As Into the Wild opened in Madison last Friday, I had a chance to catch up with it on Monday night. On a side note, the Sundance theatres are very fancy and a bit pricey. Good experience, but if a given movie was playing somewhere else I’d probably lean away from Sundance.
I’ve always been fascinated by Chris McCandless and had read the book in the Spring of 1999 before my first trip to Alaska that summer. I remember becoming completely enthralled in his story, while also seeing clearly the positives and negatives in his life. He lived gloriously according to his own driven id, while simultaneously, selfishly amputating his loved ones with no notice in the name of burying pain and promoting rebirth (I understand his home environment and parents’ flaws were magnified a bit for movie, but how could one really be sure? Even if they were that bad, his selfishness is still indictable). My mother read it as well and was a little frightened for my summer trip, but I assured her easily by reminding her that I had been to BWCA and numerous other high adventure places and had the knowledge to do just fine in Denali with a backpack.
I remember feeling (probably arrogantly to a degree) that I had perhaps a bit more outdoors experience than Chris, and certainly a greater sense of what was wise and unwise in entering a wilderness, particularly one as large and unforgiving as Alaska. I guess I have a healthy fear of the untamed wild, which Chris did not. This makes me pleased and sad. I admire that about him and find it fascinating, but also find it immensely foolish and unwise, and certainly nothing to emulate. It has been surmised that he essentially desired to commit suicide by walking out with the supplies he carried, and it’s hard to disagree. He wanted to disappear into the ether like Enid at the end of Ghost World (which I always read as a metaphorical and near physical suicide) and he got his wish, though we certainly know he intended to re-enter civilization and re-connect with friends and presumably family. Alaska plays for keeps though and while it is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth, it is extremely unforgiving. Alaska has taken many wide eyed adventurers and easily will continue to do so. There is a line in The Blair Witch Project that got a chuckle in the theatre where a character asserts that by merely walking in a straight line they would eventually run into a road, as America has been thoroughly sliced up as to make endless meandering impossible. True, but not so true in Alaska.
While the book loudly sung Chris’ infectious wanderlust and joie de vivre it always tempered it alongside the facts of his story and sobering comments from Alaskans as to the reality of many people from the same cut of the cloth that the Great Land endlessly claims for good. He made many mistakes that could have been easily foreseen – bring a map, more experience storing meat, location of the hand pulley down river from his aborted return route, etc. The film doesn’t really mention these things, but they are certainly there if you stare hard enough. In his attempt to cross the river and return to civilization and human contact he maddeningly confronts the raging river that was much smaller in the winter time. The film succeeded in this sequence so powerfully that I actually though he might make it even though I already knew the conclusion well (much in the same way United 93 fooled me into the possibility of a happy ending), but it neglected to show the audience the existence of a hand pulley less than a mile up river – a fact he would have known if he had brought a map. I see no benefit in insult to injury, but it is a useful fact, though one that probably violates the sainthood Sean Penn seems to ascribe to Chris. While the book loved Chris and clearly painted his warts, the movie seemed to barely mention his warts, yet always with clear justification for their existence. I’m sure Sean Penn will disagree with that statement (and maybe punch me over it), but it definitely came across that way.
Geez, I sound like I’m really bashing this movie. I hope that is not the case, as I loved it. The direction and story structure were excellent. Several shots so perfectly used the widescreen, particularly the opening shot. You could clearly visualize how small we are in relation to the wilderness. I believe strongly that there are aspects of Chris’ life worth emulating and celebrating and that his story is well worth telling. Some of it should be cautionary, even damned in the ultimate analysis. I don’t agree with any beatification though, and probably agree with most of what Alaskans conclude.
Up in Alaska is slightly on the other side of the issue, but I can’t say I disagree with her at all.
Here is a well written, concise Alaskan point of view from a somewhat doppelganger of Chris’.
Another Alaskan pov.
Ultimately, Alaska is that magnetic of a place. I wholeheartedly agree with Chris on that one.
Hal Holbrook practically stole the move when he appeared.