Saturday, April 11, 2009

A triumph of self-reliance or a damn shame? (Film - Into the Wild)

I have not read Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild but The Ragazzo and I watched Sean Penn's film adaptation of it last night. The lure of escape after college can be pretty strong. For some, that is escape into the world of working adults from which they have been, until this point, barred. For others, they have developed their own ideas and their own values and they have given time enough to their parents' or their town's or their religion's way of doing things. They have done everything asked of them and they now know what they need to know and are going to go it on their own. Christopher McCandless was one of the second type. He defies what he sees as his parents' over- materialistic and insensitive way of life. He gives his money away to charity, tears up his IDs and credit cards, changes his name to Alex Supertramp, and sets out with his Thoreau and Tolstoy and a backpack full of intense innocence to live unencumbered, eventually in the wilds of Alaska.

I enjoyed the film's leisurely pace. It was evocative of the escape from the workaday world. Emile Hirsch gave a convincingly open and earnest performance and I very much enjoyed the work of Hal Holbrook and, as always, I loved Catherine Keener. When the dialogue actually seemed to be written, I thought it was fine and certainly the voiceovers taken from Christopher's favorite writers were lovely. The director, Sean Penn, and his actors seemed to have created several of the scenes, especially those with Vince Vaughan, through improvisatory acting exercises. Rather than adding to their sense of freedom and reality, it at times gave them a clumsy and indulgent feel. I suddenly was a Meisnerian acting class in Hollywood or New York rather than breaking free as seemed more appropriate to the film's theme. This is just some informed guessing from using improvisation as a director and teacher for a long time myself, but I could be wrong. Perhaps all the scenes were created the same way, but those scenes stuck out as largely unbelievable. But all in all I thought is was dramatically well structured and paced and nicely photographed. I liked the interleaving of Christopher/Alex's time camping out in an abandoned bus in Alaska with the rest of his travels through the United States. I understand from what I have read that Penn placed more emphasis on the dysfunction of Christopher's family life and breaking away from the betrayal of his parents than did the book. Without being able to compare it to the book, this seemed to serve the drama of the film well. SPOILER ALERT! The most difficult aspect of the story for me (appropriately so) was the dichotomy between the central character's attraction to escape from violence and materialism and his extreme enactment of it, which was notable for an insistence that he could do it all alone. Largely this came from his innocence and from his experience of his parents and their world which left him with the feeling, perhaps, that love between people wasn't important, or wasn't possible. In any event, it left him adamantly cut off from others, even as they tried to connect with him on his travels. He could be incredibly resourceful and certainly had a fine mind and a desire to interact with others kindly, but in his insistence to go it alone he seemed to me merely a stupid, innocent boy. Ultimately he learns that he needs others, while reading Tolstoy, alone, as he dies in the abandoned bus in Alaska. In some ways this is the story of a stupid, headstrong boy who thinks he knows everything and is sadly mistaken. In others it is the romantic tale of someone who proves tremendous self-reliance and strength and a realization of his dream, even if he dies doing it. But is that heroic? Either way the story is a tragedy. Was it Christopher's "right" to go off and die a strong but independent 24-year-old man? Had his community, family, school given him everything he needed and now he is on his own to live the consequences of his actions? (We don't seem to think that corporations should have to live with the consequences of their actions). Or should someone have seen this smart, insistent, almost slippery charmer for the wounded boy he was, and examined his long-insistence on isolation from others as a possible sign of mental illness? Should he have been given a shake and a brisk slap? A kind hand or lots of therapy to introduce him to the value of human relationships along side his admirable self-reliance. The excerpt that he tore from the Robinson Jeffers poems Wise Men in their Bad Hours lets us know what he felt:

Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened or troubled
And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.
What do you think? Is his story a triumph or is it a damn shame that such a smart, strong, sensitive man had to die because he learned certain lessons later than others?


Sheila O'Malley said...

The book is something else, Ted. It pretty much asks the same questions you ask. And it leaves them unanswered - and you will want to talk endlessly about how infuriating he was (only a really privileged person would ever act like such a moron - it reminded me a lot of Timothy Treadwell, the so-called "Grizzly Man" - which, if you have not seen Werner Herzog's documentary of the same thing: RUN, don't walk, to the library to get it) - but then also how you can see that maybe the kid was onto something ... His yearning for something more, something real, is a thing most people can relate to. Wonderful book. I read Krakauer's Into Thin Air first (his shattering story of the terrible climb up Mount Everest when all of those people died - a climb he was on) - and then went back and read Into the Wild. I was VERY impressed, and will now read anything he writes.

Great review - I liked what you said about improvisation. I felt that Rachel Getting Married had that feel to it, too - like, it was almost amateur - maybe good in rehearsal, but a lot of it should have been cut, to save the actors from themselves. It takes a Cassavetes to really USE improvisation ... not sure, you said it better than I did.

Ted said...

They are pretty much unanswerable aren't they? Yes, not only was he "on to something," as you say, but he dared to do what most of us want to do at some point or other - escape! So he becomes this icon of a universal urge that could be mindlessly romanticized or heartlessly criticized and thankfully this film didn't err too far on the side of either, although the marketing for it did over-romanticize it. I will definitely check out that Herzog film. He always infuriates me so I'll have to prepare myself. I want to read the Krakauer now that I've heard you talk about it. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of this story and, its beauty too.

Sheila O'Malley said...

The documentary Grizzly Man is mainly done with footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, living alone among grizzly bears - Werner Herzog basically shaped it, but most of it is Treadwell, talking to the camera, and anthropomorphizing the bears (he truly believes that grizzly bears are misunderstood. No, Timothy, YOU are the one who misunderstands. They are wild hungry beasts - they act according to their nature - we don't hate them because they are dangerous, but we do know enough to stay away ... they are not, deep down, cuddly sweet animals, and you alone have seen their gentleness) - it is an amazing psychological portrait of a really misguided guy who thinks he has found his niche ... It's one of the most memorable, infuriating, and gobsmacking docs I've ever seen.

Anne Camille said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I read the book and wrote a post on it last summer. I felt it raised the same questions. One of the things that I liked about the book is that Krakauer raises these questions, not only in terms of McCandless' life, but in his own. He writes frankly how he could have died climbing a mountain in Alaska when he was a young man, impetuous & thoughtless of how his actions might impact others. This chapter in the book beautifully expressed both his excitment of the adventure as well as his fear at what could have happened. Much of the book is supposition -- McCandless left little documentation of his life -- so the book is not only about McCandless but about Krauker too.