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January 9, 2008

Into the Wild--A film by Sean Penn

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When Chris McCandless set out--with ''characteristic immoderation''--for America, his head buzzing with Thoreau's and Tolstoy's writings, he did so not as those men did--looking back and looking forward, but as a young man who had only a grim gut-feeling about his future. In other words, unlike his two heroes, Chris had yet to live a life from which to dislocate himself.

Looking around at his WASPish hive--NASA father, squabbling parents, the prospect of Harvard law and evergreens--Chris summoned an inexhaustible disgust at the spiritual barrenness of it all, and relinquished it. Many of us may have felt similarly, but never had the depth of his righteousness, nor the strength of his will, to do anything about it.

Chris ditched his car, donated his life savings (a cool $16,000) to charity, and dropped his family. He even traded his name in favour of the vaguely heroic, certainly self-aggrandising, Alexander Supertramp. Armed with his books, a tireless self-righteousness, and Herculean will, Alex made the road his spiritual mistress, and conquered the Colorado rapids, wild mountains, and wilder hearts along the way. ''Are you Jesus?'' one travelling hippy asked him, only half-joking. It's a comparison not discouraged by Penn.

The result was mixed. Chris discovered much, learned little, and died, alone, in the Alaskan wilderness at the age of 24. But his adventure was spectacular: in geographic scope, in danger and in determination. Without money or transport, Chris cut across the Wild West trading off his smarts, charm and will. And, for the most part, it worked.

But in Penn's film the stench of obsession is everywhere. As the film cuts around in time, and takes in gorges and deserts, oceans and forests, the wandering Chris mentions to all who will listen that his ultimate destination are the winter backwoods of Alaska. This treacherous, beautiful part of the world will provide Chris with his personal climax, and his single-mindedness perplexes more than a few who meet him. They can sense the extremism in it all; the pulsing extremism in Chris. Perhaps Chris senses it as well, but locates its source in his books. The audience may gradually suspect that his extremism is located in a more banal, but more compelling, arena: his relationship with his parents.

A popular reading of Chris' journey may be to install him as a modern martyr, a shaggy Jesus Christ/Woody Guthrie figure who abandons modern hypocrisy and superficiality for the road. But all the evidence points to Jesus being darn happy with his folks, and Guthrie went on to write a pretty good autobiography and to inspire one of the largest artists of the last century. Chris' legacy is not so assured.

Penn may hate the fact that his great subject should fall beneath the unsteady knife of amateurish psycho-analysis. So be it. Chris' life is such a strange study in desire and denial that I'm unsure of any other option.

The evidence we have is of a young man repulsed by what he considered to be his parents' hollowness and cruelty. Scarred by visions of domestic violence--played out against plush sofas and certificates of professional achievement--Chris was internalising it all and developing a philosophical identity intent on rejection. That he managed to do so secretly for so long is testament to his strength of will.

But the time came to enact his philosophy, and when he did he made the mistake of nominating Thoreau and Tolstoy as its authors, rather than his parents. It's now weeks after having seen the film, and I'm convinced that Chris' journey may be one of the longest and most heroic ''fuck you'' to parents in history--all I did was get my ear pierced. Still, it's not much to hang a life on. Chris may not have wished to contemplate that his grand narratives were inspired by his parents, but until he did, he was on the run.

And his running nearly killed his parents. When you choose to leave a life, in whichever way, you sever deep emotional arteries, and you ain't around to mop up the blood. As an extreme idealist, Chris had worked the ugly trick of transcending himself above the despair he wrought back home. It is as if in turning his back on the WASP milieu he turned his back also on the universally human properties of pain and anguish contained within it. In other words, he was a selfish bastard.

And he fled from others. Continually. Driven by Alaska, Chris turned his back on whirlwind intimacies, leaving in his wake a trail of gooey hearts and wet eyes all over America's West. In perhaps the film's most poignant sequence, Chris meets Ron Franz (played wonderfully by Hal Holbrook), a sad, stoic widower living on the edge of the desert. Ron's life is quiet, defined by discipline and regiment--set meals and times, and a workshop where he works diligently on leather engraving. The quiet dignity of the man is humbling, as is the halo of grief and loneliness that he wears unknowingly.

Chris penetrates the man's heart, opens him up a little, and they share some genuinely warm moments. But the pull of Alaska is always there, and Chris attempts to steal away in the middle of the night. He's stopped by Ron, who offers to drive him some distance north, and which will allow him the opportunity to say goodbye properly.

And so the car stops, as it must, and the old man contemplates resuming his life of loneliness. Choking back tears, he tells Chris that when he dies, so does his name. In that you've rejected your parents, he asks, would you consider allowing me to adopt you?
''Can we talk about this when I get back?'' Chris asks. The old man swallows and nods his approval. It is at that moment that I was convinced that the totality of the world's pain was contained within that small cabin. And, of course, Chris never comes back.

All of this threatens the martyrdom of Chris McCandless, but that isn't to say we aren't left with a courageous man. In all of this philosophising (his and mine) we may forget just how young he was.

And there was much to like about him. It's hard not to like a man who kayaks the rapids, sings ballads at a country hoe-down, operates wheat harvesters, shoots moose, reads the Russians, and talks openly and warmly to all he meets. Chris had a heart the size of King Kong's.

Chris McCandless was beaten, burnt, and blackened by the land and its more hostile inhabitants, and yet... he continued. To point out that there's a fine line between bravery and obsession is to perhaps point out a cliche that's beneath him.

But often-times bravery is simply dealing with what you've got. In not acting spitefully when you're in pain; in not being vengeful when you're betrayed. Admittedly these things lack the glow and heat of Chris' personal philosophy, but they are tough and defining things, and we should stand or fall by them. Chris may have taken all-comers on the road, but he did so because he couldn't take his home.


After the film I picked up Hemingway's complete short stories and thumbed my way to ''The Snows of Kilimanjaro''. In it, a writer lays on the mountain, dying of a gangrenous limb. Physically incapacitated, he drifts into painful autopsies of his failed life:

''But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all. The people he knew now were all much more comfortable when he did not work... They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought that he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body''.

The wife who attempts to comfort him does no such thing--she is one of those who were ''much more comfortable when he did not work''. He stacks on the soul pounds, and gradually ceases writing.

By Chris' own account, he died contentedly amongst the mountains, safe in the knowledge that he had kept his soul lean and hungry. His farewell note, written on the back of the last page of Louis L'Amour's memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, read: ''I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!''

Perhaps the cheeriness was delirium--it's believed that Chris starved to death--or the last defiant act of a stubborn man. It is difficult to think of your soul as lean when your exercise regime has nearly destroyed your family. Perhaps, though, he was content, and if so, it is further evidence of Chris' particularly alluring blend of bravery and obsession, and the discomfiting proximity of those two edges.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at January 9, 2008 9:22 AM