Neal Cassady, the movie
Last Thursday evening, I made the most of my proximity to the Woodstock Film Festival and attended the World Premiere of two independent American movies, each an examination of youth and pop culture though drastically different in tone and content.
There were no red carpets at either of these World Premieres, no paparazzi, no great frenzy for tickets. It was enough for the film-makers in question that their work just be seen. After all, making movies is a notoriously difficult and thankless task, requiring enormous financial outlay, a considerable number of participants, and persistence bordering on pig-headedness – all with no guarantee that the result will ever make it to a big screen. Writing books – even novels – seems comparably easy and inexpensive.
Neal Cassady never wrote a novel himself, but he showed up in many others. Noah Buschel’s deep and dark dramatic examination of the man, Neal Cassady, begins with him and Jack Kerouac off on a cross-country quest to find Neal’s alcoholic hobo father, a search that Kerouac, notebook constantly in hand, seems more obsessed with than Cassady himself, who ultimately determines to return home and get married. Kerouac turns their adventures into On The Road, renaming Cassady as Dean Moriarity but doing little else to fictionalize his friend, and Neal’s hopes of a quiet life are quickly frustrated. Failing as a family man with a steady job on the local railroad, jailed for dealing marijuana (though the movie skips over the details), he finds himself back behind the wheel driving Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their Acid-Testing “Further” bus. As portrayed by Buschel, it’s a sad occupation: the Pranksters call Cassady “Superman” but, Kesey aside, they mostly treat him like a court jester.
Of course Kesey, prior to his life as an acid guru, was another great young American novelist, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He and his Merry Pranksters, Cassady prominently included, were then themselves the subject of Tom Wolfe’s epic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Buschel reconstructs faithfully the opening chapter of that book though, curiously for a film that’s generally true to the facts, he prefers to fictionalize Tom Wolfe as a relatively simple Jim Maris. There is, certainly, a threat of Velvet Goldmine-style overkill to proceedings, but the (imagined?) scene in which Cassady, Kerouac and Kesey all meet (with Wolfe/Maris looking on) is handled with dignity, albeit under the same dark cloud that permeates the whole movie.
Neal Cassady – played with wide-eyed freakiness by Tate Donovan, as if an older, meatier Bez of Happy Mondays – is showing looking more and more lost the longer the film wears on, but he’s never depicted as a loser, and commands our sympathy as a result. Kesey (Chris Bauer) also has many redeeming qualities, even as he loses his followers and with it, we assume, his own sense of purpose. The once-prolific and certainly influential Kerouac, played murkily by Glenn Fitzgerald, is given less pity by writer-director Buschel, his heavy drinking seeming increasingly absurd as the movie lurches towards some sort of denouement.
When that moment comes, it’s disappointing. Just 80 minutes long, Neal Cassady finishes on such a sudden low note that I felt the entire Bearsville Theater audience deflate, collectively. That’s a shame. Twenty-nine year old Noah Buschel (who previously made a short movie called Love Will Tear Us Apart) has shot the movie quite beautifully – in wide-screen black and white for the On The Road scenes, and largely through a 16mm camera wielded by one of Kesey’s followers for the Merry Pranksters sections. He’s left lots of room for the audience to fill in the details, and to form their own judgment about the price not so much of fame as the cult of personality. But as the movie stands, it’s under-stated to the point of incompletion – Cassady’s unexplained arrest is only one of many such examples – and I couldn’t help but wonder if Buschel and his backers just ran out of money to edit it to a more satisfactory length.
Right now, Neal Cassady is three-quarters of a great movie, one that desperately needs to offer some more character extrapolation and is screaming out – like its characters – for some kind of closure. Cassady was such an important influence on American literature (we haven’t even mentioned yet his appearance in Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl, Hunter S. Thompson‘s Hell’s Angels or any other number of Kerouac novels as Cody Pomeray), and Buschel tries so very hard to do the previously unexplored legend some justice. Here’s hoping this was not the final edit.