World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Into The Wild’
Travel Blog • Eli Ellison, Eva Holland • 03.04.08 | 11:44 AM ET
By now, you know the story. In 1990, a 22-year-old college grad named Christopher McCandless renounced his privileged upbringing, adopted the nom de drifter Alexander Supertramp, and turned to a new life of vagabonding. Two years later, Alaskan moose hunters found his corpse in an abandoned Fairbanks city bus outside Denali National Park. Jon Krakauer pieced together Chris’s odyssey and wrote the bestseller Into the Wild. Sean Penn‘s movie version of the book, which hit theaters last fall, arrives today on DVD. Eva Holland and Eli Ellison gave the disc a spin, exchanged e-mails and debated Hollywood’s adaptation of Into the Wild in the debut of the World Hum Travel Movie Club.
Subject: Into The Wild? Or Into The Wastebasket?
Two hours and 10 minutes into Penn’s overlong love letter to Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, a grizzly bear wanders into Chris’s camp. By this time, a starving Chris is too weak to speak. Good thing. At full strength, this self-righteous twerp surely would’ve lectured the bear on Emersonian idealism. The nicknames (Chris McClueless, Alexander Stupidtramp, and, of course, Jesus Christ McCandless) came easy. Setting aside my ambivalence about our hero and judging the quality of the film itself, did not.
Fresh off of seeing the movie, I read Krakauer’s excellent book. Have you, Eva? Penn is both this film’s best friend and worst enemy. While he’s stayed mostly faithful to the source material, the man just can’t help himself when it comes to over-the-top hagiography. Is that McCandless on a mountaintop striking yet another spinning Christ-like pose? Cue the Eddie Vedder soundtrack and put this baby in slow-mo.
Don’t get me wrong. I thought Emile Hirsch (as McCandless) did a nice job with a script that was poetic and soulful at times. As Chris zigzags his way through the American West, seeking truth and beauty, he befriends an RV hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) that become a sort-of surrogate family. The scenes with Hirsch and a brokenhearted Keener are subtle and seem true to life. But later, Penn is up to his heavy-handed tricks as McCandless dispenses Hallmark card wisdom to the surrogate father figures he meets (Vince Vaughn as Wayne; the great Hal Holbrook as a sad-eyed old man).
Though Penn’s adaptation has its flaws and I’m conflicted about McCandless, I did ultimately enjoy the movie because it’s about something I can’t resist: wild eyed wanderlust and the call of the open road. Can’t wait to hear your take.
Subject: Penn’s parental monsters
I know exactly what you mean—separating what I thought of the movie from what I think of McCandless himself involved some heavy lifting.
I, too, have read the book, and the first thought that struck me when I was watching the movie last night was this: Is Penn playing out some “Daddy issues” of his own? Because it seemed to me the biggest difference between the book and the movie—apart from some logistical tightening and shortening, obviously—is the way Chris’s parents are portrayed. In Penn’s version, they’re almost unrelentingly awful. I felt as though the movie was trying to suck away any sympathy that I might have for them, to make me feel that they deserved the pain they got. Which makes sense, in a way, because as you said, Penn is setting McCandless up for sainthood (or Messiah-dom) here, and the easiest criticism to launch at the kid—aside from a good zinger about how only a moron walks into the Alaskan wilderness with a pair of rubber boots and a 10-lb bag of rice—is a line about how selfish he was to leave his family wondering and grieving and probably blaming themselves. It makes me a little sick just thinking about what they must have gone through.
Maternal instincts aside, there was a lot to like. Sure, Penn overdid the slow-mo and the super-imposed images and fade-outs—and while we’re at it, I was sick of the bright yellow font spelling out Chris’s postcards across the screen before the opening credits were through. You mentioned Keener—I thought she was fantastic, and all the other supporting characters nailed their parts, too. I’m a big Hirsch fan, and I thought he did a good job, especially in the scenes where he was forced to carry things alone. (Quick, somebody get the kid a volleyball!)
But the real stars, for me, were the landscapes. Alaska actually didn’t turn my crank as much as I expected (maybe because I’ve got all the snow and ice I need right now here at home), but who knew South Dakota would be so appealing? And the American Southwest—that’s your stomping grounds, Eli. Is it that pretty in real life?
I’ll give Penn major props for one thing—he could have jumped straight to the Alaskan tragedy, wallowed in the bus a lot longer and cut loose most of McCandless’s earlier wanderings. But he didn’t, and the scenes in Arizona, California and Nevada were some of my favorites in the movie. In those scenes, Hirsch made his character really come alive, and I could feel (and relate to) the joy he took from just soaking up the world. It’s like you said: “I liked the movie because it’s about something I can’t resist: wild eyed wanderlust and the call of the open road.”
Speaking of being able to relate—I’m going to end this round on a mildly provocative note. This movie (and the book, for that matter) seems like one of those cult things where if I come down too hard on it, or argue too strongly about McCandless being McClueless, it’s only a matter of time before some mountain man hopped up on oxygen tells me that I just don’t understand, because it’s, you know, a guy thing. What do you think? Does “Into the Wild” resonate with the most secret part of your male soul? Does it touch on the essence of manhood in America?
Subject: You sound like my shrink
Oh, no. I thought we were gonna have a fun little Sean Penn hate-fest, and now you’re talking Daddy issues and asking me about my male soul? Ok, Doctor Holland, I’ll bite.
But before I address manhood in America, let’s talk more Penn. Where did this man go to film school? YouTube University? He’s got absolutely gorgeous footage shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), yet insists on using his own ham-handed camera work as well. The result is a weird mish-mash of styles. One minute you’re soaring over the Alaskan wilderness in a classically composed shot. And the next you’re watching a shaky hand-held documentary, followed by annoying jump cuts. I know he’s aiming to make an anti-Hollywood modern day Easy Rider, but Sean, you’re no Laszlo Kovaks.
You’re right, Eva, the scenery is the star of the show. And yes, the Southwest is even more mind-blowing in person (try southern Utah sometime). But I have to disagree with you on Hirsch. I thought the kid did best when acting with the supporting cast. Alone, in the wild, I don’t know. I didn’t think he had much presence. On the other hand, I wasn’t looking for Tom Hanks hamming it up with a volleyball.
Does the story resonate with my male soul? Yes and no. Like Krakauer, I see some of my younger self in Chris. In college, I was a bit of a harebrained hippie with a VW bus and a passion for the great outdoors. These days, and I hate to quote Pete Townsend here, I’m what you’d call “an air conditioned gypsy.” Last fall in Canyonlands National Park, I found the most remote hiking trail I could, walked from sun-up to sun-down, cursed consumer culture and jotted profundities in a notebook. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to get out of the wild and into the motel hot tub with a cold beer. Guess I’m missing the Boy Scout survivalist gene. As for your essence of manhood theory, yeah, I think there’s a little Jeremiah Johnson in many American males. But most of us don’t have the time to figure ourselves out in the Alaskan bush. We’re too busy trying to figure out women.
Subject: Tolstoy and travel porn
In my first year of college, I thought it was pretty wild that there were dudes in this world who sit around highlighting passages in old literary classics and then try to model their lives on them (in this case, there seems to be a whole lot of Thoreau and Byron and Tolstoy involved), but I got over it pretty fast. The problem with McCandless—or at least, Penn’s version of McCandless—is that he’s an ideologue. He’s so convinced that his way of living is the right way that it becomes an excuse to treat non-believers (namely, his parents) like shit. Were we supposed to be sympathetic while he was tearing his parents a new one for offering to buy him a car? Seriously? Fine, kid, you don’t want the car. Let me introduce you to the concept of declining graciously.
One thing I found interesting in the book—and that doesn’t come through in the movie—is Krakauer’s idea that McCandless fits into a sort of tradition of young men finding themselves (and losing themselves) in the American wilderness, that he followed a well-traveled path in some ways. I guess it would have been pretty hard to work in some of those other examples Krakauer provided, but I think doing so might have helped show that there’s more going on with McCandless than just an angry rebellion against his parents and, like, conformity and stuff. I think Penn’s emphasis on the “Daddy issues,” as we’ve dubbed them, robs McCandless of a little credit. It’s clear from the book that he was a unique, charismatic and driven individual—I can’t help but feel that in his efforts to beatify McCandless (and I’m totally with you on the uneven-ness of those efforts, cinematographically speaking), Penn has actually let him down.
It’s clear we’re both torn on the overall quality of the film, and on the character of McCandless himself. I’m also torn on the “travel porn” factor—did this movie make you want to hit the road, or does it wind up being more of a cautionary tale?
Subject: The Supertramp Show
Chris’s ideologue issues lead to what I think you’ll agree is the film’s main problem. The parents are one thing, but the people Chris meets on the road aren’t exactly cubicle drones. They live on the fringe. But that doesn’t stop Chris from lettin’ them have it anyway. Oh, Penn makes half-hearted stabs at having these characters question Chris, but mostly they’re just passive observers at the Supertramp Show. While Penn doesn’t shy away from Chris’s screw-ups (the swollen river, the maggot-infested moose meat, etc.), I don’t think he ever believes for one second that Chris might just be a bit of a loon. According to the humorless Penn, the great big bad world is exactly as McCandless perceives it to be.
Let’s talk travel porn. I rate this picture high on the wanderlust scale. We’ve bashed Penn endlessly, and now it’s time to give him his due for actually shooting in all the real locations. As I said before, the movie is soulful at times (did I really say that?). And as a celebration of the American West, it exceeded my expectations. When the credits rolled, I wanted to kill my TV and hit the highway.
I didn’t see the movie as a cautionary tale. Did you? I think most of us already know you don’t head out into the Alaskan wild with a bag of rice and a copy of Walden unless you’re willing to risk paying the ultimate price.
I know you’re about to hit the road for a long spell. Has the movie inspired you to torch your cash and turn to a life of vagabonding?
Subject: Materialism and wanderlust
Cautionary tale? I guess what I meant by that was, there’s a risk inherent in the mindset of someone like McCandless. We all know about the physical dangers he ran into, but I think there’s some danger built into his attitude, too. I guess that’s why I object to the idea of young men emulating him—cutting yourself loose from the “yoke” of materialism and conformity and society, to the extent that he did, is almost always going to end badly, I think. There’s a scene in the movie when McCandless tells Holbrook’s character that there’s more to life than human interaction; that was the moment when the character really lost me. Trees and rivers over family and friends? Really?
But enough of the emotional stuff. You’re right, Eli. It’s always fun to poke holes (especially where Penn is concerned—the guy might as well have a bull’s eye on him) but the movie was a visual treat. I think if I’d been watching it on a big screen, I might not even have noticed half the flaws—I’d have been too busy taking in those big skies and open roads.
And yes, the movie definitely upped my wanderlust level, just in time, too. I’ll be spending the next month on the road in the Southern U.S., and though I won’t be setting my cash on fire anytime soon, I’ll hope to take a little bit of Christopher McCandless’ sense of adventure with me.