Monday, March 17, 2008

Into the Wild

Last weekend, I saw Sean Penn's visually stunning and philosophically challenging movie, Into the Wild. Based on Jon Krakauer's 1996 book, the movie chronicles the last two years in the life of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a.k.a., Alexander Supertramp. Chris' story holds special sway for me, not because many of the themes hit a personal nerve (though they do), but because he and I went to college together, and I knew him briefly during our freshman year when we both worked on the school newspaper. I won't claim that we were friends, and will admit that I'd have likely completely forgotten him had his story not come to national prominence. That said, to have known someone who was destined to live a short but memorable life makes one feel like a part of the story.

The movie was very well done: well-acted; gorgeously filmed; full of thought-provoking questions about materialism, the essence of human existence & relationships, the definition of truth, morality, happiness, love, loss, etc. But there was something askew, and I only found myself figuring it out after feeling a pang of regret for not having been more like Chris, not having developed a rock-solid moral code and renounced a life of comfort and security in order to live obsessively true to that code. That was the problem, in a nutshell: Penn idealized Chris' life, and - to some extent- his death, to the point of making a spiritual vision quest-turned-death-march into a romantic pursuit of "truth". While Chris' parents were portrayed in unequivocally unflattering terms, Emile Hirsch's Chris has a messiah-like quality, inspiring intense affection and even love in virtually every person he met along the way during his two-year odyssey. He becomes a screen onto which folks project their emotional needs: he's recruited as a surrogate son, grandson, employee, lover, etc.

I would like to re-read the book, but the one thing I didn't like about it the first time around was that Krakauer inserted himself too much into Chris' life, essentially engaging in some armchair psychologizing in order to figure out what made Chris tick. While that may be the biographer's prerogative, it felt too much like Krakauer used Chris' story to work out some of his own issues. Against the backdrop of a best-selling book, that seemed exploitative to me. On the other hand, maybe Penn didn't do enough of that, instead deferring to Chris' character (played with charisma, charm and Hollywood good looks which I don't remember in the real Chris) to the point of borderline hagiography.

Despite what may sound like my overly harsh criticism, the book and movie both tell a very engaging story which raises many issues about the choices we make in a modern society. While the world gets ever more interconnected, it is still possible to get lost. If we are willing to live with the consequences of our choices, it is possible to eschew the demands of a world which exalts achievement, consumption and acquisition above most everything else. And, even for one who was thought himself intellectually and physically prepared for the daunting challenge of surviving for months in the Alaskan wild, the power of the natural world to overcome an ever-worse-equipped-survivalist human specimen remains something to behold and respect.

In an ultimate irony, Chris McCandless' sense of the world came from books, reading greats such as Tolstoy, London, Thoreau, et al. To think - as Krakauer & Penn posit - that Chris starved to death because he misread a book on edible Alaskan flora serves as a powerful metaphor for questioning the validity of a foundation predicated upon the abstract. Chris might have thought that from the right books, he could learn everything he needed to know to make his way in the world. In terms of relationships, happiness, truth and sustenance, he proved himself wrong.


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