Thursday, November 15, 2012

On The Road and the romance of American nostalgia

I've had the upcoming film On The Road, directed by Walter Salles, in my peripheral vision. Now, at last, there's a nostalgia-infused preview on the front page of iTunes trailers, and I get to sample the tone of the film. It's hard for me not to be sarcastic about it... in some ways, it's comitragically predictable, peddling an Instagram aesthetic that the world should surely be getting tired of by now. On the other hand, this seems to be a rare case where that Instagram aesthetic is actually appropriate, as opposed to those photos of your take-out sushi dinner from last night. There's something sad about that, and it's not just the disappointed annoyance that comes from seeing a stylistic gimmick repeated ad nauseum. This is more bittersweet than that, because this movie might actually be pretty good.

I base that hopeful assessment off the shallowest indicators, the cast and the photography in this useless little two-minute snippet. This film brings together two actors -- Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart -- who seem to be pursuing some sort of elusive 20th-century romanticism, and it's exactly the right film for them to come together in this endeavor. I like Sam Riley a lot, purely on account of the one film I've seen him in... the film Control, directed by Anton Corbijn and released in 2007. In case you don't know about this (it's a bit high on the hipster obscurity scale), it's a film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the 80's goth punk band Joy Division. Sam Riley digs deep into Curtis's character, and discovers a pretty reprehensible human being, privately self-destructive and publicly poisonous. Anton Corbijn is an excellent photographer, and the film captures something singular about 1980's England and Manchester, about the decadent despondence in the angry counterculture that was active at the time.

Kristen Stewart is another matter, and I know she's the epicenter of a whole cottage industry of hatred. Still, she seems strikingly appropriate in On The Road, which is a fitting extension of her screen career. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and possibly offend a whole community of Kristen-haters, in order to suggest that Kristen Stewart is methodically and shrewdly constructing an acting persona which will give shape and resilience to her acting career. This persona is one of nostalgic American romance, and it links her historical roles (Joan Jett in Runaways) to her timeless youthful roles (Bella in Twilight, Em in Adventureland, and Tracy in Into The Wild). All these roles are sullen outsider teenagers with a baked-in awkwardness, which is also visible in Stewart's TV interviews. It's rapidly becoming clear that she can't break out of this style, and it will require a very dramatic rebirth as a performer for her to do anything much different.

If your criticism is that Stewart always just plays herself, I can't argue, but what of it? First of all, this persona is probably something she can sell... but also, like all things that people create, it's an aesthetic object, a big idea that makes a broad and meaningless career into something worthy of contemplation. I am reminded of James Dean, who cultivated a similar persona: impulsive, moody, emotionally naked, and beautiful. James Dean only really played himself, too, and like Kristen Stewart, he made himself into an idol by putting his "self" on display.

The idea of American romanticism through reckless youth and counterculture, explored in this film by these two actors... that idea poses a bigger question for me, a cultural critic who has an aesthetic interest in the American experience. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are the original symbols of this American mythology, along with Janice Joplin, Alan Ginsberg, and an ensemble of other cultural icons. Jack Kerouc is right up there with the best of them, and the On The Road trailer is full of all the moods and indulgences that call those times to mind: wide-eyed sentimentality, the suggestion of wild, soaring impulsiveness, and a dubious obsession with freedom and transcendence.

And what's sad about it is that this big idea sort of had a resurgence, and it's already been picked over and played out. Levi's has probably profited the most off it, with campaigns like "Go Forth"... in the last few years, it's also become totally ubiquitous in music videos, which have developed an obsession with the 60's and vintage cameras. Not that this is a complete waste... some of these music videos are admirable aesthetic artifacts (Keane's Silenced By The Night comes to mind), and others are perfectly respectable tributes to a generation's aspirations (Katy Perry's The One That Got Away). But it's been too much, too fast, and it's been reduced to elements that are too simple: dusty roads, yellow filters and lens flares, rope swings, bikini tops. What does all this stuff make you think of? What did the trailer for On The Road make you think of?

That's right. Instagram.

When I was first thinking about this, I thought maybe this is because my own generation is culturally impoverished. Why do we go back to symbols and kitch references to the 60's to capture the idea of freedom and youthful energy, if not to fill a void in our own culture, an empty gap where there should be some kind of joy and subversion and rebellion? Do we look to these vintage symbols because the youth of today have no symbols of their own? I was all ready to pen a rant about how sad that was.

It took me about ten minutes to realize that if I wrote that, I would just be imitating the cynical carping of people like the Frankfurt School, who I find kind of intolerable. The truth is, the rising energies of today's youth don't have that nostalgic glow because they're still happening, they haven't been appropriated and repackaged yet, and the ad hoc nature of improvised political and cultural activism isn't so easily summarized in winking photo filters and anachronistic fashion. It will be a few years -- or maybe a few decades -- before we have Occupy, hip hop, Silicon Valley, and the blogosphere boiled down to a set of convenient symbols for investing with nostalgia.

So that's a good thing, I guess. And yeah, it's still sad that those 60's frequencies are so commodified and played out, but as long as they're now available as part of our cultural vocabulary, I'm ready to see what directors like Walter Salles can do with them.

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