Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 27, 2007

Into the Wild

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Chris McCandless next to the abandoned bus that he called home in the Alaskan wilderness

As I work my way through the studio screeners sent out to New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) members in anticipation of our awards meeting on December 9th, I feel like Diogenes with his lamp. I finally stumbled across a couple of good ones. The first is Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” that I will be reviewing today. I will follow up with a review of Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Hoax”, based on the Clifford Irving saga of the 1970s. Both of these films are by no means perfect, but they are intelligent, serious and worthy attempts to transcend the standard Hollywood crap. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that both are focused on driven personalities, who are responsible for their respective falls–in other words, characters ready made for classic Aristotelian drama.

“Into the Wild” tells the story of Chris McCandless, who died of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness in August 1992 at the age of 24. Alaska was the last stop in a voyage that the idealistic but naïve Emory University graduate had taken in pursuit of a goal shaped by the writings of Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and others who have rejected materialism and conformity.

It is doubtful that even Thoreau would have gone to the extremes taken by McCandless. The first thing he did after graduating was to donate his graduate school tuition fund of $24,000 to Oxfam. After setting fire to all the cash he had on hand, he began hitch-hiking here and there in the style of the Beat Generation. He might have read Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which described the best minds of his generation “cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall.”

Like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, he was attracted to life on the margins. The film shows him driving a combine in the wheat fields of South Dakota or flipping burgers in a McDonalds in Oregon. Despite an A average, he had zero interest in joining the rat-race also described by Alan Ginsberg in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue
amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion
& the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister
intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Unlike Ginsberg and Kerouac, however, McCandless had no interest in becoming part of a subculture among like-minded souls. Where the Beats were in search of an alternative to the corporate world of the post-WWII period, McCandless was consumed with the need for solitude. Rather than looking for love or friendship, he sought to commune with nature in the style of “Walden Pond”. To a large extent, this flight from human contact was shaped by a very unhappy family life. His father was a wealthy NASA engineer who was cold and judgmental. Of course, not everybody who comes from an unhappy family feels the need to live as a hermit in the Alaskan wilds. As Sean Penn’s film implicitly demonstrates, Chris McCandless’s odyssey was ultimately a kind of suicide–the ultimate escape from society.

Penn’s screenplay is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, with a powerful film score that includes songs written and performed by Eddie Vedder. It is not hard to understand why Penn and Vedder would be attracted to this material. Both are long-time critics of American society and saw Chris McCandless as a kind of symbol. Perhaps the futility of his odyssey resonated with their own feelings of the impossibility of turning back the kind of greed and violence that characterize American society.

However, when moviesonline.ca asked Vedder how he would react if his own 20 year old daughter decided to go on the road like McCandless, he answered: “Well, the initial reaction is to send a security guard along, keeping him 50 yards away to keep an eye on her at all times.”

Once the ill-prepared Chris McCandless arrives in Canada in April 1992, we understand that his days are numbered. Watching him mostly unsuccessfully trying to keep himself warm and feed himself, I was reminded of another film about Timothy Treadwell, another idealistic but hapless soul who succumbed to the elements in the Alaskan wilderness. Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” documents the life and death of another soul who sought spiritual purity in an environment that was drawn more from Hobbes than Thoreau. After living among and video recording the bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska for approximately 13 seasons, Treadwell and his girl-friend were finally attacked and eaten by a hungry bear.

Park rangers considered Treadwell to be a nuisance as well as a hazard to himself and other people. The only surprise was not that he was eaten, but how long it took. Comparing “Grizzly Man” to “Into the Wild” reveals Treadwell to be far better prepared. He was always well-stocked with food and other supplies. Apparently, McCandless’s knapsack contained mostly rice and books when he made his fatal walk into the woods.

In an article that appeared in the Independent newspaper on April 11, 1993, long before “Into the Wild” was published, Krakauer reported:

Alex seemed excessively ill-equipped for the rugged conditions of the interior bush, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. He admitted that the only food in his pack was a 10lb bag of rice. He had no compass; the only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered road map he had scrounged at a petrol station, and when they arrived where Alex asked to be dropped off, he left the map in Gallien’s truck, along with his watch, his comb, and all his money, which amounted to 85 cents. ”I don’t want to know what time it is,” Alex declared. ”I don’t want to know what day it is, or where I am. None of that matters.’

As someone who has spent the better part of 40 years opposing the violence and greed of American society, I had deeply ambivalent feelings toward Chris McCandless. I admired his dedication to his principles but despaired of his failure to understand the society he lived in and, more importantly, his own limitations.

Many years ago, I became aware of a trial involving a young man who had committed murder during a psychotic break. Like Chris McCandless, he had hitch-hiked around the country in search of spiritual purity, a goal that he sought to achieve through meditation and the copious use of psychedelic drugs. During his trial, the prosecutor tried to establish his guilt on the basis of drug use. He explained to the jury that if you lose touch with reality through hallucinogens, this does not excuse you from criminal culpability. It is similar to killing a pedestrian while driving drunk.

The defense attorney tried to establish his innocence on the basis of a long-standing schizophrenic condition. Long before mental patients began to be thrown into prison, the trial took place at a time when “diminished capacity” would be a basis for a not guilty plea. The defendant could look forward to a long stay, perhaps permanently, in a mental institution.

The defense attorney brought in a forensic psychiatrist who explained to the jury that spiritual quests are typical of those suffering from schizophrenia. The desire to get close to God or to the Universe, the desire to relinquish worldly goods, the desire to wander, etc. were all symptoms of mental illness. At the time, I noted to myself that if this was true, it spoke volumes about the intractable ills of American society since millions of young people were also exhibiting the very same symptoms as the psychotic killer. While R.D. Laing is not fashionable any longer (for all the right reasons), he still made some sense when he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to the insane world.”



  1. what I liked about “Into the Wild” is that it respects McCandless’ objection to bourgeois society and doesn’t dismiss it as simply the juvenile angst of a troubled young man. It seems clear that McCandless’ adventure was based on a politically naive (and distinctly middle class) individualist fantasy. But I think the movie does a good job of reflecting on the limitation’s of McCandless’ vision.

    Comment by Adrian — November 28, 2007 @ 11:12 pm

  2. Great review, Louis, I look forward to seeing the film. I posted the review as a bulletin on myspace for my avid readers, crediting and linking to your blog of course.

    Don’t often agree with your politics, but as a film critic you’re usually spot on!

    Comment by David Christian — November 29, 2007 @ 8:08 pm

  3. […] 1. Into the Wild–reviewed here. […]

    Pingback by 2007 Film Notes « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 7, 2007 @ 9:29 pm

  4. Adrian – *great* point – I had never thought of that before. Because of Penn’s own beliefs, he was willing to “listen” to that side of the story and respect it… Thanks!

    I also think, of course, that only a bourgeois person could (1) see himself as “free” to go off and do these things (i.e., he had no obligations to family, to anyone); (2) see a need to “test” himself through the “wilderness” (all of these things are socially constructed, of course) – people who live in structural violence don’t need to make their lives any more violent! So, that is what bugs me about the story.

    And, I thought, 10 minutes into the movie, “This guy is mentally ill!” Whether he was or not, too bad he never got a psychiatric evaluation.

    Comment by darla — December 12, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

  5. I just saw the film last night (along with another good film, the Canadian “Monkey Warfare”). Very interesting life that McCandless lead. Although the film is based on a true story, it is obvious the author/director of the film has to take some dramatic liberties. The end of the film makes it clear that the Super-Tramp’s death by starvation was accidental. After the film, one is left with the overwhelming lesson in life (also known as the Boy Scout’s motto) – always be prepared.

    As in Life, so in Revolution – be prepared!

    Comment by Pance — March 30, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  6. this movie is deep. it goes beyond the surface level. if you rate this movie/book as poor it is probably because one does not understand the real truths behind the cover. it is not simply about the way his parents treated him, in fact, it has to deal with this but in so many different ways. in this sense, take a look at how people treat each other. watch the movie CAREFULLY. there is tons of meaning in this movie. his parents neglect to maintain a happy family is part of the movie, but, at the same time, this neglect is also associated with so many other things in life . im done typing .. watch it again..do not knock this movie…it is about materialism but also much more!!! watch it carefully..pay attention to how each scene is shot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! this is key.

    Comment by matt` — April 9, 2008 @ 1:07 am

  7. thanks, louis and commentators for your insights. i’m myself as a matter of fact ambivalent about mccandless’s position. i know that in relation to his judgmental father, chris is right. he has the right to reject the somewhat hypocritical views of his father during the luncheon and past. however, i’m also wondering the naievety on chris’s part for embracing nature. well, his encounters with many other characters during his hitch-hiking are also important, but i don’t like the way he puts alaskan wilderness as the point of his “learning”.

    and to me, the core of chris’s problem is his familial relationship. see how he finally decides to go home after some time, after re-reading, if i’m not mistaken, tolstoi. society is such a nuisance for chris, but i have a feeling that it’s “just” on the second level in his construction of anxiety. 😀

    thanks all

    Comment by wawan — July 7, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

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