Jorge Lorenzo Flores Garza’s On the Road by Jack Kerouac had its Australian premiere in July this year at the Walker Street Gallery in Melbourne. It screened as part of the ‘Outside the Outside’ series curated by Dirk de Bruyn and Glenn D’Cruz, and was introduced by Steven McIntyre.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the most recent work by Mexican filmmaker Jorge Lorenzo, whose previous 1/48” (2008) was listed in Cahiers du Cinéma’s top 10 most subversive films of all time. Somewhere between a book on a film, and a film of a book, Lorenzo’s work is an exact re-typing of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, made by threading a continuous roll of 35mm negative (like Kerouac’s original scroll) through a Olivetti typewriter.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the most recent piece by Mexican filmmaker Lorenzo, whose previous 1/48 was listed in Cahiers du Cinéma’s top 10 most subversive films of all time.
Although it must be said that Lorenzo’s film is the most faithful adaptation of Kerouac to film, and indeed the most complete cinematic version of any book, the experience of watching the film is entirely different to any act of reading. Letters fly by so fast that it is difficult to make sense of anything except isolated characters and dots, which load with all the speed and comprehensibility of source code on a flickering monitor. In Lorenzo’s version, the famed expressivity, lyricism and poetry of Kerouac’s book is emptied out, leaving only vertical columns and diagonal patterns which strike through the possibility of artistic, or even linguistic communication.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is one of an unfolding series by the filmmaker, who is fast becoming to our contemporary art world what infamous ’70s Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal was to the imperialistic nation states of the West.
What follows is a dialogue on what we both consider an important new work commenting on the history of avant-garde cinema.
Dirk de Bruyn: Watching Jorge’s film was more of a playful experience than I expected. I expected an eye-exercising machine but also got something extra, something more lyrical, making me think of moments in Lynsey Martin’s Approximately Water (1975) or Stan Brakhage’s In the Garden of Earthly Delights (1981). Jorge’s 1/48” that you mention in the program notes had impacted on me like that. I saw that in Colorado at TIE (The International Experimental Cinema Exposition) a few years ago, with a countdown leader preparing you in anticipation to see that single frame. You got your eyes ready for a perceptual ‘jump’. I must have blinked. Others saw it I did not. It was like missing a shooting star that others saw, or missing a mouse scurrying past. I though that film was the ultimate response to the speed-up and pattern recognition that Marshall McLuhan first identified in the ’60s: ‘Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition.’ (1) Jorge compacts even further the sentiments of Edward Luyken’s 90 minute White Line Fever (1978), a relentless documentation of the road surface lane markings travelling from one side of the United States to the other.
In On the Road by Jack Kerouac ‘s black writing on white version I noticed the different thicknesses of some of the typeface, a trace, I suspect, of differences in the thickness of the typewriter keys and I started looking for changes in the loop of the letters given the three year use Jorge made of the Olivetti. Talk about resuscitating a dead technology, to write its own obituary as a nonsensical Lettrist text of ‘24 tweets per second’, to morph Godard’s quote beyond film. My eyes caught the letters flickering around the frame in silence, but in discernible lines, and I seemed to catch certain letters more than others. There was more than just black and white with shades of afterimage, and the first line of text, with its strings of capital letters, seemed to have a particular intensity. The text remained alive and open but dumb, reminding me of the Acceleratism and Dumb Theory I heard John Russell talk about at the Amsterdam Film Philosophy Conference this year, that promises such a productive ‘out’ for sustaining a proletarian or migrant voice for me, so muted in the curatorial digital age.
I found that same voice, estranged on the walls of the Walker Street Gallery but there devalued as some form of necessarily inarticulate or blunted outsider art. Of the ambiguous photo of a pair of worn shoes: (Ambivalence) Freedom of Movement Colombian Anthony Rodriguez wrote on the gallery wall: “movement was anything but free; it was rather imposed, forced upon us and granted by others’.
But Jorge is in control, he executes a migrant position right between the eyes of the historic avant-garde, hits it at its source.
Steven McIntyre: Yes and I think there’s a connection here with Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice (1972), a film of a written script. Also, the extreme aesthetic austerity of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and its questioning of language and perception, reminds me of Peter Gidal’s works such as Room Film 1973 (1973) where by the end we are not sure whether we’ve heard or seen anything at all. At the same time, these anti-representational modernist films by Frampton and Gidal do refer us back to something, as if cinema still mattered, and as if there actually were an audience, or even something there to read. But Jorge’s film is at best an epitaph for those things. Its not a film you need to see at all to have seen, a wry comment perhaps on the hashtags, blurbs, and quotes of quotes of quotes which stand in for (sorry, hyperlink to) online content, and which travel across servers about as fast as Kerouac’s prose in Jorge’s version. Can we talk about Warhol in this context? I remember once Jorge and I went to a marathon of Warhol’s early films at the Cineteca in Monterrey, México. We arrived late and there were people walking around the theatre talking, sleeping, and sipping beers with their backs to the screen – everything except watching the films. The premiere of On the Road by Jack Kerouac mattered about as much. Not that it runs as long as those architectural films by Warhol. At around 12 short minutes it lasts longer, as enduring at least as Kerouac’s reputation, or anybody’s willingness to preserve or reimagine it.
The book is at once all there, and completely absent. At the screening you asked me, does an imperceptible word for word reproduction infringe copyright? But of course it matters that its Kerouac and it is that book. And it does matter, as you suggest, that Jorge is a transnational Mexican artist. There is something of the Mexican’s mischief in taking this giant of postwar North American literature, a work so readily associated with liberation and counter-cultural rejuvenation, and making it unintelligible. Jorge told me he always liked the idea of On the Road, but didn’t know how he was supposed to read it. As a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, he became aware of the reputation of Kerouac, Burroughs and the cut-ups, the Beats, City Lights, etc., but didn’t really get any of it. His film of On the Road makes sure that no one gets it, or more precisely, that we get it in a different way: as a migrant grapples hesitatingly with a new language. At first come letters and percussive sounds, the occasional word – was that a word? – and maybe even evanescent flashes of insight. By the end of it though, it’s an experience without the firm, deeply felt correspondences that make meaning. I think this migrant experience of culture and language is there in the film in many layers.
DdB: It is interesting to me that this film performs and has an impact on so many fronts, in its absence, in its viewing and as a sculpture, and speaks to (and criticizes) the history of the avant-garde from all these perspectives.
In terms of Warhol, his marathon Empire (1964) does come to mind, but also Christian Marclay’s more recent The Clock (2010). Like Jorge’s piece neither of those films need be seen to execute a large slice of their cultural impact. For me, Empire sets the limits of ‘not seeing’ as part of the viewer experience. When Empire was shown at ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) a few years back, I talked to a young man (younger than me) running the coffee machine in the Café near the gallery, which had a full ongoing view of the screen. He watched it through on a number of occasions and talked of the shifts of light and grain that caught his eye in between servicing the Latté set. Marclay’s 24 hour The Clock also interests me as it is also such a killer move operating on found footage practice. Doing for film what the maritime English did with longitudes, latitudes and meridians for the organization of global time. The Clock too is a continuous film that does not have to be seen in its entirety but can be sampled with a film-buff aesthetic of serially recalling the films sourced. You do not have to see the film to imagine its impact and commentary on cinema.
That a 12 minute film can be discussed productively in relation to these extended works says something of its hyper-compact form. It’s 12 minutes are not enough. It reduces further and incapacitates to absurdity Warhol’s idea of ‘15 minutes of fame’ for all. This version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac does not even get to that. A perceptual catatonia is required to engage, indeed lock-in to a projection of this film’s flux. Such difference should set it apart from the epic viewer qualities conjured up by Empire and The Clock. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, bookends and indeed aborts such viewing qualities. An abortion is, after all, more abrupt than a pregnancy or birth and signifies an end rather than a beginning.
Now, in terms of computer interaction, if an upload or download is going to take more than ten minutes (even two minutes) we turn our backs, go and make a cup of tea, go to Facebook to occupy the gap. This seems to be the behaviour you observed at the Warhol Monterrey screening. In Jorge’s ‘Accelerationism’ attention spans have imploded and grazing online reaches a stop and start ‘saccadic’ rhythm. Is this Jorge’s prediction?
Your point about the book being all there and totally absent reminds me of the migrant’s standing, but also the dilemma of identity fraud in digital culture as well as the act of pedophilia which ‘steals the souls’ of its victims to set in train a life-long experience of loss and absence, despite the reality that such effects on the individual remain difficult to locate and identify from the outside. From this perspective On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the ultimate ‘trauma film’, traumatizing the avant-garde.
Vilem Flusser’s theorizing on the technical image interests me here. As is evident in the title of his collected writings, The Freedom of the Migrant (2003), Flusser argues that the migrant experience of dislocation is now a core experience within the globalizing, information explosion effect, the multiplication of images in digital culture, but for which the migrant has the opportunity to experience in a more body centred grounded way. Such a sensation of hyper-mobility is the migrant’s core experience.
There is also a very different, less deferential, less curatorial, more dismissive response to his predecessors in the avant-garde than Lucas Ilhein and Louise Curham in their re-enactments of Guy Sherwin’s Man with Mirror film performance as demonstrated by their fold-out DIY instructions ((Wo)man with Mirror, a user’s manual) using an aesthetic that re-performs the street-wise communal aesthetic of the Melbourne Super 8 Group or the very early Cantrill’s Filmnotes.
SM: Speed, mobility, acceleration. Values we also enact here in the form of our repartee which scarcely allows pause for detailed explanation and grammatical nicety. But why not in this era of galloping time-space compression? After all, everyone knows there’s a certain prestige or glamour about hyper-mobility, and the non-universal freedom to choose where, when, and how fast to go. It’s the bio-logical equivalent of global capital which travels faster than any body can, and stacks us all up in a hierarchy of variable velocities. It also accounts in no small way for the apparent relevance, urgency, and appeal of a long film of clocks.
But there’s another relationship to time and space which is more of a hypo-mobility, and which finds its highest expression, according to Zygmunt Bauman, in Californian post-panopticon prisons whose function is not to discipline, reform, or employ the inmates, but to maximise their immobility. (2) Kerouac witnessed this same hypo-mobility on road trips to México, marvelling at the slow beatness of all those people lounging intensely outside store-fronts and adobe casas. But what’s the point (it didn’t occur to him to ask) of moving around when you know you’ll never get anywhere? The European Flusser eventually experienced the suffocating failure and defeat of this hypo-mobility while living in Latin America, and came to know the full flavour of its stigma when he called in vain around the North American Universities begging for a job. It was no use, he had been left behind.
There’s something of the same affect in Jorge’s film in the way that it places the spectator on a fast track to nowhere. Or better, in the way it conflates the film viewer with the would-be migrant who observes the mediatised privileges of hyper-mobility displayed on screens and monitors at every turn, and, enchanted by the allure of acceleration, contrives to grasp something that only ever escapes into the past as quickly as it’s perceived. In proposing to show us something that in its superior mobility will nevertheless be always one step ahead, On the Road by Jack Kerouac makes 21st century migrants of us all.
Also, I think there’s a slow, patient, and fateful relationship to time enacted in the making of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a relationship very particular to place and perspective. Three years of impossibly painstaking, day-to-day typing on black 35mm negative between rooms in Monterrey and Bogotá to be exact. This could hardly be further from the spontaneous outburst of the soul with which Kerouac reputedly composed the book. Instead, our film-maker more resembles a tenacious Mesoamerican artesano, tapping, daubing, and carving away at a craftwork – the kind you take away in your luggage and which then gets sniffed out at customs and thrown away without prejudice in the trash. The difference of On the Road by Jack Kerouac is that Jorge trashes it first – the avant-garde tradition, the artistic aspiration, the meaning – then gives it to you all in pieces.
This is a kind of art-abortion you say. If so, it’s one of a number by this artist. While at the SFAI he recut the avant-garde classic Window Water Baby Moving (1959) without the baby and called it Brakhage’s Abortion. What was missed in the unanimously hostile reaction that followed is that it wasn’t about the baby or the birth or the Brakhages. It was something like Duchamp slapping a moustache on the Mona Lisa, or Banksy messing with the museum pieces. For this Mexican artist studying in the US it was an attempt to attack, and remake a powerful legacy with which he could find no meaningful relation, and which in some ways he had experienced through education as archly imperialistic. After just one screening of Brakhage’s Abortion, Canyon Cinema and Brakhage’s widow threatened legal action and the film hasn’t been seen again. Now Jorge has done it once more with On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but this time without any images, literature, or art visible on the screen long enough to suppress, and in a way which even more terminally problematises representation in cinema. So there, Canyon Cinema.
‘Shall we screen it again sometime?’ I mused at the end of the day. But we both knew we already had. As the decidedly blank screen went ever-so-slightly blanker, the screening of On the Road by Jack Kerouac ended after 12 minutes and hasn’t stopped since.