Home Video Hovel: Big Sur, by Sarah Brinks
I always feel a little twinge of guilt writing a review of a film whose major flaw is that I have no interest in the subject matter. Jack Kerouac is that subject matter in the case of Big Sur. I’ve never been drawn to his work and after watching Big Sur any curiosity has been squashed. Again I can’t blame the film; this is purely my bias. But in efforts to be honest in my review I think that bias should be clear up front.
Big Sur tells the story in Kerouac’s novel of the same title, in which Kerouac travels to a friends cabin in Big Sur, California three times. First Kerouac goes to the cabin alone, desperately seeking solitude. Kerouac’s success as an author has led to an undesired level of celebrity and attention from the press that he can’t stand. After falling victim to boredom, Kerouac returns to San Francisco and reconnects with friends and other poets/writers. He then goes back to the cabin with his friends for a drunken weekend. Afterwards, he is introduced to his friend’s mistress named Billy. After a whirlwind week Kerouac, Billy, Billy’s son Elliot and another couple go back to the cabin in Big Sur. Eventually, Kerouac has a breakdown and realizes it is time to return to the east coast.
Big Sur is beautifully filmed, especially Big Sur itself. The surf and the forest are lovingly shot. There are several uses of time-lapse photography that are meant to highlight Jack’s descent into madness and the loosening of his grip on reality. I personally could have watched ninety minutes of lovingly crafted shots of the Big Sur landscape instead of whiny beatnik poets, but I enjoyed the landscapes when I got them.
A major theme in the movie is the contrast between the public’s perception of Jack Kerouac and the real Jack Kerouac. The film opens with a Kerouac quote and it is later restated in the voice-over, that the world thinks that Jack Kerouac is still twenty-six year old and on the road all the time hitch hiking while he is almost forty, bored, and jaded. He even tries to hitch hike into the city when he leaves the cabin the first time. He is unlucky, as the tourist traffic is unwilling to pick up a hitchhiker. The film portrays Kerouac as a drunk with deep thoughts. People are desperate for his thoughts and approval, but his own self-loathing makes it almost impossible for him to respond. He is miserable alone and miserable around people. You often here him and many of his friends disparage the “beat movement” that they started.
The film does captures his neurotic nature. The pace of the editing and shot composition mirrors Kerouac’s mood and temperament. It shows how beatnik culture in a lot of ways is built on a fantasy. Kerouac may be a hero and the creator of the “beat movement” but he didn’t really have anything figured out and he lost himself down a bottle tying to be the Kerouac the world wanted and also rebelling against the Kerouac the world wanted.
I didn’t like any of the characters in the film, especially Kerouac and Billy, but the acting is strong. The most is asked of Jean-Marc Barr who plays Kerouac. His ‘drunk acting’ is believable and sad throughout the film. Anthony Edwards plays beat poet and cabin owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti; I haven’t seen Edwards on the screen in several years, so it was nice to see him again. Kate Bosworth plays Billy, who is beyond irritating and Kate Bosworth really nails it. She is the classic stereotype of the girl who falls in love too fast with a boy who can never love her back in the same way. So Billy spends most of her screen time either naked in bed or whining at Jack to love her.
Overall I have a really hard time recommending this film because I personally didn’t like it all. I was thrilled when it ended and I was able to stop watching these whiny alcoholics moan on and on about their hipster view of the world. Again, that is all my issue not the films. It is beautifully shot and directed, the acting is strong and if you are into Jack Kerouac the story is interesting. People like me, who just want to give beatniks a good slap and scream, “get over it, life is hard sometimes,” this is probably not the movie for you.