By Eli S. Chesen
I had the perverse pleasure of attending an early screening, at Telluride, of Sean Penn’s soon-to-be-released film, Into the Wild
, an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book, which is in turn an adaptation of an allegedly true story, told with permission and help from the main character’s (Chris McCandless’s) family, especially his sister. The book has received rave reviews and the movie will be rewarded and wildly (pun intended) enjoyed as well. A gaunt Penn and Krakauer were themselves at the performance and were noted to have commented humbly, if only minimally, about their art.
In brief, this is a story about a recent Emory University graduate, McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who takes off on an odyssey, hiking north to Alaska. He has the predictable encounters with nature (there was, of course, a requisite bear) and alternately meets repulsive and benevolent people along his convoluted trek. He regularly rejects offers from a handful of good Samaritans, who offer travel assistance, advice, money and, of course, sexual favors. He is a do-it-himself-er of the first order and lives for a time in an abandoned "magic" bus, having given away most of his worldly goods.
The cinematography is OK, though we have seen all of this before in countless National Geographic
specials. There are long shots, close-ups, zoom shots of the landscape, mountains, streams, colorful characters, rotoscopes, microscopes… well, you get the picture by now.
The acting is good with truly wonderful supporting roles by the likes of a sociopathic Vince Vaughn; a heartless and unfeeling William Hurt, whom I think of as i-Father; and a naive and tottering Hal Holbrook. The supporting cast brings this production up to the level of: Nominally good movie. The film will be widely seen and, incidentally, I would tepidly recommend it.
The musical score was mostly annoying and forgettable folk-rock stuff, which does not stay with you very long, and I feel that Penn missed an opportunity to improve the effort with a score that might have reflected the film’s scenic elements. The soundtrack was kind of like The Graduate
in a hillbilly venue. I felt like I was on a kind of travelogue hosted by Jed Clampett. A tonal-atonal treatment, such as that of John Horner’ s wonderful score to A Beautiful Mind
would have improved this movie. (While it took me a couple of years, I have forgiven Horner for his patronizing vocal piece, from Beautiful Mind
, “All Love Can Be,” performed with an overdose of saccharin by Charlotte Church.)
Most irritating is Krakauer’s message, which is just another iteration of the modern-day puritanical chic of eating disorder superimposed upon grandiose efforts to risk life and cheat nature. The plotline of this film might just as well have been the story of a compulsive bungee jumper or helicopter skier. While the story takes place in the early 1990s, it is even more timely today. It is a cliché of the anorexic credo of overexercise and self-starvation. It is martyrdom without a discernable cause and reaches the nadir of spiritual silliness at times.
For example, there is a scene where McCandless cajoles Hal Holbrook to walk up a hill, which leads to an epiphany experienced by Holbrook, who, in turn, offers to adopt his newfound, evangelistic young friend.
McCandless gradually takes on the persona of Mary Poppins with a backpack, spreading his own homespun joy into the lives of a diversified group of characters. It is as though he is the real thing and not just a celebration of stupidity.
The movie reaches even cornier proportions in a scene where McCandless and a wannabe girlfriend break into a song; an almost perfect, studio-quality rendition of folk-blues, a piece that magically transports the audience from Outdoor Life
in the pristine wilderness to "My Boy Bill."
The movie is directed with uncompromising empathy toward McCandless, with the father character (William Hurt) relegated to the wearing of the black hat. The symbolism here, with Hurt’s kneeling and crying in the middle of the street, simply says: "Dad’s a jerk."
Don’t get me wrong, I love Krakauer, whose Under the Banner of Heaven
scores a bull’s-eye. With Into the Wild
, he misses on the message and is maybe banking too heavily on Marshall McLuhan with what is a well-packaged effort.
A brooding blood brother to Into Thin Air
, Into the Wild
worships at the altar of hyperexercise and masochism. It is the taking on of nature on your own terms, pursuing thinness, pain and self-deprivation in the name of adventure.
If one goes beneath the surface of this hackneyed misadventure story, one clearly sees the anorexic dynamic, which has already turned Miss Columbia Pictures into a cachectic model, who will soon need to hoist her torch with both hands.
The masochistic message here is wearing thin in a society of overweights, caught up in an all or nothing paradigm; Brigit Jones was an all too brief respite from the contemporary cinematic stick figure ideal.
So where does this lead us?
A recent news story out of The Bankhead National Forest, Ala., by Larry Copeland notes that, over the past five or 10 years, the large number of people getting lost in the wilderness has resulted in the need for hundreds of rescue missions every year. Copeland notes that, "In thousands of parks and wilderness areas across the nation, inexperienced and unprepared hikers get lost each year — so lost, they have to be rescued."
But even the experienced and well equipped manifest an affinity for ever-escalating self-destructive adventuresome behavior. As this goes to press, there is still no trace of megamillionaire-adventurer Steve Fossett, who disappeared September 3 when out in a single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon plane. He was on a short flight, allegedly scouting a location for his next flirtation with mortality: Breaking the land speed record. Apparently, things took a turn for the worse and the chances of finding him, alive, unfortunately dwindles by the day. Whether this be suicide, inadvertent or otherwise, great resources have been spent looking for this death wish in a haystack.
Anyone who has owned a motorcycle knows that upgrading to a faster machine guarantees an additional thrill, which is, however, self-limiting. Gamblers with beginner’s luck, on any given day, must continue to play because the euphoria of a modest jackpot has a half-life of only a few minutes. Cocaine users feel great but, again, for only a few minutes or hours.
The human brain has built into it self-limiting mechanisms, which lead to fatigability of all the senses. If one sits in an office all day around the din of a copy machine in the next room, one does not notice the presence of the sound until someone shuts off the machine at the end of the day. We notice the absence of the sound. Luckily, we automatically tune out Muzak in the mall after a bit; our sense of hearing fatigues, and this is important for survival as it allows us to tune out background noise and be vigilant for new and possibly important stimuli.
Visual and tactile sensation as well as the sense of smell all fatigue. Similarly, thrill-seeking euphoria is reverse logarithmic and therefore short-lived… You can only bungee jump off your second-floor deck a couple of times, after which you must scout railroad bridges and high-rise building balconies.
So what is the lesson to be gleaned from Krakauer, Fossett and McCandless? I contend they are highly motivated people attempting to override, to bypass, a universally built-in human safety device, a thrill-seeking circuit breaker, if you will. Evolution has put this failsafe in place for the protection of our species.
Tampering with this mechanism may void the warranty.