"old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me."
- Louis MacNeice, 'Prayer before Birth'
Sean Penn's new movie, Into the Wild, is the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who, traumatized by his parent's violently unhappy marriage and having overdosed on too much Tolstoy, decides to break away from the 'system', and leaving behind all the opportunities available to him as a graduate from Emory, become a full-time tramp. It's the kind of inane yet romantic notion that only someone very young and very naive could come up with, and the fact that McCandless takes it seriously only proves that you can get a college degree and still be entirely clueless. At any rate, McCandless, or Alexander Supertramp (as he now styles himself) spends the next year and a half or so wandering about the country, doing odd jobs and camping out in the wild, all the time preparing himself for what he considers the greatest adventure of all - Alaska. All this would seem juvenile if it weren't for the tragic consequence that follows - McCandless ends up starving to death out in the Alaskan wilderness.
Penn's achievement here is the way he manages to suspend judgement while telling McCandless's story - neither idolizing nor making fun of him. The movie takes McCandless's rebellion, and the 'ideas' that lie behind it seriously, but it's also quick to show that the Supertramp way of life is not so much a journey as a flight. At heart, McCandless is a child running away from an unhappy home, with nowhere or nothing to head towards except whatever will put him furthest away from what he's trying to escape. McCandless is too naive to see that blind rejection is just as much an act of conformity as blind acceptance - to unthinkingly swear off everything conventional is to be just as trapped by convention as if you had taken it to heart. McCandless's instincts and ideas are those of a twelve-year old, and the fact that to this is joined the intelligence and charm of an upstanding young man, and the brittleness of ego of an adolescent, only serve to make his fate inevitable. Alexander Supertramp is Peter Pan gone wrong - his refusal to grow up sending him into a spiral of isolation that leads eventually to his death.
Penn is also good, I think, at bringing to life the fatal logic of this spiral. The problem, of course, is that McCandless, stubbornly locked into the self-righteousness of his position, is quick to reject any viewpoint other than his own as the product of blinkered thinking, of unexamined convention. It never seems to occur to him, lost in the depths of his self-obsession, that other people may actually be living genuine, happy lives and may not be the ignorant dupes of social conformity that he takes them to be. As a result, even the people he meets in his travels who genuinely care for him, and see the errors in his ideas, can do little to help him, because even suggesting that he rethink some of his positions is seen as a betrayal, and compromises them in McCandless' eyes. The only guidance this young man will accept is advice that doesn't contradict him, which is why he relies on books - which he is free to misinterpret - as his guides. The last time I saw this kind of obtuse pig-headedness brought to screen was in The Sea Inside, and for all its other problems, Into the Wild's portrayal of this pathology is, I think, the clearer one.
There are a number of problems. For one thing, the film is just too long: the protracted scenes of McCandless's death at the end are particularly tedious, and turn what could have been a powerful ending into something approaching bathos. There's also a great deal of repetition, most of it involving Supertramp smugly delivering his platitudes about life to people with far more experience in the matter than him - which only serves to make him more annoying. If McCandless is tolerable at all, it's because the sympathy you feel for him (both because of the domestic hell he's coming from and the fate that awaits him in Alaska) just about balances the desire to slap some sense into him.
The other problem with the film is that Penn fills its with a whole cast of fascinating and colorful secondary characters. While this does help relieve the tedium of the film, it backfires in at least two ways. First, these characters, with their life stories hanging tantalizingly just out of your reach, make McCandless seem even less interesting by comparison. Every time McCandless leaves one of these people behind and moves on, you can't help wishing the film had stayed with the other character rather than with Supertramp. But the other, more serious problem is that because almost everyone McCandless meets seems so out there (I mean really, Vince Vaughn is the most normal person he comes across), the movie doesn't feel true. You get the sense that you're living in some poorly written fantasy of what a tramp's life is like, rather than in real world America. Only occasionally, usually when Supertramp encounters some form of bureaucracy, do you feel grounded in the everyday world. I realize it's an unfair comparison to make, but the movie I kept thinking about watching Into the Wild was Agnes Varda's brilliant Vagabond - a film that's everything Into the Wild isn't, and a much, much superior film in consequence.
Into the Wild does contain some spectacular footage of the American wild, though again I can't help feeling that Penn overdoes it a little. The performances are adequate. Emile Hirsch does a competent job as McCandless, even if he does have a tendency to look like Leonardo di Caprio when he tries to be 'intense'. William Hurt sleepwalks through his role as McCandless's father and Marcia Gay Harden, who seems to be making grief-stricken mothers her own little cottage industry, is her predictable screen self. Vince Vaughn actually manages to come off as likable - a real achievement - and Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker all do perhaps too good a job of bringing their characters to life. Overall, Into the Wild is an interesting film, one that, if it does nothing else, forces you to define for yourself just why McCandless is wrong, and by making you pinpoint that error helps you to examine your own life a little more closely.
And speaking of Tolstoy, there are apparently two new translations of War and Peace out - one by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and a second 'original' version by Andrew Bromfield. Great. All I need to add to my already overburdened reading list - not one, but two new versions of W&P. As though reading it the first time around wasn't undertaking enough.