Saturday, January 26, 2013

Kerouac's Patagonia? On the Road, on the Screen


Every summer, more decades past than I care to recall, my parents would use their vacation to drive from our home in Tacoma, Washington, to Moorhead, Minnesota – the figurative birthplace of A Prairie Home Companion – where my grandparents lived. As they alternated behind the wheel – I was far too young to drive - we crossed the steppes of Eastern Washington, the mountains of Idaho and western Montana, and the prairies of eastern Montana and North Dakota before crossing the Red River to arrive at Moorhead, the end point of a non-stop road trip.
That was a little later, and not quite so epic, as Jack Kerouac’s fictionalized odyssey across the United States in On the Road, but it recalls the landscapes of two-lane blacktop and occasional gravel roads in the days before the Interstate Highway System. In the course of updating my Moon Handbooks to Argentina and Patagonia, in particular, I’ve often had the experience of driving through wild, sparsely populated landscapes that recall my childhood journeys.

In southernmost South America, those routes are usually north-south rather than east-west, but I’m not the only person to equate them with the North American West. In fact, Brazilian director Walter Salles chose northern Argentine Patagonia to film scenes for On the Road which, unfortunately, has not yet hit Bay Area cinemas, but I do plan to see it.

Salles, who knew Argentine landscapes from directing the acclaimed Che Guevara road trip adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries, may have had suggestions from Viggo Mortensen, who plays the role of Old Bull Lee, Kerouac’s fictionalized figure based on William Burroughs. Mortensen, who speaks fluent Spanish, attended school in the more northerly northern Argentine provinces of Buenos Aires, Chaco and Córdoba, and follows Argentine soccer closely.

In fact, Argentina has long been a favorite site for foreign film crews – a couple years ago, for instance, a friend of mine who has dual US citizenship participated in a shoot in which Argentine kids – including his son – dressed as Little Leaguers for a commercial staged at the national baseball stadium. The American-run company San Telmo Productions, in fact, exists primarily to help foreign filmmakers who wish use Argentina for location shooting.
Nobody, unfortunately, has yet been able to tell me precisely where Salles shot the scenes in Argentina, though the crew was apparently based in San Carlos de Bariloche; certainly the scenery along two-lane Ruta Nacional 237 (pictured above), which leads northeast out of Bariloche, could serve as a stand-in for large parts of the American West. Some cast members apparently stayed in Villa La Angostura, which appears to be recovering from the ashfall of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption of 2011.

Interestingly, a legal battle over the Kerouac estate meant that it took years before On the Road could reach the screen; coincidentally, the intellectual property rights attorney for Kerouac’s executor was also my attorney in a disagreement with a previous publisher whose name I will refrain from mentioning here. The attorney, whom I will also refrain from naming here, lost the Kerouac case but pulled out a win for me.

An Oscar Nomination for No
In other Southern Cone cinema news, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s film No, about the 1988 campaign against General Augusto Pinochet’s plebiscite to continue as Chile’s de facto president, is one of five nominees for Best Foreign Film in the upcoming Oscars. It stars well-known Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.

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