Sunday, February 3, 2008

Wild America

On yesterday's edition of Pop Culture America with John and Dave (See, Dave? I'm using the new title!) I had our guest, film critic Dann Gire, speak about my favorite film of the year, Sean Penn's Into the Wild (see list at right). Typically, we were running over time and I didn't want to force Dann to give up any more of his weekend than he already generously had, so I didn't engage him on the issues he raised.

I've got all the time in the world on this written portion of the blog, however. So here goes.

Into the Wild tells the true story of Christopher McCandless (the remarkable Emile Hirsch), a young, well-to-do Atlantan who seemed to have it all and one day chucked it to venture out into the American west without a penny to his name, meeting his ultimate fate in the wilderness of Alaska.

Dann said (I'm paraphrasing) that his problem with the movie was that its narration made it seem almost like a book on tape; that it felt like it was forced to dig up images to go along with readings from a diary. It's a fair point. The movie is narrated by the main character's sister (played by Jena Malone) and she quotes from Chris's diary and speculates about his motives for doing what he did.

I would say (and I am saying) that that's part of the film's strategy. It wants the viewer to have a little distance from Chris, to regard him the way everyone else in the movie does, and to think about his story in terms beyond the seemingly foolhardy gesture of one troubled young man.

The other characters in the movie all look at Chris through quizzical, uncomprehending eyes. Whether its the biological family he leaves behind or the surrogate family he builds almost despite himself during his travels, they all see him as a curiosity, a riddle to be solved. The movie wants to put us in their shoes. And does. And that's why we don't get the typical movie identifiers; the movie wants you to stay at arm's length from Chris and just observe.

What Chris does would not have been viewed as bizarre, say, 150 years earlier in America. Back then, if you didn't care for your family, your prospects, your world back east, you lit out west for the territories, just like Huck Finn. You took Horace Greeley's famous advice: "Go west, young man." It was common.

But America is a different place now (the movie is set in the early 1990s, close enough to "now"). And it's possible that America is different on more than just a surface level. It's possible that for all our praising of freedom and liberty, we don't care for the actual excercise of those values the way we once did. It's possible that when a young man truly, absolutely and uncompromisingly embraces freedom at the expense of all else, he will be looked at as an alien life-form, something odd and curious. He might even be looked at, ironically, as un-American.

Into the Wild wants you to look. Not identify. Because in the end, it's not about Chris McCandless. It's about each individual audience member's reaction to Chris McCandless. If you see him as a self-indulgent, spoiled rich brat throwing away the future that his parents worked so hard to give him, that says more about you than it does about him. If you see him as a hero, dedicated to freedom and integrity at an almost superhuman level, that also says more about you than him. The truth, like most truths, probably lies somewhere in the middle. But Into the Wild isn't a movie about discovering the truth of Christopher McCandless.

It's about discovering the truth in ourselves about ourselves and our country (those are, after all, ultimately the same thing). And it's the best movie of 2007.

Footnote the First: The Into the Wild DVD drops on 4 Mar 2008. Put it in your Netflix queue now. Or pre-order at

Footnote the Second: Dann Gire will co-host another edition of Dann and Raymond's Movie Club on Thursday, 7 Feb 2008, at the Schaumburg Township District Library. If you're in the Schaumburg, IL area, drop in and tell him why he needs to give Into the Wild another look.

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