Into the Not-so-Wild: A Not-so-clever Post Title for a Not-so-clever Movie

January 17, 2008

It’s been well documented that road movies are fundamentally about the social impermanence of their protagonists. In that regards, Into the Wild doesn’t offer anything resembling a corrective, but a simple addition: our protagonist isn’t even socially impermanent, he’s socially intolerant. While this isn’t necessarily the movie’s problem per se, (it’s more a problem of mimetic verisimilitude) it’s certainly problematic for the movie. The protagonist is completely unrelatable in his extremism. I don’t think there’s a single american male who doesn’t have some sense of wanderlust. The idea of travel is a mythic part of our American culture; it’s our manifest destiny. In Into the Wild, the protagonist’s quest for the wild is beyond finding himself within our society (experiencing the road and various types of peoplehood), it’s about completely escaping human society. Our protagonist’s belief that his selfhood is to be found in complete isolation is the movie’s biggest detriment. Not only is his supposition wrong, it makes for a frustrating movie.

The protagonist, ably played by Emile Hirsch, is a young radical, coc9af1363ada08faebaedf010_aa240_l.jpgmpletely disillusioned with the falsehoods of society. Or, SOCIETY! as it’s expressed in the movie’s most memorable scene. Hirsch’s McCandless is a bright young Emory graduate. From what we know, he is an A student with a proclivity towards late 80s social-conscious-intellectual trends (legal implications of Nelson Mandela, colonialism in Africa, et. al). He’s also incredibly well-versed in American literature, and he frequently intersperses his dialogue with quotes from his favorite authors. Not surprisingly, they include Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. And therein lies the rub: as we all know, Thoreau was a cheat [sic]. He sent his laundry home to his mother, and he frequently entertained company at Walden. Our protagonist should have known that he would need contact with others and that he couldn’t rely solely on his devices. Also, as an educated young man, he should have learned that man is a social animal. Relating to the other is in our blood, even if you don’t buy into the lord-bondsman dialectic.

Oddly, in removing society from the equation Into the Wild loses the sense of travelogue. Places become meaningless. Only the destination, Alaska, has any real meaning for McCandless; everything else is prelude. This is the antithesis of Kerouac’s dictum: it’s not the journey but the destination. And in removing the place we lose everything so interesting about the road: the discovery of the self through our encounter of the unexpected. The bizarre richness of America, the, “zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship. Billions of dead, or halfdead, fish-smelling May flies in every window of every eating place all along a dreary sandy shore.” Lolita really is the best American road novel.

The movie is, not surprisingly, most interesting when McCandless interacts with other people. Vince Vaughn does a yeoman’s job playing a subdued version of Vince Vaughn, and in so doing indicates that the filmmakers might have recognized the absurdity of a film where the main character spends so much time alone, a challenge at times handled better than other. All of the supporting characters are very good, especially Catherine Keener and the aforementioned Vaughn. The landscape is beautiful and at times stirring–especially when accompanied by Eddie Vedder. Sean Penn certainly knows how to handle his actors.

There’s a lot of voiceover in this movie, and, unfortunately, different narrators. Jenna Malone plays McCandless’ younger sister. Her character arc is almost entirely off-screen. This is interesting, but I’m not really sure if it works. There’s also a lot of voice over from Hirsch, usually in the form of a quotation. One of its bevy of quotes is Wallace Stegner’s “It should not be denied. . . that being footloose has always exhilarated us. it is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west.”

This is a wonderful line, and led me to thinking. Are our travel narratives set out on an axis where the dehumanizing elements of society are equal to the east and individuality the west? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a road movie, or poem, or song, about going East. The closest we come is probably “America” by Simon and Garfunkle, however their ballade is evidence against the east as individualism (where people wear bowtie-cameras!). Not only does the implied narrator go out to look for America, the music reaches its crescendo on the line “counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike/they’ve all gone to look for America” e.g. their Northeasterly lives can’t possibly be the real “America.”

I’m not sure if the evidence will support my theory, but, then again, I’m not so sure about Into the Wild either. Every time I think I’m being to hard on the movie, countless frustrating scenes come to mind. There is a lot of good here. But there is not a good movie.

12 Responses to “Into the Not-so-Wild: A Not-so-clever Post Title for a Not-so-clever Movie”

  1. Rabbi Dr. Prof. Jurgen Haverstam, DHL Says:

    In the American context you’re probably right. I would only offer the following by Yehuda Halevi, the poet-philosopher of the Iberian Arabian-Jewish symbiosis who bemoaned that civilization’s decline:
    “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west– How can I find savour in food? How shall it be sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains? A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain — Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.”

  2. dailysalad Says:

    I’m never one to argue against Halevi’s standing. Raymond P has shown me the ways.

  3. ibiteyoureyes Says:

    I am suing you for neglecting to cite my seminar paper as the source for your first sentence. It is not well documented! That was a private conversation and you betrayed my seminar paper trust. I am suing you.

    On second thought, I just bite your eyes.

    You smell like radacchio.

    Mustachioed radacchio.

  4. dailysalad Says:

    I was under the impression that after the radical priest came to get you released they put the whole thing on the cover of newsweek. I was further under the impression that the eyebiter was none-to-fond of having his prior intellectual ambitions dragged before the court.

    The source is of course your seminar paper, The paper is, I believe, a document, and one whose “whew!”-inspiring length indicates that it was left on the grill at least until it was well done. Hence, a well documented fact.

  5. Your Sister Says:

    Surely there are plenty of Orientalist travel-narratives to the far east? And to India, et al? And I’ve read several books about the lure of the Himalaya. I just think you’re wrong, Dash.

  6. dailysalad Says:

    you are certainly correct. My comments were restricted to the American sphere/American road novel, and American geography, however I did not make that clear. Also, I really like your web alias.

  7. sonnypi67 Says:

    Huh. It’s funny how a bloated education and a pretentious vocabulary cannot afford one any meaningful insight into a film that is really not that difficult to understand. It must be such a burden to be so knowledgeable that everything in the world is too banal to deal with.

    Your argument, or whatever you call it, is flawed from the outset because you refer to the central figure as a main character, thus viewing it through a fictional lens, when it was based on true event.

    Such a rudimentary mistake it is laughable. Ha ha.

  8. dailysalad Says:

    Hi Sonnypi, thanks for your thoughtful remarks. I’m sorry we don’t see eye-to-eye on “Into the Wild,” but everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I agree that the movie was really quite understandable, and I was trying to point out certain elements of the film that were worth commenting on as most of it was not.

    Your second paragraph is more deserving of broader comment. I’m not sure why you take umbrage with the fact that I call McCandless a character. Sure it is based on real life, but the the movie is an artistic work. Emile Hirsh gives his impression of what McCandless went through; we aren’t watching documentary footage. The movie’s defining narrative technique is voice-over which allows for a dichotomy between words and images and the juxtaposition of events across time, a situation far removed from real-life (last time I checked). In other words, while the movie might be biographical it takes a significant amount of artistic license. At the very least, you should agree that there was a process of selecting material. The movie distills years of a person’s life into 2+ hours. Who knows what type of experiences he had, what type of nuances the real person possessed that aren’t reflected by the movie version?

    Again, thanks for reading, writing, and a whole slew of backhanded compliments.

  9. […] to drop. I thought it would be Clayton, but instead it was “Into the Wild,” which I was not so wild about and now find myself disliking it more on retrospect. I probably should have given the Academy more […]

  10. brigitte storms Says:

    If you cannot think of any movie or song about going East, you just have to imagine being in Europe and wanting to explore Russia, Siberia, China or whatever… Easy, isn’t it? Americans are used to sitting on their island, just like the English used to do and look what they got.

  11. mrjameszzz Says:

    must be deleted.
    best deltes delete this post

  12. Salil Says:

    Hi, dailysalad…
    According to you, the protagonist’s belief, that selfhood and individuality is to be found in isolation from human society, is the movie’s biggest detriment.
    But then, the last note that Chris made, which was perhaps, his biggest realization- Happiness is real, only when shared- does affirm that Chris had been wrong all his life.
    Therefore, the moral of the story is very clear: Humans are social animals. And they need company to share their joys and sorrows, as without companionship, neither of these have any genuine value.
    So, does it not imply that your evaluation of the movie was totally wrong?

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