Much like Kerouac’s other works I’ve read (so far On The Road and The Dharma Bums) Big Sur starts off with a something of a combination feel that seemed to typify the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. Weaving poetic words in a semi-prose style, he gives us an insight into a people, a place and time that may, or may not, be a kind of twisted documentary.
In the novel this comes in his typical form of representing real people with pseudonyms and highlighting certain aspects of their characters and giving them his own words to make the points he wishes to make, all in a style that led to him being known as ‘King Of The Beats’.
Specifically in Big Sur he uses this style to take us into late San Francisco’s North Beach in the late 1950s. With the City Lights Bookshop now established and the big names of the movement national celebrities, Kerouac (in the book rendered Duluoz) is the most famous thanks to his television appearances. From North Beach he takes us to a cabin at the titular location south of “Frisco” where he begins writing.
In essence Big Sur begins as a book about its own writing but soon becomes something so much more. An exploration of the cult of celebrity, in an earlier form than we see it now, and the effects of alcoholism, would be a very obvious way to describe it.
In Kerouac’s hands this is rendered in such a poetic way as to really give the feeling of the ups and downs of his (Duluoz’s) life at the time and build on what his previous writing had in telling us about himself.
Thrown in with this we get elements of the travelogue seen in his other work, particularly On The Road, but he also veers further in Burroughs-esque directions as well, with moments where the real world and his protagonist’s twisted perception merge and the reader is left unsure where supposed reality and, for want of a better word, nightmare begin and end.
As with the other works of Kerouac’s I’ve read, alongside his ability to really paint pictures of places and evoke the moods and feelings of them, it is his use (or misuse) of traditional grammar that stands out as a highlight. Doing this is what brings out the book’s poetic feeling that runs throughout as Kerouac uses his own sense of grammar, individual to this work, to make his point.
As the story goes on things become increasingly oppressive and the writing seems to speed up with this, really bringing across the sense of panic and paranoia being felt by Duluoz, and it reaches a terrific crescendo that almost becomes unbearable for the reader as much as it is for the writer/character.
While I would say it is the least enjoyable of the three of Kerouac’s works I’ve read thanks to its oppressive denoument, it is, in a literary sense, possibly more coherent and certainly just as successful in painting its picture and making its point.
Much like the other Beat works I’ve looked at, translating this onto film is something hard to envision and, while Naked Lunch and Howl take very different approaches to this, both all but rewriting their sources to create something of the same essence but ultimately different, in his 2013 film of Big Sur writer/director Michael Polish gives a very literal interpretation.
Ditching the pseudonyms we follow Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) from San Francisco to Big Sur and trace the exact same story in the real locations – though I had a feeling we were looking at City Lights now rather than in the late 1950s, but the rest felt authentic.
Unfortunately in doing this Polish skims over a lot of the source to an extent that, particularly in the middle section, things are rushed and scenes happen with no clear relevance to the whole. At only an hour and 20 minutes there certainly could have been scope to expand some of this to at least have it flow together more coherently.
Another problem is that while the visuals do show much of Kerouac describes something is lost in simply seeing it. While its clear Polish is trying to evoke something of the feeling and thought of the original words, it doesn’t quite work, leaving some nice and well shot scenery if little else.
Where the film does succeed is in creating an increasingly oppressive atmosphere as it builds to its own crescendo, with Kerouac’s ‘long dark night of the soul’ at the cabin at Big Sur being as well translated to screen as I think could be possible.
While the film is far from a masterpiece it is also far from a failure, but it stands in the long, heavy shadow of an impressive piece of writing that, while not Kerouac’s best, is certainly a literary tour de force giving a real representation of both the writer’s own life and that of the Beat movement he came to personify.