Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sean Penn, "Into the Wild" (2007)

A few years ago I stumbled upon a copy of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild (1996). It takes for its protagonist a young man named Chris McCandless, the son of a prosperous family who decides to take it on the road after his graduation from Emery College in Georgia. For one reason or another he has become disenchanted by his post-grad prospects, and turns down the opportunity to study law at a prestigious Ivy League College to live his life as a vagabond. He takes his impressive savings account and donates it to OXFAM, drives out to the desert, and abandons his car after being inundated by a flash flood. Then he burns the remainder of his money and sets off in search of "high adventure".

It's clear from Krakauer's account that McCandless was idealistic and often quite foolish. He embarked on a number of challenges in the wilderness without adequate preparation or knowledge, and met his ultimate fate in the Denali National Park. He failed to bring along with him the most basic essentials. He hitchhiked his way to the very edge of the wilderness with a ten pound bag of rice, a 22 rifle, and some rudimentary camping supplies. Unfortunately for him, he didn't have a map of the area he planned to camp in, nor did he have a compass. It was only by stroke of luck that he managed to find shelter in an abandoned transit bus that had served as a base camp for moose hunters.

McCandless' death was officially recorded as a result of starvation, but Krakauer wasn't quite convinced. The author speculated that the young man had poisoned himself by foraging a toxic plant that looked quite like an edible one. This was the main thing I remembered years after reading the book. It seemed like a tragic and unnecessary end. McCandless had planned to recross a river to hike out after a hundred days, but found his way obstructed by ice melt that had swollen the river. Little did he know that there was a makeshift tram a mere quarter mile away meant to assist the crossing. There were also a number of hunting cabins, some of which had been ransacked (possibly by McCandless).

Sean Penn's film adaptation of the story has much more to do with the romance and free-wheeling spirit of youth than the reality of events leading up to McCandless' demise. It's filled with wistful camera work focused on the natural beauty of the settings, and scored by an appropriately complimentary acoustic soundtrack performed by Eddie Vedder. Scenes from McCandless' last few weeks in Alaska are interwoven with vignettes from the remainder of his travels. Our hero (played competently by Emile Hirsch) hangs out with a hippie couple on the beach, nearly seduces a 16-year old girl, works in a grain silo, and befriends an old man (Hal Holbrook). These portions of the film are meant to convey McCandless' ambivalent feelings toward human relationships.

Your reaction to this tale (both book and film) is likely to be determined both by the roles you occupy, and the attitudes you carry toward life. If you are nostalgic regarding youth, you'll be touched by McCandless' innocence, and inspired by his rejection of the materialism and compromises so endemic in our society. If you are of a more cynical bent, you'll probably invoke the Darwin Awards and decide that McCandless got what he deserved. While Penn clearly leans toward the former interpretation, his approach doesn't completely preclude the latter opinion. Finally- if you are a parent... you'll definitely feel for the boy's family. No matter how inclined Penn might have been to lionize McCandless, he makes sure to underscore the grief that his father, mother and sister felt about his disappearance. That's an important core for this story.

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Blogger Rick Byerly said...

the movie and book, very different to themselves, strike a ton of chords with me. when i was in yellowstone this past may i met someone similar to chris mccandless at a hostel and then camped and traveled with him and 2 other solo travelers through yellowstone for 4 days ( i then went solo for 12 days or so).

he traveled the very same path mccandless did on a raft in arizona. i'm pulling together all the journal entries i made throughout the trek so at some point it will become to clearer.

mccandless truly wanted to get lost and his refusal to bring and study maps is what most people don't understand. it is however what brought him to places and thoughts which few ever experience.

for anyone who hasn't read the book you should watch the movie first imo. (i watched the movie and then read the book after i got back from yellowstone).


12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you see a little irony that this post follows your previous one?

Here's a guy who takes it upon himself to test if the basic facts of reality are absolute. The need for food, shelter, warmth and all the basic needs of life are not imaginary and neither is the only function that can provide them-- a person's mind.

People living in complex societies can lose track of that since they rely on a long chain of people they don't visibly see from railroad engineers to medical researchers and business executives. This allows them to slip into a religious or post modern dream world in which they think they can get away with anything and that reality doesn't exist.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post really is a perfect follow up to the one before it. What it shows is just how far hypocrisy has embeded itself in our society. Some incredible percent of American's claim to believe in god, life after death, devine revelation and faith as a means to knowledge. But, at the same time they take their kids to doctors and expect pilots to have studied the rules of aerodynamics and engineers the stress capacities of steel and concrete. They expect, if their kids were murdered or they were accused of a crime that it would be investigated and proven by absolute standards of truth.

In fact, when someone steps outside these rules and takes their kids to a faith healer or walks into the wilderness without proper knowledge and provisions, most of us think that person is a kook.

Well, which is it? In the dark ages people had the balls to take faith seriously and die at an early age for it. Now we want it both ways.

The whole Islamist extremist thing might be the best example of this. Most of us are shocked that these people are actualy taking religion that seriously and we think their nuts.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

1st anonymous?

Basic needs are not imaginary... and can only be provided for by one's mind?

That doesn't make even a little bit of sense to me. In fact it comes off as obviously contradictory. I'm not sure what you are getting at.

Religious and/or post-modern dream world??

How do you reconcile these into a common categorization. Why don't you say what you mean? Define your terms. Explain the irony that you see...I'm having a hard time parsing your comment.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

"Well, which is it? In the dark ages people had the balls to take faith seriously and die at an early age for it. Now we want it both ways."

So..what? There are either facts or faith?? There's no middle ground for you? is it truly an either/or proposition? What side are you on then?

2:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously, I consider faith to be an evil concept.

My point is that, the true evil it represents is now hidden by hypocrisy. Most religious people these days don't really intend to act on faith 100% of the time or even anything close to that because that would be deadly. Most also don't want to give up the benefits created by reason, science and technological development. They just want to keep just enough faith in the world to protect their own base of power.

So when a person walks into a deadly dangerous environment without knowledge, maps, a compass and adequate supplies it really lays out the direct consequences of non rational thinking. I guess he had faith, it would work out.

Religion is really a way of thinking- or non thinking that would lead to rapid self destruction if practiced consistently so hypocricy has to be smuggled in. People want religion but they don't want to really face it's consequences.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Ok... I see your point. I wouldn't call faith "evil", but I think I know what you mean when you say that. I have a difficult time with people who can't recognize their own potential for hypocrisy. As I noted in another thread- I think meaning is fluid, and the complexity and nuance embedded at the base of whatever-"truth"-is overwhelms absolutism.

That doesn't mean that I reject the utility of all maps.

1:24 PM  

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