I saw the movie "Into the Wild" yesterday. This was only the second movie I've seen since arriving in New York in mid-August. (The other was "Across the Universe" — blogged here.)
Why don't I see more movies? 1. I don't like the physical constraint of committing to sitting in a chair for 2 hours. 2. I only go to movies I think I'll like and still don't much like the movies I see. 3. Few movies seem like the sort of thing I'll like. 4. I have no shortage of other things to do (which is the case for anyone who loves to read). 5. I don't find myself in social situations where going to the movies is what people do together (and I don't see why people want to spend their precious time together doing something that involves so little interaction with each other).
Why did "Into the Wild" overcome my resistance? 1. I wanted to take a cab to 27th Street and 11th Avenue to begin a walk that would take me through a bunch of art galleries...
... and then all the way back to Brooklyn Heights, and "Into the Wild" was playing at a theater on 19th Street and Broadway, so what I usually experience as noisome restraint would rest me up for the walk through downtown Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge. 2. Having read the book "Into the Wild," I was interested in seeing a visualization of it. 3. Some of my very favorite movies are about men at the existential edge: "Grizzly Man," "Touching the Void," "The Pianist," "My Dinner With André." (I know André is just sitting at a restaurant table throughout the movie, but he describes a search for his soul through mountains, deep forest, the Sahara, and the inside of a grave.)
How did I like "Into the Wild"?
1. The actor — Emile Hirsch — who played Christopher McCandless, was cute — like the young Leonardo di Caprio — but he did not radiate emotion. Compare him to Adrian Brody in "The Pianist," whose character, like McCandless, is starving. Brody made me feel what was happening to him as he descended into the most desperate human condition. Hirsch couldn't do that, though he was supported by terrific actors (especially Hal Holbrook), profound landscapes, and that squalid little bus. He seemed like a really nice kid with a lot of idealism and enthusiasm who made a few unfortunate choices and so, sadly, never got the chance to grow up. Unlike the character in "The Pianist," McCandless made his own choices. He rejected society, but we can't see much anti-social edge in Hirsch's portrayal.
2. The photography didn't move me. The beach, the canyon, the desert, the mountains — these are all beautiful locations, but this isn't a travelogue. These things should be photographed to convey emotion, but they looked about the way they'd look if you went there and saw them for yourself. There are 2 key scenes where Hirsch climbs up a hill, acts enthused, and gets the old man played by Holbrooke to climb up there too. It reminded me of the scene in "Titanic" when Leo DiCaprio shows Kate Winslet how to live by getting her to stretch out her arms on the prow of the ship. It's a Hollywood cliché. (Too bad Hirsch didn't yell "I'm king of the hill!")
3. I nearly walked out about a third of the way in. Something about Hirsch and Catherine Keener romping on the beach and plunging into the ocean felt stupid and phony. We're told the character is afraid of water, and then Keener — the mother figure he finds to replace his real and too-distant mother — makes it possible for him to go swimming. I forced myself to stay, and I see the story arc this was part of. He leaves his inadequate parents. (They're excited about the idea of him going to Harvard Law School and haven't a clue why he doesn't want them to buy him a new car.) He goes on the road where he finds replacements for his mother and father (Keener and Holbrook). He interacts with water — gets caught in a flash flood, kayaks through rapids, plunges in the ocean, fords a stream — which are probably meant to symbolize birth/mother. And he encounters a rocky terrain and kills and butchers some animals — squirrel and moose — (squirrel and moose???) — which are probably meant to symbolize his struggle with death/father.
4. The movie raises but hardly explores the issue of celibacy. We're shown this attractive young man, who seems to have a feeling for other people, in the presence of sensuous females. Kayaking, he comes upon a bare-breasted woman, but she has a boyfriend and he has to run off. (He's running from park rangers). Later, a beautiful, sensitive girl throws herself at him, but she's 16, and he's upstanding about that. (He burns his money and Social Security card, he kayaks in violation of clearly stated rules, and he steals rides on freight trains, but he's rigorous about the age-of-consent laws.) So the movie shows us the path not taken — love from a woman could replace the inadequate parents — and the character is given pat excuses for not going there. Still, why did he forswear sex? In the end, dying alone, he writes in his notebook: "Real happiness must be shared." This is very affecting, and it is an important idea in the intellectual development of this man who reads a lot of books. But something is left unexplored. Why didn't McCandless want sex?
Did you walk all the way home?