Saturday, June 30, 2012

Into the Wild

INTO THE WILD             B+            
USA  (140 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Sean Penn

Rather than Love, than Money, than Fame, give me Truth.   
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)

For all of Chris McCandless’s philosophical musings downplaying the human interactions in life, believing the essence of the natural world around us is the truth that will liberate us from our social confinements, it is the social interactions in the film that work best.  While there is still plenty of artistic pretension to this film, which could have lopped off a good twenty minutes or so, not the least of which is some of the self-centered poetic soliloquies found in McCandless’s own prose, this is an extremely effective film because of how it compresses all the places he visits into such a short period of time, leaving behind quite a powerful impact.  Emile Hirsch plays the college graduate McCandless who still has $25,000 left in his college account after he graduates from Emory University, believing he’ll probably use it to attend Harvard Law School.  But that is his parent’s dream, not his, and over the course of a summer visit to the west coast in 1990, it redefines him as a person, having major ramifications over the next two years of his life, as he pretty much drops out of the society he endlessly rails against, gives his money to charity, and charts a course for himself hitchhiking on the road, kayaking through the Grand Canyon all the way to Mexico before he embarks on his dream to live a great Alaskan adventure into the wild.     

Using a series of voices as the narration, many of which are literary references, but also choice musical passages throughout by Eddie Vedder as well as yellow writings onscreen made to resemble letters he composed, he also reads from his own poetic diary entries, which has the effect of being too heavy handed, as the language is oblique and unclear, closer to an internal rant than anything defining, and at least initially it diminishes the power of the immense imagery that accompanies his journeys.  But after he disappears off the face of the earth on his journeys, when his sister and his parents begin to realize he’s intentionally leaving no trace of himself, his sister’s voice continues the narration, which is more heartfelt and does a better job of describing who he is, including the family he’s leaving behind.  Everything that leads to his Alaskan adventure is stunning in its depiction of life on the edge, whereas when he finally arrives in the great vast unknown, there is no one left to talk to other than himself, and one does scratch their head wondering what this is all about, thinking how Werner Herzog might have interpreted this differently, as this idealistic guy alone in the wilderness bears a strange resemblance to one of Herzog’s last films, GRIZZLY MAN (2005).  Thankfully, Penn decides to interrupt his Alaskan adventure with flashback sequences of earlier picturesque human stories that fortified his intentions to make his Don Quixote-like (though it was not on his reading list) single-minded quest, filled with a satchel of precious books from Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Boris Pasternak, to Leo Tolstoy. 

Filled with a natural curiosity about life, an appealing smile, but a fairly morbid view of humans, McCandless weaves his way across the country, working in the wheatfields of South Dakota, traveling for a brief period with a hippie couple that is undergoing serious relationship issues, a liberated Swedish couple listening to a blaring MC Hammer at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a kind and helpful woman working at a homeless shelter, which offers unique imagery of the loneliness of disconnected souls in Los Angeles, rediscovering the hippie couple again at their trailer home in the desert, where he befriends an eerily sorrowful young singer (Kirsten Stewart), which leads to his connection with an aging veteran (Hal Holbrook) who poignantly takes him under his wing before reluctantly setting him free.  The time he spends with each is invaluable, as it gives him a perspective that is otherwise missing from his all too sheltered life from the Virginia suburbs, but he’s still too young to know what to make of it.  All he can think about is Alaska.  But for the viewers in the audience who have other things in mind, this is a real treat, as the characters are beautifully constructed within their worlds and they actually hold the meaning of the film, as within the interconnectedness of things, the time we share with others holds the greatest meaning in our lives.  But McCandless is hell-bent on making his journey alone, finding an old abandoned Fairbanks commuter bus for shelter, where he finds a spot with a vantage point of Mt. McKinley including a panoramic mountainous view near Denali National Park.  It’s exactly what he was looking for, calling it his Magic Bus, where he continues to make diary entries of significant events.  But as Herzog discovered before him, nature is not always the idealistic paradise of our dreams, as it contains both birth and death in equal numbers, and a beautiful soul does not give anyone an advantage when attempting to survive the elements.  Some of the imagery of the film is breathtaking, shot by Eric Gautier, but some of the staged shots of McCandless are literally parodies of the art form and the film would have been better served without them.  Despite the signature Penn overdramatic staginess on occasion, most of this film is well constructed, somber, hauntingly beautiful and packs a powerful punch.  Great film to sit through, even in its longevity…

While not as detailed as Jon Krakauer’s terrific book by the same name, one can’t help but value the movie version, despite overall aspects that are admittedly disconcerting.  This is another sumptuously gorgeous film shot on 'Scope by Eric Gautier (no slouch) that looks great on a big screen, shot using a mix of digital and Super 35 blown up to 35 mm.  I would wager this is a better depiction of Kerouac's On the Road than Walter Salles's yet to be seen 2012 Cannes version, as I felt it did an excellent job observing the road, and how disconnected from mainstream existence you feel on the road, developing abstract theories of existence, singular interest in books and philosophies, where a book is as valuable as any friend, and where the detached nature of how you feel comes to mean so much more especially because of the disconnection to society.  The singular obsession of this guy to experience an adventure "into the wild" goes through a lot of stages, where the people aspect before he heads to Alaska is invaluable, as for all practical purposes, he's already there.  He just doesn't realize it.  "Into the wild" is really a state of mind that exists in your head, not a vast wilderness in Alaska, as it turns out, which is really only icing on the cake.  McCandless on the road really underestimates the value of his earlier experiences, which I thought Penn handled very well.  Hal Holbrook received plenty of accolades for his performance here, and it's an unusual portrayal, especially in a "youth movie," where the elderly are usually stereotypical and/or fodder for comic relief.  Not so here, as he presents the very heart and core of the film, namely posing the question:  what do people mean to each other?  Is this at least as significant as the worth of nature?  Because the people aspect is so heavily punctuated with detail, it balances the film's eventual love affair with Alaska. 

Penn can be obnoxious onscreen as he is in life, so there is that, but this film isn't so much about Penn as what he can bring to a young man's idyllic journey.  The fact that McCandless is headstrong and careless seems to be part of his psychic dimension that Penn can appreciate, or perhaps even relate to, where you get the feeling he was young and impulsive, also prone to fixation, where throughout his ordeal he remains just a kid, making reckless decisions in haste without having the wisdom to think them through, where acting on impulse often leads to disastrous results.  But that is youth.  More to the point it is the obsession of youth, where they get their mind made up on something and won't let go, where he becomes infatuated with the *idea* of the wild, much like people fall in love with the idea of love.  It is a film about personal ideas, growth, and exploration, a far cry from most of what's onscreen these days.  While I could never say it is a complete success, but the ambitious nature of the project took some guts and I felt much of that translated to the screen.  It did succeed in planting the seeds of curiosity and exploration, the love of the journey and the idea of wanting to be *on your own.*  

This is a special time of life, post college, pre career, compare this to THE GRADUATE (1967), for instance, which quickly veers towards romance, where discovering yourself, much as the Beats did, is rarely given any kind of unique understanding, as it has here.   

While the book may be better, largely because the author has his own worldly insights that he continually interjects throughout, and also because it better explains what happened to the poor kid stranded out there alone.  The movie does a good job, however, in describing the path he took to get there. 

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