Friday, February 22

Considering "Into the Wild"

One of the (admittedly weaker) reasons I believe in God is this unshakable sense that someone has been and is still screwing with me. All these coincidences keep popping up in my life, and I cannot help feeling that were I a little bit smarter, I could put it all together. There has to be a reason my Zen-Mediation instructor went off on mysticism for the first time last semester literally the day before I was to give a presentation on Sufism, the mystic branch of Islam. A push towards something or pull away? I do not know. Like I said, not smart enough. But, once I figure that and all the others out... I do not know that either. Maybe I will have won at life and will receive a free pass into heaven or something similarly cool.

Into the Wild, based upon the true Jack Krakauer account of the final two years of Chris McCandless' life, is just the latest in those coincidences. Let us begin with the clearest. The doomed protagonist and I share a first name. His estimated date of death (because he died alone) is August 18, the same as my birthday. But let us be honest as well. These similarities are shallow, nothing more than attention grabbers. To remain focused on them would be no different than those kooks searching for something behind the fact that both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald are both referred to by all three of their names. What really matters and draws Chris McCandless and myself together across the years is the words that spill from his lips and into his journal. "I read somewhere how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. " "I want to be all the way out there. On my own. No map. No watch. No ax. Just out there. Big mountains, rivers, sky. Game. Just be out there in it." I wish I could come near that passion and eloquence.

I wish I could actually do it too, make a clean break with society to live alone and deliberately in the wilderness, but that is where Chris McCandless and I ultimately differ. He went out and did it. He stopped playing along with the rules which underly modern American life, which most of us never question, even if we happen to recognize their existence. Rather than go on to graduate school or pursue a career, he donated his entire savings to Oxfam and took off on a two-year journey in the early '90's, one that took him from South Dakota to Mexico and culminated in four months in the Alaskan wilderness where he eventually starved to death. McCandless was an idealist, unwilling to compromise the rightness of his journey to the real. Even better, he actually did what he believed in.

What does this all mean? If I grant that coincidence can be more than a number of random variables coming together at the opportune moment, and I do, with what did I leave this film? A chance to see the path less taken. If I have not made this clear enough yet, I apologize. I respect McCandless the man and his actions immensely. Maybe I could have been proud of myself if I were to do what he did, but after seeing this, I am not so sure. For sure, what he did took courage. Not just anyone takes on the Alaskan wilderness with 30 pounds of equipment and 10 pounds of rice with no safety net, but it takes a massive level of selfishness too. Some allusions are made to his distaste for apartheid, not particularly unique or difficult since I cannot remember the sales of "Maintain Apartheid Forever" stickers being particularly high, but instead of catching the next flight to South Africa or Washington, D.C., he chose to live for himself. Forget others. All that mattered in the end for McCandless was that he lived the life he wanted to.

Furthermore, McCandless ran not only from middle-class family and the consumerist life which awaited him after graduation but poverty and human misery, too. A year into his journey, McCandless checks in for a night at a Las Vegas shelter but picks right up and leaves that very evening after wandering the streets, unable to bear what he sees, and pushes harder still to make Alaska. That he had incredible passion and ambition cannot be disputed. What is disappointing is that he turned it all toward himself. He could have been great but died young and without reason. If you do not want to deal with possibilities of what may have been, realize that he hurt his family. Not on the best of terms with his parents, McCandless never told them of his plans or once contacts them. More unforgivable though, he never tells his sister either, one whom he supposedly loved dearly. They knew nothing of his fate, whether to hold onto a hope of his survival or until a call came in mid-September to inform them his body had been found. McCandless is someone to respect but not to emulate. I do not want to be him.

Make no doubt, this is an excellent movie, and were it released in any other year, it would have received more awards attention than it ended up with. Its only two Academy Award nominations went to Hal Holbrook as Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. Both well deserved, but strong cases could be made for Emile Hirsch in the lead role, who has been a pleasure to watch since The Girl Next Door; Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on the soundtrack; Sean Penn as the director; and even Best Picture. The movie is deftly made, and there are no weak links, except for those who demand constant action and find the original Die Hard a little slow with too low of a body count. Obviously, the movie centers on McCandless, but the ensemble of people he meets on his travels, both whose lives are touched by him and who shape him, is given due care. No matter their screen time, genuine depth is given to each of them. No stock characters here, and the landscape cinematography is simply brilliant. It is worth a little look-see, and you can come to your own conclusions towards Chris McCandless, a wake-up call to one's own squandered existence or a warning or something else entirely.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

Sean Penn's the director? I may have to check this movie out.

The vedic Indians said there were four stages of human life. The first was the student stage, where you would learn under a great master all that he had to teach you. Then there was the family stage, where you would start a family and become domestic and useful to society. Then there would be the retirement stage, where you would contemplate life as your personal responsibilities decreased.

For some, however, there was a fourth stage, where you would withdraw into the wilderness and become an ascetic. This stage could come at any time and superseded the other stages; one could leave his family behind for the sake of his asceticism. Not just the family, either: leave behind society, possessions, even religion, in order to withdraw fully from the world.

There was always some mixed feelings about the ascetics. On the one hand, they were usually respected for making what was usually seen as a holy choice. On the other hand, none of the people writing could have been ascetics; so they often saw the ascetics as being a waste for society.

The lure to go alone into the wilderness can be a strong one, but it is one that is always tainted. As Aristotle put it, a man alone in nature cut off from society is not fully human. Whether the benefit is worth losing your humanity becomes the question.