Monday, November 22, 2010

Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and James Franco Should Team Up To Make Jack Kerouac's “On The Road”

By Lars Trodson

“I hope you get where your going and be happy when you do.”

It sounds like an Irish blessing, something that has come down to us over the years, something that is said when people get married, have a drink, consecrate a death, or begin a journey. “I hope you get where your going and be happy when you do.” How much more simple and beautiful can you get?

But it isn’t an ancient blessing. It’s a throwaway line in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” -- appearing on page 134 of the scroll version, and it's said by an old hobo called Mississippi Gene that’s hitching a ride on the back of a truck out in the midwest. (The spelling used in the phrase is Kerouac's.) It’s good, practical advice, something that sounds right coming out of the American mid-west at night, and I suppose this is what made me think of Clint Eastwood, and made me think that if there was anyone on the planet that could turn “On The Road” into an honest movie it would be him.

Eastwood may be the last living, working American filmmaker who was around at the time the book takes place. He must have heard that language spoken in the book as it was actually spoken and travelled the open roads the story takes place on. “On The Road” was written between 1947 and 1949. This is a story of Wild West Week in Montana and old Indians hanging out at bus stations at night, and of off-road diners where you can buy beer at midnight.

Eastwood can remember that. He was born in San Francisco in 1930 and he would have breathed the same air and heard the same sounds Kerouac describes, like those parts when he’s stuck in Marin County and driving into San Francisco at night trying to pick up girls. Eastwood has that California cool in his bones. He’d be the perfect director for an “On The Road” film.

Neal Cassady
The heartbeat of the story is not just Kerouac, of course, who seems sadder and more disaffected in the scroll version than I remember in the heavily revised Viking version. There is also the famous madman Neal Cassady, who had a patois and joy of life that others around him (Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, etc.) found not only infectious but inspiring. Ginsberg wrote Cassady into “Howl” and of course Kerouac begins “On The Road” like this: “I first met Neal not long after my father died...I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead.”

Neal Cassady would reawaken Kerouac’s zeal for life, and you get a feel for Cassady when Kerouac writes down the way he speaks: “‘Now darling here we are in N(ew) y(ork) and although I haven’t quite told you everything that I was thinking about when we crossed the Missouri and especially at the point when we passed the Bonneville reformatory which reminded me of my jail problem it is absolutely necessary now to postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal lovethings and begin thinking of specific lifework plans...’” This is how Kerouac recorded Neal Cassady.

And this made me think of Jack Nicholson. Nicholson (born 1937) undoubtedly knew the beat scene of the late 50s and he certainly was familiar with Ken Kesey, of course, because he had played Randall Patrick MacMurphy and Cassady had been an integral part of Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s, having driven the bus. But that isn’t why I thought of Nicholson.

When you hear or read an interview with Nicholson he has that kind of speech that you hear Neal speak above: Nicholson has a very unique, very specific way of speaking -- something that rarely if ever comes through in his acting. It’s Nicholson jazz geometry. It’s concrete and oblique at the same time; and beautifully filligreed. And you never misunderstand what he’s saying. Nicholson has a fascinating personal language all his own. But since he’s also a writer, he would be the perfect writer to turn “On The Road” into a script.

Nicholson would get the hipster angle, and he would empathize (and probably sympathize) with the driving heartfelt artistry that is inside these characters, and their desire not to do what they are supposed to do but what they want to do. “This is the story of America,” Kerouac writes at one point. “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” Nicholson understands the burning need to not do what you’re supposed to do, but to do what feels right, and to have that turn out right.

“I have finally taught Neal that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud,” Allen Ginsberg says at one point about Neal Cassady. “But he keeps rushing out to the midget auto races.”

This conflict -- the outsider trying to play the insider's game -- is one that Nicholson has spent a lifetime delineating on film.

I was thinking then, as I read again through this beautiful book -- one that has eluded filmmakers for more than 50 years -- that Eastwood and Nicholson may be a great combination to give us this story on film.

We are also now blessed with an actor, James Franco, who would be perfect as Neal. Franco has that American handsomeness, and the keenness of mind and talent to play Neal Cassady.

This is my version of having a fantasy football league but only for movies. Eastwood at the helm, Nicholson as screenwriter (and playing Mississippi Gene so he can deliver that line), and James Franco as Neal Cassady.

One more thing: "On The Road", unlike "The Great Gatsby", still has relevance beyond the beauty of its language. The book still speaks to people on a visceral level. I realized this the other day when I went into Baldface Books, a used bookstore in Dover, NH, to get the standard paperback edition of "On The Road."

"I don't think I have any," said the owner who, in fact, didn't. "Anytime I get some copies, the kids come in and take them right off the shelves."