Thursday, March 27, 2014

Streaming those "Beat" boys again: In BIG SUR Michael Polish takes a different tack to Kerouac

What with Howl, On the Road, Kill Your Darlings and just recently the James Broughton doc Big Joy under our belts, some of us may have had enough of the so-called "beat generation." But it would a shame to miss BIG SUR, the under-seen and quickly disappeared movie by Michael Polish about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and a fellow new to me named Lew Welch that, in a certain fashion, proves the best of the lot. That fashion is not a popular one, however,  so watch this film with the understanding that it is basically a story of words and what writing does to and for Mr. Kerouac.The words are the important thing here -- more so than story, drama, conflict, and most anything else one usually finds in our favorite movies.

With this film Mr. Polish continues his 15-year career of making little-seen but occasionally commented-on small, independent films -- Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot, Northfork, The Astronaut Farmer, among others -- that go their own (and his own) way, audiences be damned or entertained, as the case may be. Here, it seems that Polish wanted to place the words first and foremost and have all else -- especially visuals and performances -- follow from those words. The effect is alternately bracing and a little crazy-making because what's missing here is drama and conflict, though all else is in place.

Actually, the conflict is here, too, but it is all internalized within the character of Kerouac (very well played, by the way, by German-born international star Jean-Marc Barr, who has worked mostly in France, where he has acted, written, directed, produced, photographed and even edited films). While this internalization pretty much saps Big Sur of conventional "drama," it lets Kerouac's words take pride of place as few other movies have allowed.

Kerouac becomes a kind of narrator here, telling us his own story, and it turns out he's scared to death -- of death. His words become a kind of wall of blather against this fear. (And what words can't manage, liquor does the rest.)  It's all most impressive, moving and ridiculous, rather, I suspect, like the man himself.

Kerouac was sexy and sexual, impressive, intelligent, kind, caring and crazy, and so the other characters act as satellites circling him. Even, Cassady (as played by the always fine Josh Lucas, above, right), usually seen as Kerouac's sun, here takes a back seat to our boy. But by now, Neal's bloom may be beginning to fade a bit. Anthony Edwards is aces as Ferlinghetti, and as Welch, the more versatile than you'd imagine Patrick Fischler surprises -- and then some.

Balthazar Getty, Henry Thomas and John Robinson makes up the rest of the gang, with the women's roles entrusted to Kate Bosworth (above), Radha Mitchell (two photos above, with Lucas) and Stana Katic. Everyone is on their mark, but it M. Barr who nails the movie.

The look of the film is quite fine, too: cars, clothes, hairstyles -- everything brings back the 1950s, whether you liked 'em or not, and the location cinematography is utterly beautiful in high definition. Given the gorgeous Big Sur scenery, this should be a shoo-in, of course.

The movie is also homo-erotic aplenty, without being homosexual. Both Jack and Neal want each other's women, and in the case of Billie (Ms Bosworth), this is arranged.  I would not have missed this film, and I suspect others my age will find themselves held in rapt attention. So we owe Mr. Polish a debt of gratitude for concentrating on Kerouac's words.

Big Sur is available now via Netflix streaming, and on DVD. It is also for sale (though not, it seems, for rental) via Amazon Instant Video.

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