Directed by Michael Polish
Big Sur is a film adaptation of the Jack Kerouac autobiographical novel of the same name.
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★★★★★ review by Sean Balanger on Letterboxd
Thought I'd try to write a review for this film in a stream of consciousness style and already that idea seems to be wasted here. I've always found it hard to dig into Kerouac's writing because sometimes it never stops and goes on and on and on and there's no room for breathing and way too many ands and not enough periods. But with this film I feel like his writing wasn't written for me or for you or for anyone but Kerouac himself. It was him as a vessel of words and he let them drip and trickle and sometimes they flowed without abandon and sometimes they meant nothing but more often than not they held strange meaning, meaning that others have come to understand. So where I've had trouble with staying focussed on his writing, this film has lent something to it by accompanying Kerouac's thoughts with gorgeous displays of a natural landscape screaming freedom. There is music here too and it helps, it explains, it adds to the emotional depth the visuals are conveying. And Kerouac's stand-in is made to act through his narration moreso than by actually talking and he does so with bravado reading every line in such a staccato way that is actually reminiscent of the man he is emulating. My expectations for this film were low and mostly based on my inability to sink into Kerouac's style which I admire for its creativeness but despise for my own inability to connect all of the strands of thought. And of all of Kerouac's books, Big Sur would seem to be one with the least interesting visual associations. But this film found the right tone and the right visuals and when you add these visuals and an amazing score, it's hard not to be emotionally overwhelmed by it all. It blew me away and made me long for such a freeing experience to consume my life, my soul, and make me feel less out of touch with everything and everyone around me.
★★★★★ review by Sean Balanger on Letterboxd
I had to re-watch this and I'm glad I did. It was hard to catch some of what was said the first time through because it was so easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the voiceover narration. And I went into it this time knowing that the Dessner brothers Aaron and Bryce of the band The National composed the score. The score really had an impact on me the first time through as it felt both new and familiar and now I understand why. I'm a huge fan of the band Bryce and Aaron are in and I've seen them live countless times because the entire band is so emotionally charged in that setting. I've also been a fan of their more orchestral band Clogs for some time and have seen them play as well and it's a completely different experience than seeing The National. They have somehow turned the electric guitar into a classical instrument and I am always amazed by the pieces the create.
This film feels so unconventional to me. It is almost entirely narrated by voiceover and has this hauntingly beautiful score as a constant backdrop. The other thing that makes it unconventional is the incomplete plot. I wonder if this is why others might not take to the film as well, but then I also wonder how it's possible to love Kerouac's writing at the same time, which always feels to me like an ode to random thought without much connection anyway. There are other films out there that aren't based on books written in that style that attempt it and it comes out to be a garbled mess. For me, though, this film does have a plot and it is actually coherent. I've also read discouraging reviews mentioning the subject matter itself - the alcohol and hedonism. Typically, this kind of excess in film bothers me - unless there is a point being made about it. And Kerouac was writing about his lack of sobriety through the point of view of someone addicted and struggling to free himself of the burden his addiction had become. He also finds himself so far removed from society, a society that has come to love his mind and the products created by it. Did the fame and adoration drive him to alcoholism as a way to forget? It seems hard for just any person to read, hear, or see this and connect to it unless you're both famous and drunk. But for some reason he turns the situation into something more universal. He speaks of individualism in a society that is constantly changing, constantly expanding into something far too unknowable, unconnectable. And in speaking of his own alienation from that society he accidentally connects with anyone who can see the world in the same way. Big Sur is a place of great beauty and solitude and he seems disappointed in his inability to find absolute comfort within it. It seems hard if not impossible to escape the charms that come with urban life. But urban life can become just as overbearing as a life of solitude and finding the right balance between the two is difficult.
As I mentioned in my last review, I've always had a hard time focussing on his novels. It's weird to read something autobiographical yet fictionalized. It's weird to read so many names of so many people who also became famous for their writing and try to understand who they are only through his words. He treats them as if you should know them when only he really knows them. This film puts a face to some of those names for me. Oddly enough, they are the faces of the actors portraying those names and not the faces of the people themselves. But Kerouac was forced to use pseudonyms most of the time anyway so the names were fictionalized as well. So now I have some fictional faces to put to fictional names and I think I would feel more comfortable digging into the novel as a result of the film.
★★★½ review by frankielababa22 on Letterboxd
I was surprised by how much i enjoyed this. It cracks the code on how to bring Kerouac's work in a decently successful way, translating his stream of literary consciousness into filmic language rather well. It's miles better than the Coppola-produced On The Road adaptation.
It's constant back and forth between chaotic and jovial to dark, mid-life crisis territory is rather admirable in how well the editing works.
★★★½ review by Chuck Pedroza on Letterboxd
This one manages to get very near to the feeling of the book, but in a rather uncinematic way. Barr's portrayal of Kerouac is the closest one to the real thing I've seen in a film, and Cassidy is spot on as has been the norm. The cinematography is the jewel of this film.
★★★★ review by Aaron Mitchell on Letterboxd
I’m a sucker for the Beats, Jack Keroauc, Neal cassady, Bill Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Their books meant the most to me at a time when things meant the most to me. I carry a nostalgia for them that has not swayed in my eternal hunt across every new film about them, from Beat, to The Last Time I Committed Suicide, to Howl, to Naked Lunch to last year’s nervously awaited On The Road and even things like Drug Store Cowboy and all the accompanying documentaries.
This new movie has a flinch-y flavour to it that really illuminates the darkness of Kerouac’s story. As a stand alone piece, separate from it’s source material, I’d call it a success. Hairpiece aside, Jean-Marc Barr tells whole stories with just his eyes, often twinkling with regret, remorse, and sadness. The story itself is doesn’t have a lot to say, as Kerouac says himself in the movie – he spins language, he’s not an idea man. This is an emotive piece, devastatingly so, and so much of the experience depends on voice-on and the score, which is fantastic. This is also a glorious film to look at, and the cinematographer should be recognized. Director/writer Michael Polish has crafted a movie that can stand with the best of the beats’ transference to film. Take that as you may.
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