Monday, October 8, 2007

Touching the void

The opening shots of Sean Penn's Into the Wild alternate between tight close-ups and long wide-shots of the convergence of humankind and nature; worn wood, a train gliding along its metal track through wilderness, and spanning vistas of Alaskan wild, where Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) spends the final days of his tragically short life. No human bodies are shown during these opening moments; they consist primarly of stable images of the world. It's only appropriate that these images juxtapose nature and artifice, indicating a clear schism between the planet and those who have colonized it.

This contrast drove Chris McCandless; it drove him away from cultural norms and social policies, and away from human relationships. In the wild and on the road, he sought to reconnect with a primal state of nature not dissimilar to that which inspired the evocative, poetic words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But this frame of mind has been largely forgotten by "civilized" people. Both to his benefit and detriment, McCandless possessed a passion for life as it exists in nature. In trying to connect with the wild, a journey many of us wish to take but cannot muster the courage, McCandless fails to embrace human connection in the same way. Into the Wild examines and romanticizes McCandless' passion, but it also acknowledges the cost of that nearly more-than-human passion. With poetic lyricism, Into the Wild poses difficult questions about humanity and nature.

Combining overtly sentimental narrative/cinematic conventions (e.g. slow motion shots, voiceover narration) with an almost Herzogian observation of people and nature, i.e., emphasizing the disconnect between the two, Into the Wild is accesible as standard biopic material. At tims, however, it is also oddly detached, never failing to recognize the difficult implications of rejecting "society." Despite digging into Chris's troubled past with his family --a staple for tragic biopics-- Penn invites multiple perspectives on McCandless and his decisions and motivations. Importantly, though, he eludes a singular explanation for Chris' inner rebellion, pain, and passion. He is not out to explain why Chris McCandless was who he was. Instead, Penn advocates a more inquistive approach to understanding Chris. The film is unassuming, yet still obsessed with what drove him. It may romanticize McCandless, but it doesn't blindly admire him. Chris' own explanations of his disdain for society come off like standard revolutionary rhetoric, full of vagueness and pontification. It's like he took an English class that blew his mind. Thus, the film certainly finds flaws in Chris.

But on a deeper level, it seems purport that this young man saw the world in a totally different way. Penn is fascinated by the concept that underneath Chris' refusal and sometimes inability to connect with people is a searching soul who embraced abstract feeling in ways most artists can only yearn for. McCandless may have been somewhat pompous and hard to love, but he lived with an sense of liveliness unmatched by many, and he was better for it. Few among us have come so close to that void; and yet, somehow, it's buried deep within us. McCandless' quest to destroy the means for being controlled and manipulated by social convention echoes deep within the collective human psyche, and Penn's honest portrayal of this is illuminating, inspiring, even maddening in its penetration of such depths.

To strike ourselves from our pasts or our participation in the increasingly artificial social practices and institutions of capital, commerce, and economy is ultimately impossible. But Chris' bold rejection of these things --while not entirely successful-- is incendiary. Perhaps we all shouldn't give away our life savings and destroy our social security cards, but Chris' insistence on the outright rejection of the institutional means of power that control our interests is a plea to artists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and everyone else to wake up from quiet complacency. It's a call to act, to challenge systems of authority, and to openly question and think about that which constitutes our being in this culture and this world.

Penn frames McCandless' life with an embracing, yet carefully distant attitude toward nature and McCandless himself. He has made his movie in the free spirited shadow of McCandless, balancing the beautiful with the implaccable. He audiciously attempts to penetrate the mysteries of Nature and McCandless himself, as the narrative travels of young Christopher's life. Rather than emphasizing Chris' disconnect with human society, Penn finds as many moving moments in Chris' encounters with the people he met on the road as he does when Chris is alone in the wilderness. The tragedy becomes evident in the film's juxtaposition of the beauties nature and human interaction, where Chris is only consciously concerned with the former. Yet some of the most fascinating stretches of this film involve McCandless' encounters with the people he meets on the road. His conversations with various folks, from aging hippies to a youthful woman attracted to Chris' innocence, is most revealing of his own mythologizing. In his review of the film, Ty Burr hits the nail on the head:

"As Christopher treks ever outward, though, there's no corresponding journey inward; his travels only make him more unyielding. When Stewart's Tracy offers herself to this beautiful young saint of the open highway, he declines, saying it would defile her innocence. In fact, it's Christopher's own purity he wants to maintain, and with it a fatal distance from other people.

Penn knows that, and he acknowledges as much in the final moments of "Into the Wild." In general, though, he loves his hero too much to sort out his own feelings. The result is a road movie oddly lacking in the exuberance of the road; the tone is occasionally as dour and scolding as Eddie Vedder's unadorned songs on the soundtrack. Yet Penn's fascination with Christopher is genuine and legitimate. What does it take to go on a vision quest in modern America? Whose fault is it if the journey ends in death?

Only an American could have made this "Into the Wild" - impassioned, broad, unexamined. (Correction: Only an American from the Lower 48, since many Alaskans apparently consider McCandless an idiot of classic proportions.) To stand outside our myths and see them with a cold eye requires a director like Werner Herzog, whose 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man" contains all the lucid, bothersome paradoxes Penn's movie only guesses at."

It's interesting that Burr makes note of comparing Into the Wild to Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005), which also exhibited an unwielding fascination with a man so removed. As Burr observes, Herzog more explicitly teeses out the existential void that Penn seems to hint about in his depiction of McCandless. And where Herzog subtly suggests a strong admiration, even respect for doomed activist Timothy Treadwell, Penn more avidly romanticizes McCandless, finding the more positive and creative edge that Herzog does in fact acknowledge in his examination of a similar individual. That Penn's interpretation appears to be more hopeful and naive does not make it less of a movie, but instead adding a new perspective to the intensely complex relationship between human beings and the natural world.

In neither editorializing about nor co-opting this story for selling his own message, Penn locates the tensions of being human. These tensions spring from the acknowledgment of both the natural and artificial elements that contribute to our being. We are the result of that strange collision of forces, which makes connections amongst ourselves as well as connecting to the earth that has given is life impossible and inevitable. Inextricably bound to and seperated from nature and each other, we can take in the spectre of another's beauty and be fulfilled by the purely intangible feeling of connecting, be it to nature or to another person. Yet we can never able to be organically apart of that with which we connect. This film teems with these elusive tensions and depths. Penn is perplexed, maddened, and inspired by McCandless' story, and it comes through in every composition of this tragically hopeful film.

While Penn frames Chris' lack of concern for human relationships as his undoing, he seems to acknowledge that only the person who braves alienation from those around him can fully grasp a connection to the Earth. But at what cost? Unlike McCandless himself, the film finds just as much sublimity in the connecting to others as it does to connecting to nature. By the end, we understand that McCandless' tragedy isn't that he died at the young age of 25; it's that he realized all too late that human connection is equally constitutive of our being as the lands and waters from which we emerged.

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