Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sooner or Later, We All Catch the Bus

I've written about Sean Penn's amazing movie Into the Wild (just out this past week on DVD) several times before on this blog. I've written about it as a political fable; I've discussed the directorial strategies used; I've enthused about the remarkable acting of Emile Hirsch. I'll probably write about the movie again. I'm definitely writing about it now.

Into the Wild (d. Sean Penn)

Let me tell you a story. It's not as good a story as the one in Into the Wild, but it's short.

Once there was a young man who graduated from college. He was accepted into Harvard Law and began his studies there. Two years into the law degree program, he was hit by a bus and died. The end.

What would we as an audience say about such a story? It's sad. It's always sad when a life that has barely begun is snuffed out. Suppose someone said, "Ah-Ha! That fellow made a choice that led inevitably to his demise. He was foolish to go to Harvard Law. It got him killed." Is that a logical conclusion? Is it even remotely sane?

The story in Into the Wild starts the same way my crummy story does. Chris McCandless graduates from Emory University and has Harvard Law in his future, if he so desires. But he does not so desire. Instead, he gives away his savings to charity, burns the rest of his money, abandons his Datsun beater in the desert and heads out west, eventually making his way to the Alaskan wilderness where he, like the young man who got hit by the bus in my story, dies (Not a spoiler! Chris's fate is a matter of public record.); perhaps not coincidentally, a bus plays a key role in his ultimate fate. Does the choice Chris makes lead inevitably to his death? Is the whole thing just an elaborate suicide?

A fortune teller of my acquaintance once told me that she was baffled by how many clients came to her asking if they were going to die. "Of course they're going to die," she said, "No divination necessary there."

But we all know (and she knew) that's not really what those fortune seekers meant. They want to know if they're going to die soon, suddenly, violently. And what they really want to know is if there's anything they can do about it, any way to avoid the fate, or at least stave it off for a little while longer.

For Chris McCandless, such questions were irrelevant. Along his path, he meets a number of people and the one thing they all have in common is that they all look at him and worry. I don't believe he has a death wish, but there's no doubt that he is heedless of death and embraces risk. When the rest of us see someone with such an attitude, especially someone we care for, we can't help but be concerned. We're concerned in large measure because they're not.

The path we take in life is defined by a combination of the things we can't control and the choices we make. Every single event in the course of your life has led you to the chair you're sitting in right now while you read this blog entry.


Every event that happens in the course of your life from this moment on will stem to some extent from the fact that right this moment, you are sitting in that chair reading this blog entry.

Again, I apologize.

There's a word for making your own death a choice rather than a thing you can't control. The word is "suicide." And that is not what Chris McCandless does. You can say that he puts himself in a position where his demise is more likely, but all you're talking about there is a percentage. People choose to be policemen (and women), firemen, soldiers all the time, greatly increasing their chances for a sudden and violent death. Do we consider them suicidal? I hope not.

Into the Wild is the story of a young man who died, yes. But far more importantly, it's about a life lived. And that life is miraculous in it's vibrancy and fearlessness.

The bus with your name on it may well be right around the next corner. Take a tip from Chris McCandless and live while the living's good.

4 stars (of course).

DVD notes: This is a sparse affair on DVD, which isn't a problem; the movie speaks quite eloquently all by itself. If you splurge and pick up the two-disc set, you get two brief documentaries about the making of the film. They feature the full participation of the cast and key crew members and are worthwhile, but probably not going to thrill anyone who isn't already obsessed by the movie (like ME!). DVD extras: 1 1/2 stars.

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