28 October 2007

Into the Wild

I admire Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild quite a bit, and so I was wary about seeing the movie. What I most like about the book is the interplay between Krakauer's sensibility and Chris McCandless's story -- Krakauer understands the mix of idealism, frustration, and foolhardiness that led McCandless to abandon as many of the accoutrements of civilization as he could, dub himself "Alexander Supertramp", and set out with very little preparation or knowledge, eventually heading for the wilderness of Alaska -- and yet Krakauer is also different enough in temperament from McCandless to be able to provide a counter-narrative through his wrestling with the implications of McCandless's actions, ideas, and mistakes. It's not as drastic a counter-narrative as Werner Herzog provides the story of a somewhat similar Alaskan dreamer, Timothy Treadwell, in Grizzly Man, but it's enough to make the book compelling and thought-provoking.

Alas, the movie Sean Penn has made is a sentimental and declawed version of Krakauer's book. I didn't really hate it -- Emile Hirsch gives a warm and dedicated performance as McCandless, which makes the movie generally pleasant to watch -- but every time I was about to fully surrender myself to the characters and events, something annoyed me, and the more I've thought about Into the Wild as a whole, the more I've been frustrated by its many lost possibilities.

A story like Chris McCandless's cries out for a visionary director, and I couldn't help wondering throughout Into the Wild what a director like Herzog or Terrence Malick or even David Lynch would have done with the material, because Penn is too pedestrian a filmmaker -- too given to visual, audio, and narrative cliches -- to do real justice to the source material.

The music for the movie consists mostly of songs by Eddie Vedder, and though I like some of the individual songs, they are used so obtrusively that they turn otherwise interesting scenes into banal music videos. At moments of emotional intensity, the score (by Michael Brook) reverts to strings, letting us know this is a place where we're supposed to feel. (There's a nice moment, though, when Hirsch and Kristen Stewart perform a pleasant duet of one of my favorite songs, John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery". It's contrived and obvious, but it's such a good song I didn't mind.) The editing and cinematography don't help -- each shot is designed for short attention spans, and much of the footage of wilderness looked to me like it could have been taken from any anonymous nature documentary. (For comparison, take a look at a masterpiece like Paris, Texas.)

And then there's the voiceover. Usually, the voiceover is of McCandless's sister, Carine, who yaks about Chris and about life after he disappeared from the family. It's at best unnecessary, at worst a clumsy reiteration of things we could figure out otherwise or decide for ourselves. (At the end, we get Chris himself taking over the voiceover.) Worse, though, are words from McCandless's writings occasionally scrawled across the screen in big, handwriting-style yellow letters that seem more appropriate to a show on Nikelodeon circa 1988 than to a movie such as Into the Wild seems to aspire to be.

The biggest problem I have with Into the Wild as a film, though, is that it presents McCandless as a holy fool. Wherever he goes, he makes people seek out what is meaningful in existence, he makes them recognize love, he helps them see beyond consumerism and materialism and other, like, bad stuff. So even though he might not, himself, have the best end, he nonetheless helps other people find meaning in their lives, repair their relationships, and dream. It's the sort of gooey, optimistic woo-woo appealing to everybody from people who use the word "spirituality" without a trace of irony to devout fundamentalists of various religions, and in that sense it's hardly different from the average feel-good movie or get-well card.

McCandless sought some sort of truth, and in seeking this truth he sacrificed absolutely everything. That's the sort of idealist I like, the sort of person who sticks to deep convictions and tries to build a life from them, even if they do so rashly or ignorantly. Herzog is attracted to this sort of figure, and has spoken of "ecstatic truth" as a goal of his films, and though this idea is a bit abstract for my tastes, nonetheless it leads Herzog to produce interesting work, and I wish Penn had been better able to aim for such a truth; instead, he emitted rote simulacra of ecstacy, reducing McCandless's quest for truth to, more often than not, comfortably familiar imagery and easy emotions.

There are, though, redeeming aspects to the film, including some of the scenes of McCandless's last days -- visceral scenes presented without bombast. There are some fine performances (especially by Hal Holbrook) that transcend the inspirational-movie-of-the-week situations the actors have been given for material. At brief moments, the music gets out of the way and we are allowed some choice and ambiguity in how we will respond emotionally. The attention to books throughout the movie, and McCandless's fascination with writers such as Tolstoy and Jack London, will please anyone who has carried books around as totems and companions.

I suppose, then, that my strongest feelings about Into the Wild as a film are feelings of disappointment -- disappointment at the lost potential to film the story as something unique and powerful, something that escapes received ideas and gestures; disappointment that the fleeting moments of real excellence couldn't be extended.