Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sean Penn's film "Into the Wild": adventure and tragedy, and a moral fable


I recall hearing the tragic story of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) back in the middle 1990s. His adventure and excruciating passing form the new biography “Into the Wild,” from Paramount Vantage, both written and directed by Sean Penn.

The filmmaker went to great lengths to film his adventures in as many real locations as possible. This of course includes the wild country near Fairbanks, AK where he spent his last few months living in an abandoned Fairbanks transit bus, but many other lower 48 sites: first, Atlanta, where he graduated from Emory University in 1990, then the Arizona and California deserts, the Oregon coast, the South Dakota plains, and skid row in downtown Los Angeles. I don't know how Mr. Penn got around the usual requirement that every location have a separate "unit" represented by industry unions and guilds (if a visitor knows how this works, please comment!) In full 2.35 to 1 which sharply focused, detailed outdoor photography, this is a sunning film that could well have warranted Imax showing.

Penn also tells the story in layered, retrospective or flashback fashion. He starts with Fairbanks and the bus, and one sequence takes us through that 1992 summer to his end, which comes when McCandless mistakenly eats poisonous potato seeds (the root was edible but the seeds are not -- how do wild animals like bears know what is edible?) that causes his internal organs to shut down and him to starve with lack of glucose metabolism. Had he not eaten this, he likely would have been able to hike back to help before the Alaskan autumn, and resume his adult life. This all happens some time after he has shot a moose, and then been unable to protect his kill from maggots. It’s interesting, man is trying to be the top predator; but man does need technology and tool (maybe based on current sunlight) to compete with bears, cats, wolves, and foxes. He has one encounter with a grizzly ("Bart the Bear") who senses his plight and peacefully walks by, honoring him as a kind of fellow food chain "predator".

In parallel, Penn tells the story of McCandless’s adventures. It starts with a dinner confrontation with his protective parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) where his dad wants to buy him a new car. “I don’t need any thing,” he says. Later: “It’s not enough to be strong. I want to feel strong.” He soon gives away his savings, and heads out, and we quickly realize he had been contemplating this all four years of college. There is some discussion of moral idealism and rejection of materialism and “power”, but later we learn that Chris felt hurt by some of his parents’ indiscretions. He has his own moral code, demanding not only complete trustworthiness and engagement of life, but the ability to remain beyond even one temptation. At one point in California (reunited with a middle aged couple he helped reunite), he is introduced to a teenage girl, and he quickly establishes that she is under legal age. He meets an older hermit, apparently gay, living in the Mojave desert with a leather business; the man makes him a belt, and then says he would like to adopt Chris. This, of course, is euphemistic for wanting to have a relationship with Chris, who says he could think about it when the adventure is over. Chris meets the concept of “psychologically feminine” in Paul Rosenfels’s terminology, as he establishes in one line where he says that the only important virtues to him is “Truth.” He talks about "just living man" as if that alone were some kind of organic experience (Paul used to say that in the Ninth Street Center talk groups -- discussed elsewhere in these blogs; so did the Rosicrucians). As a kind of psychological purification, he hides his identity and calls himself "Alexander Supertramp" (at the LA homeless shelter).

The layering, with the parallel lines of story, probably work better here than a simple linear chronology would, since the end is otherwise so difficult to take. This, unlike Robert Zemeckis ’s Cast Away (2000) (2oth Century Fox and Dreamworks) will not end happily; there is not even the redemption of Timothy Treadwell’s loss trying to film grizzly bears (in Grizzy Man, 2005, from Lions Gate and the Discovery Channel, dir. Werner Herzog).

Paramount Vantage recently released “Arctic Tale,” (dir. Adam Ravetch, Sarah Robertson, narrated by Queen Latifah) a survival story of polar bears in the arctic with the ice caps melting. That makes a curious complement, in a statement about who man has to learn to live in a world that is not infinite in its ability to accept the changes brought by technology. Chris tried to like in complete harmony with the planet as it is, and he did too much of it alone.

Another good comparison is LionsGate's "Open Water," (2004) (dir. Chris Kentis), about an Australian couple stranded in the water on a snorkeling trip; that film had an ineffective sequel.

Still one more comparison: Kevin Costner 's "Dances with Wolves" (1990, Orion Pictures), where a wounded Civil War hero is on his own for a while until he befriends a Sioux tribe.

Update: Oct. 4, 2007

ABC "World News Tonight" and "Nightline" reported on modern day hikers, like Mark Patterson, going out into the Wild with similar motives. At one point, Mark refuses an offer of food after hitchhiking (which is the way men in this culture have to get around, despite public and law enforcement disapproval of hitchhiking in general). The bus (on the Stampede Trail, near Denali National Park and Mount McKinley) has become a kind of shrine. There is some concern that this movie will inspire others to challenge their own lives in a similar way.

I flew over the flanks of Mt. McKinley in a private seaplane in 1980, and we landed in a well-equipped cabin south of the park for dinner afterwards.

Update: Short news items: (Oct. 4, 2007)

For an announcement about another intended Paramount Vantage release ("The Kite Runner") please go here on my blogs.

Reuters (and MSNBC) also report (on Oct. 2) "Hollywood union asks writers to authorize strike," here. One wonders if this would be a window for even more independent film. Variety has a story by David McNary, "Studios Brace for Life Without Scribes: Prospect of WGA Strike Has Studios on Edge," Dec. 20, 2006, here.

Here is WGA 's Strike Authorization Letter (Oct. 1, 2007) link.

Update: Oct. 10, 2007

Hollywood Reporter has a detailed story, by Carl Di Orio on the possible strike today, "DGA Could Call the Shots." The link is here.

David McNarry has a new story on Variety Oct. 11, "WGA prepares for strike; Writers Guild drafts hardline regulations", if the contract expires Oct. 31 without a new contract, here.

There are mixed rumors on an informal "lockout" until there is a new contract, but obviously production companies cannot make plans without settling this somehow. For example, Carl DiOrio and Nellie Andreeva have a Backstage story from Feb. 2007 "Fearing WGA Strike, TV Execs Bank Scripts", here.

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