Saturday, February 13, 2010
Jack: The Crack Up
A few days ago I posted my account of a recent quick trip to San Francisco, and I chose Jack Kerouac's Big Sur novel as a related visual. Taking my paperback copy down from the shelf and skimming the first few pages persuaded me that I should also reread it.
The very next day, by cosmic/karmic/Kerou(m)ac coincidence, at the CD store I came upon a new two-disc set titled One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, which offers a CD of the soundtrack music--composed and played by Jay Farrar (of the band Wilco) and Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie)--plus a DVD of that documentary, about Jack circa 1960 and his harrowing stay in a tiny cabin close to the booming Pacific south of Monterey, which in turn led to his writing the Sur book. Wheels within wheels... (A suitable image given "Ti Jean" Jack's paean to crosscountry hitching and driving, On the Road.)
Farrar's inspired idea was to take chunks of the book and set them to guitar-based music, shaping a dozen songs which provide another window into the names-changed memoir-novel, even though only a few of them wound up in the finished film. But for any fan of Farrar (or Gibbard), the disc is as compelling as that surprising cooperative venture some years back, titled Mermaid Avenue, when Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up to create new songs from unused lyrics by Woody Guthrie. The Kerouac songs have titles like "California Zephyr," "Breathe Our Iodine," "These Roads Don't Move," "Final Horrors," "Sea Engines," "The Void," and so on; and the titles alone suggest the sometimes lyric, more often paranoid, passages in the book--which chronicles Jack's alcoholic retreat from too much fame and success and his temporary hallucinatory collapse.
The documentary--by Kerouac Films, with Jim Sampas (a familiar surname in the saga of Jack) as Executive Producer and Curt Worden as Director--is simply brilliant. Gorgeous high-definition photography of San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula, a voiceover reader who sounds very much like Jack (maybe it is him, though one John Ventimiglia is listed as "Narrator"), on-camera interviews with writers and critics, actors and rock musicians and SF street-scene people, all of whom knew Kerouac or were influenced by his work. The result is a craftily constructed, cautionary tale of what happened to Jack and his chums during those few infamous weeks and how that story metamorphed into the novel he called Big Sur--considered his best work by some, however unlikely given the huge cultural impact of On the Road, but certainly Jack's last great book (even though followed by a good dozen posthumous, pulled-together tomes, popping up like tombstones for Ti Jean).
Among the distinguished commentators, who by the way do not sound stiff or academic at all, but boisterous and admiring and speculative and insightful instead, are poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti (owner of that primitive cabin) and Michael McClure, eccentric rockers Tom Waits and Patti Smith, actors Sam Shepard and Donal Logue, folkies Dar Williams and Jay Farrar himself, authors Aram Saroyan and S.E. Hinton, even Kerouac-haunted women Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady. The film drifts and surges like the Pacific, pauses then dances on; and it all goes by in the wink of a splendid summer's eye.
Maybe best of all, I'd say that One Fast Move is eminently suitable for repeat viewing. And anyone who screens it should also play the chunks of interviews offered as extras, unused because not specifically about Big Sur, but rollicking and entertaining additions to the Kerouac story nonetheless.