Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild featuring Emile Hirsch as Christopher Johnson McCandless (CM) is a gem. We are told this officially by Margaret Pomeranz (5 stars) and David Stratton (4.5 stars) on the ABC Movie Show (linked below). It's based on the book by Jon Krakauer who also wrote the cracking Into Thin Air about another tragedy and Jon knows his stuff, both nature and people with the courage to be honest about both.
We took in the gentle non fiction masterpiece like a long drink of tea after a cycle, which was also the case, at Dendy Newtown Saturday night, smallish theatre ¾ full.
The first thing about the story line is that it’s a tragedy. Ours and his. You know he dies young almost from the beginning when his acute mind has barely fully formed. A 24 year old blade, A-grade student of literature, 'destined for Harvard law school' but actually an emotionally brittle young man with the wit to seek to heal himself … if he can. This is the story of his courageous battle to do just that. It's his courage which is so admirable.
We 'know' McCandless like many other young men will see themselves at least in part embracing wild nature, adventure, feral camp living as an antidote to the “hypocrisy of parents, politicians and society”.
Some movie reviewers in their arty farty milieu (we imagine wine glass in hand on polished floor boards) have reacted against “the extremism” of McCandless’s fate poisoned it seems by a poor choice of forest herb having incorrectly read his edible botany manual, perhaps driven astray by painful hunger itself.
So let me explain as best I can. The young man, a child really, does his best in simpatico with the mainstream that inspiring Sicilian American student leader Mario Savio in Berkley in the Sixties called “the odious machine”: An economically focused career producing education system (aka sausage maker). Significantly Savio became a bookshop owner immersed in ideas his whole life. CM (or alter ego Alexander Supertramp over the 2 year chronology) has his love of books too and realises by the end of college his 'success' as Bob Dylan sings is “no success at all”. Why so? Certainly it was not his own choice and lacks ambition over the seriously big questions of our time. CM is not in fact a drop out, he want's to change all society starting with himself first. And as Paul Kelly song goes if he falls others are rising.
Predictably CM has some big neuroses to work through. Made bigger by his sensitive antennae. The family has secrets and unhealthy dynamics and CM can’t grow emotionally without resolutions. GM needs to metamorphose into an adult phase with sutiable calibrations on his emotional equipment for the full life journey. His parents settings might have gotten them through with bumps and scrapes but can’t sustain a bright intellect like CM much past teens dealing with whole new issues. CM like all annoying kids sees all the falsity but not perhaps the validity in their time. CM's trouble, and our Trouble, is he has his own life and time to negotiate, and the parents world view won’t fit. Their pain is to not accept this disjunction, that times are "a changin'".
Indeed our times have desperate inequality in Africa as CM studies, and of frivolous material "things" that we imgine CM finds contrary to ecological sustainability, though the film avoids any environmental prosletizing. CM is primarily a humanist who despairs for humanity. A very logical rational insight into present predicaments, albeit a taboo especially around 1992 (the year we started our own ecological activism). (We had a similar crudely formed insight as a young bloke in 1982 - and this is really true - along the lines of 'at this rate humanity will choke on itself' when deciding what direction to take just out of high school here in Australia.)
This is the critical point: CM needed to find and build a new spiritual reality, because such a mind was heading for self destruction from addiction or madness anyway if he didn't. That's the hard truth of the matter. It may indeed be a comfort to his grieving parents to know CM almost certainly learned to pursue his quest for “truth” from them by example in their highly contested way. It’s to CM’s credit that he chose “the truth” of nature above all of the other destructive imposters and diversions. And in a sense, if you prefer, it is God’s creation which indeed is beautiful, highly sophisticated, intricate, safe and quite satisfying “if you know how to look at it”. The converse can prove just as true.
So CM goes looking for this solid believable ‘truth of nature’ (just as this writer studied zoology to balance law) in contrast to classrooms, emotionally violent parents, shallow materialism, like so many before and will in the future ..... presumably to heal: There is an anecdote about WW2 veterans working in the Tasmanian forests building railroads, or whatever, just going walkabout and sucking up the life in nature to revitalise after the deathly horrors. Then there are the Vietnam War Vets up North Qld way similarly recovering in quiet bush camp surrounds. CM is no different. Paddling the rapids of the Colorado River, surviving if he can, and such a metaphor for a screwed up family.
The production values are great in this movie and we expect no less from Penn these days after Mystic River etc. The music is good with Eddy Vedder of Pearl Jam fame, with his own travails in earlier life and of a similar vintage, to match 'a grunge' paradigm of drop outs and lovable Euro hippies communing with nature. We kept thinking the theme would morph into a recent inspired version of Somwhere Over the Rainbow here on YouTube by Israel Kamakawiwo Ole.
CM is essentially right about many things well portrayed. Excess material things are ridiculous when ‘it’s the ecology stupid’ to quote Steve Biddulph in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. CM is also a human being whose very nature even amongst the smartest of us is to make sometimes fatal mistakes. We are a herd animal for the reason we avoid many dangers that way by sharing information. CM could have survived the winter but had too much to learn in too short a time with too much faith in his undoubted intellect, youthful strength and book learning. If he’d had one native Indian friend with some indigenous wisdom he would be alive today.
We first felt an echo of our own experience in an early scene with CM stepping away from a car ride into 2 feet of snow at the edge of the Alaskan wild. Just glad to step away from the normal traditional world of material power and comfort. He’s off to explore but mainly we believe to rebuild his sensory and philosophical instrumentation to carry him through what he thinks will be say another 50 years. He doesn’t expect to die but on the other hand he knows when it’s coming which surely is a blessing : To make peace with death.
Picture: Kokoda map we had laminated after solo trek in 1990. 6 days of malaria was a bummer, glad to get home but a great experience. We got lost about 8 km west of here, alot easier than you might think from the deceptive lines above. Rescued by local 'nationals' (the ones not carrying guns).
Our echo was 1990 in the hot steaming jungle of Papua New Guinea, just out from a village called Sogeri, fatefully without a mosquito net. 2 bouts of malaria and 17 years later we still sleep under a mosquito net not wanting to be the first to suffer malaria, Ross River or Barmah Fever out of the local Cooks River in Marrickville, which is surely coming in the age of global warming.
The dangerous river crossing with heavy pack that can drown you. The fear of wildlife and the odd gun toting local. The incredible beauty as a reward for endeavour. We remember the thrill of life again after feeling like a perfectly red apple yet brown and bruised inside after a childhood of contradictions.
The message of Into the Wild is actually a pretty simple one and well worth the time. Humans make mistakes. Some of us die testing ourselves. Even the best and smartest. Those that make it grow and get stronger building on a sensory and philosophical experience that we can trust and that works for this age, not the past. Such people are worthy leaders and CM was potentially one of those. In fact he still is because his facility with words and writing means he never actually quite left especially with Krakauer's book and Sean Penn’s skills as a film maker.
And that’s why I think the movie reminds me of the essentially hopeful tune “Somewhere over the rainbow”. He died young, but you can’t say he didn’t live a great time. And for all those mortified parents out there one advantage of today is the internet means you can’t ever really lose contact directly or indirectly even as a powerless voyeur on the progress of your little bundle of joy. Back in 1992 there was only snail mail. These days we have blogs, and similar expressions of self of greater or lesser palatability.
In conclusion we agree children should not simply live the life of their parents for very sound reasons, and they should live as simply as they can.
Thanks to the community radio sector for the ticket with this film review offered in the same spirit.
Picture: wonderful Mt Aspring south island NZ a tad under 13,000 feet, climbed in 1989 by the main face.
Postscript #1 24th December 2007
The big Fairfax media in the wake (?) of this piece have run a prominent page 3 picture story the Saturday before Christmas dated 22nd December 2007 about such "a leader" out of the discipline of the law and journalism in fact (hence the sympathy), not so different to the example of Christopher McCandless. As we like to say, getting arrested usually sorts the wheat from the chaff and so it is with this youngish well educated activist who clearly 'does not lack ambition' by simply taking a less travelled path: