Ah, January... that special time in the cinematic year. It's the thick of awards and listmaking, and it's also the season for unimaginably awful movies to be released. (Anyone see One Missed Call this weekend? Anyone?) That's why now is a great time to reflect on the movies from the past year that continue to stand out. While I will have my own reflections on the year in cinema sometime in early March -- when I finally catch up with the many major releases I missed this Fall which will be landing on DVD -- I would like to note one tidbit in a recent article by A.O. Scott regarding the vastly misunderstood Into the Wild, one of the year's most oddly cold, yet inspirational movies. And definitely one of the most memorable. For a film that plays by a lot of rules (i.e. voiceover narration, slow-motion nature shots, etc.), it has moments that infuse those conventions with real power. One such moment, in my mind, is when Hal Holbrook's character gazes searchingly at the youthfully naive Chris McCandless, wishing, hoping for the boy to see what's in front of him. Those scenes, in particular Holbrook's moving performance, and others such as Chris trying to hunt and cook in the wild haunt me to this day.
Anyway, I'm mentioning this because I've had a few conversations about the movie recently in which I've defended the movie and its maker from the claim that he romanticized Chris McCandless all out of proportion (as Woody Allen might say). Shortly after my most recent conversation, I visited the New York Times website and came across A.O. Scott's article, in which he pointedly observes Chris' strong attachment to the social, even though he consciously denounces society and is suspicious of human connection. Scott's final words may be the best I've read about the movie since I saw it in September. He says:
And much as Mr. Penn’s film invites us to identify with Chris, to share vicariously in the exhilaration and the terror of his roaming and rambling, it also frequently places us in the sensible shoes of the people he leaves behind. And that is why we feel his death so acutely. The lesson of the film may be that, while the bonds of affection that hold people together may be frail, imperfect and frustrating, especially when compared with the majesty and integrity of nature, those attachments are more durable and more necessary than Chris McCandless may have wanted to admit. Only other people, after all, can welcome you home, or miss you when you’re gone."
As I have noted before, Sean Penn definitely seems to be inspired and perplexed by McCandless, to the point of seeing him as an essential, relevant figure, even a hero, in some ways. But the film never shies away from the truth that Chris was also arrogant, naive, and neglectful of those around him. Into the Wild is such a strong film because it captures a real sense of the person; his flaws, his strong points, and his ambiguities. His story was fascinating, and his insistence on connecting to the natural world is more than admirable; it's incendiary. As we face greater environmental threats. and as we integrate mechanical and digital technologies into our cultural and individual existence and relationships, Chris McCandless' story is inspiring. And the tragedy comes out of Chris inability to find that medium we should all be searching for; a connection with people, and a connection with the world.