. The first work to utilise the latter I’m aware of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search Of America (1962), where the author’s cross-country road trip with his dog Charley provided the framework for a snapshot of backroads America in 1960. This was in contrast to Kerouac and his companions, who never display any interest in the people they met en route. The ‘truck camper’ (basically a contoured caravan body mounted on a pickup truck) was a uniquely comfortable mode of transport for road trips, and was soon being mass-produced. Steinbeck had his custom built and named it after Don Quixote's steed Rocinante - which may have a covert literary clue to the book’s real nature as largely a work of the imagination. In reviews of the 50th anniversary edition in 2012, I read that other writers who tried to follow Steinbeck’s route discovered it didn't add up - he probably invented much of the narrative. Steinbeck had earlier written The Grapes Of Wrath, which has a desperate Oklahoma family becoming one of many heading west on Route 66 for California to get jobs picking fruit, after their farm business is wiped out in the 30s ‘Dust Bowl’ disaster. He had researched the ‘Okies’ migrant farmworkers phenomenon while working for a San Francisco newspaper, and the bestselling, multiple award-winning novel (filmed in 1940) had a major impact, drawing attention to political corruption as well as administrative incompetence. (After the book came out, the local police tried to frame him on a rape charge using a prostitute; luckily he was tipped off.) Here, a still from the 1940 film scripted by Nunnally Johnson and directed by John Ford, showing the family pickup truck piled high with furniture.

Particularly in the US, the ‘road trip’ storyline expanded in the 1970s beyond youthful-dropout setups to include middle-age crisis and senior-citizen retirement-break scenarios, and its continuing popularity (rather than just the so-called “Kerouac industry” literary cult) is today the best testimonial to Kerouac’s influence.

In the past 5 years, we have had a cycle of road-trip filmed works including a couple of off-road variants (no motor vehicles involved) about characters on overland backpacking trips of self-discovery. Steinbeck’s “Travels With…” title formula had been inspired by Travels With A Donkey In The Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson's 1879 account of a 12-day 200km foot journey regarded as the pioneering work in the long-distance-hike subgenre of travel books. (Thoreau’s outdoors-walk accounts predate it but seem not to have been so well-known then.) Wild (2014) was adapted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir of her 1995 self-rehab hike up the Pacific Crest Trail to Canada, and the 2015 film of satirical travel writer Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods was the realisation of Robert Redford’s longtime project to adapt it. Bryson was born the year On The Road was published and had earlier written The Lost Continent, about a series of road trips (totalling over 13,000 miles) trying in vain to discover the small-town America he had seen in Hollywood films. In Redford’s case, the project took so long to be realised that planned co-lead Paul Newman had died, and the character motivation moved from midlife restlessness to a near-retirement-last-chance-to-see one.

Since the 50th anniversary of the book in 2007, there have been new biographies, some becoming the basis of new dramas. Kerouac appears in several of these (Howl, Kill Your Darlings, Big Sur), though none are a direct adaptation of his novels. Nevertheless, On The Road itself was finally filmed, after a long series of aborted attempts going back to the late 50s, in 2012. This was backed by Francis Ford Coppola (who had written and directed an early realist road-trip film, the 1969 The Rain People), being then scripted by his producer-son Roman Coppola. It would be ultimately directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles from an adaptation by Jose Rivera, the pair having previously collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), about the 1950 road trip the young Che Guevara took through South America. The script used the uncut 'scroll' version as source, plus other material when the original narrative proved too elliptical.

Left and below: Their take-away reading was Swann's Way, Vol. I of Proust's 7-volume In Search Of Lost Time aka Remembrance of Things Past. Kerouac would also attempt a novel-sequence in his own work.


By the time On The Road was filmed, it was a period piece rather than a contemporary-set work. (It was largely filmed in Canada, where the roads are less busy.) Today, there are still contemporary-set road-trip stories about the same generation characters - no longer youthful protagonists, but ageing baby-boomers.
 

Left: the finale of the 2012 adaptation. Budding author 'Sal Paradise' looks out over his scroll, remembering his past adventures, though he also consults his travel notebooks for times and places, which the film identifies with onscreen titles. (Mouse over to see 2nd image.)

Current and upcoming contemporary-set examples (with ageing baby-boomer protagonists) of the storyline include:
The Time Of Their Lives
(2017), written by director Roger Goldby, has a pair of retirement-age women, one an ex-Hollywood star (played by Joan Collins), travelling from England to France for her onetime-lover's funeral.

Our Souls At Night, released this month from the posthumously-published novel by Kent Haruf, has two small-town neighbours (played by Fonda and Redford) joining forces, ultimately for a final visit, in his pickup truck, to relatives. (See images at left.)
Also out this autumn, The Leisure Seeker, from a 2009 Michael Zadoorian novel, has an elderly couple (played by Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) take a final road trip south down Route 66 to the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West as she has terminal cancer and he has Alzheimer's.
(See images at left.)
Being released in November, Last Flag Flying, scripted by director Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan from his 2005 novel, a sequel to his 1970s military-escort train-trip drama The Last Detail, has the ex-military buddies drive a coffin home.
... Given that this wave of postwar baby boomers who grew up on Kerouac are now hitting retirement age, it wouldn’t be surprising if there more such last-chance road-trip dramas to come.

From The Mountains Of Kong To The Mountains Of Madness
-In putting together our feature case-study page for the 'expeditionary' storyline on how writers have adapted the key 'gateway barrier' scene, it's notable how the conception has expanded from [often exaggerated] natural features, such as cliffs or gorges, to psychological, cultural or spiritual obstacles.
For example, old maps of Africa showed an extensive E-W range of mountains in West and Central Africa, named The Mountains of Kong, which we now know to be nonexistent - merely a range of low hills on the savannah. They did give us a headline name for an iconic 1933 expeditionary film and its central character. (The name itself came from a root which also appears in the name of the ruling tribal kingdom which survived in the name of the Congo River to the southeast.) Likewise, the mountain-gorilla species on whom Kong is largely modelled is not as mindlessly aggressive (kidnapping women etc) as early explorers depicted, but behind the chest-beating bluff-charges, a rather gentle creature. The turning point in public recognition of this was probably David Attenborough's close encounter with them in BBC's 1979 Life On Earth, though the idea of the gentle primate (v murderous mankind) had been dramatised earlier, cf in Nigel Kneale's 1950s tv play and feature film The Abominable Snowman.
'Malevolent' nature is a worldview that no longer prevails, with everything in the wilderness simply out to kill you as soon as it sees you. But culture shock can be a real obstacle for the unwitting explorer. The idea that the local native lore about some remote spot is not simply mindless superstitious taboos but represents recognition of real supernatural or elemental forces is one that has been emerging in recent decades. Recently, filmmakers have been wrestling with how to adapt HP Lovecraft's 1930s novella At The Mountains Of Madness, where the alien and mutant horrors the expedition encounters shock the academics on it out of their orthodox assumptions about human evolution, and cause the survivors to discourage any further expeditions. The studio balked at director Guillermo del Toro's plan to make it a full-on R-rated horror, but I imagine its time will come soon. ... All this is by way of introduction to our feature case-study page for the 'expeditionary' storyline on its key 'gateway barrier' scene, here.
The Lost World Redux
The 1925 Lost World, the grand-daddy of expeditionary adventure films, was issued September 19 on a multi-region Blu-ray which is the fullest restoration thus far. The original 10-reel version of The Lost World was reportedly withdrawn when RKO bought the rights to it and Conan Doyle’s 1912 source novel to avoid litigation over their upcoming King Kong, which reuses a number of motifs. (As it says on the cover of some DVD issues, without it, we would not have had the 1933 King Kong - or Jurassic Park.) What remained in circulation was a 16mm 5-reel edition for film-society and club showings, part of a series of non-theatrical feature cut-downs issued by Eastman Kodak to help sell their line of Kodascope projectors. This is how I myself first saw it, via a 16mm print my father, an amateur projectionist, rented for club showings. Though I saw this over and over, I can’t recall how long it was. A standard theatrical reel was then 10 mins long, which would imply a 50-minute version, though silent films had no standard projection speed, with scenes shot at between 12 and 27 fps. The digitised versions of the Kodascope abridgement are in fact usually listed as running just over an hour. There’s an apocryphal story this became America’s first in-flight movie, back in the 1930s when cross-country passenger flights first really took off, so to speak.
Later there were much shorter 8mm ‘home collector’ versions, consisting of a few minutes of dino-scene ‘highlights’, the first of these being issued by Encyclopedia Britannica films, which offered both standard-8 and 16mm reduction prints of ‘educational’ titles. Attempts at restoration go back to the laserdisc era. Eastman Kodak had been involved in restorations of silent classics like Nanook Of The North for the non-theatrical market, and archivist David Shepard would describe the painstaking process in the newsletter/catalogue put out by Blackhawk Films, which sold both 8mm and 16mm copies. With the rise of digital media, the collectors’-print market died off, but archivist David Shepard carried on independently, and one of his projects, in conjunction with the George Eastman Museum, was reconstruction of The Lost World.

The discovery of a 90-minute print in the Czech film archive led to a Lumivision laserdisc in 1991, issued on DVD in 1997, with stills showing missing scenes. A 93-minute ARTE restoration in 2000, with newly discovered clips from 8 different international prints, followed, appearing on home video in 2001 and on DVD in 2003. There are still umpteen versions on offer, so care needs to be taken if not ordering the latest version, e.g. if you don’t have Blu-ray capability yet, only DVD; there’s a version-comparison reviews page here.

The new 2K restoration from Blackhawk Films, Lobster Films and Flicker Alley , which has a new full-orchestra underscore, premiered at the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The Deluxe Blu-ray Edition seems to run 103 minutes, though it is given on the packaging as 110. The hour-long versions focussed on the dinosaur scenes whose integrated stop-motion animation made the film such a hit. (Chief animator Willis O’Brien used the same techniques on King Kong – model figures with movable skeletal steel armatures, filmed one frame at a time, their position adjusted between each frame shot, on giant table-top sets, with some shots including the actors via split-screen shooting, then a new cinematic technique.)
The 2001 DVD Journal review of the first restoration noted:
screenwriter Marion Fairfax earned O'Brien's undying enmity by reassuring him that should his new animations end in failure, her scenario would get along just fine without him if the dinosaurs had to be left out. She needn't have bothered. Today, seeing the restored version, there are obvious continuity gaps — though much of what we are missing is not due to lost portions but rather to the original [i.e. Kodascope version] editors themselves, who probably left half of Fairfax's script on the cutting room floor.

Nevertheless, the presence of what the exhibitors termed “Love Interest” to broaden a film’s audience appeal (in this case, a young woman going on the trip in search of her missing explorer father) became a standard element. King Kong’s main scriptwriter Ruth Rose worked this ‘cross-sofa appeal’ into the story setup, where the nature-filmmaker protagonist is told to include this element in his next picture “Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at.” Thus was born the cinematic ‘jungle romance’. Here, we get a safari-romance type love triangle between young newspaperman Ed Malone, explorer’s daughter Paula White, and glamorous big-game hunter Sir John Roxton. At least the Paula White character is a lot less ridiculous than the female character in the next version, made in 1960, who flounces about the jungle in pink hot pants carrying a small white poodle, like something out of a Monty Python parody.

The new restoration, dedicated to David Shepard, who died this year, has a whole set of supplementary feature items, including out-takes or deleted scenes. The restored print has around 10 minutes of previously unseen footage, though the attack on the expedition’s river camp by the ‘cannibal’ tribe, which leads to the bearers deserting downriver, is still missing. (Only stills survive.) Also incorporated is a hand-tinted version of the scene where the allosaurus’ night attack on the camp is halted by a firebrand hurled into its jaws [clip here].

The pinnacle ascent / log bridge sequence is an example of the 'Gateway Barrier' Scene, a key scene for the Expeditionary Storyline – in fact we’ve put up a case-study page with examples of 10 different ways scriptwriters have set it up, here:
The Expeditionary Storyline | Case Study Page: The 'Gateway Barrier' Scene.

 







The new BRD cover is nothing special, just the 1925 poster image, so for our key image here I’m using the scene-setting shot which first appears under the main titles. (Mouse over image to see the 2nd pic.) This is the plateau ‘cut off from evolution for millions of years’ where dinosaurs have survived. You can see the pinnacle the party ascend by, using an improvised log bridge, at right. Below, you can see the handy tree the expedition cuts down, as a pterosaur flies off the plateau.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
Page Top    Return to Home Page  |   Email
Storylines In Review 2017