Look, I can appreciate this. I was young too. I felt just like you. Hated authority, hated all my bosses, thought they were full of shit. Look, it's like they say, if you're not a rebel by the age of 20, you got no heart, but if you haven't turned establishment by 30, you've got no brains. Because there are no storybook romances, no fairytale endings. So, before you run out and change the world, ask yourself, "What do you really want?"
--Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), Swimming with Sharks
The movie begins with lines from Lord Byron, not just because of the link to nature. Also, Chris McCandless--the fictional version, if not the real version--is a Byronic hero. A bit like an antihero, the Byronic hero doesn't fit in with society. He's got a distaste for social norms and the trappings of life as most of us know it. I don't need to deliberately be political (or avoid being so) in this blog, as I did yesterday, because the Byronic hero is inherently rebellious, an outcast.
The Byronic hero is ripe for Christ-Figuring but I don't think I need to bother going through the process. Chris McCandless, especially this storied version of him, is a sort of savior figure, an inspiration to step away from the world, even if just on the inside, because so much of what we have and we do every day is just, well, bullshit. We are expected to do certain things--like Christ goes through the motions of getting his college degree before running away. We are expected to hold down a job and pay rent and pay taxes and all of that. And, too bad for you if you cannot find a job doing something you might actually enjoy; you've still just got to do it, because how else can you expect to get by? Society doesn't like outsiders. Mother Culture doesn't trust such men as this.
And, they are men. It is sexist, but it also an upending of the patriarchal system that the Byronic hero turns against the world where he should be well off. The Byronic hero doesn't go for privilege, not his own and certainly not anyone else's. Here, Chris (Emile Hirsch) learned on a roadtrip after graduating high school about his own father's lies about the past and if he wasn't already turned against parents and authority, that certainly pulled the trigger on it... Chris quotes Sharon Olds' poem "I Go Back to May 1937" to his sister early in the film. It's that poem about the parents and how he wants to
...go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman, he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do, you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die...
This is the opposite of nostalgia (whatever that is). Olds, and McCandless by extension (and maybe Krakauer and Penn, for including it) is expressing far stronger than mere cynicism. This is not a predication or expectation of bad things happening. This is looking back and knowing the relationship in question will come to bad things. The world will come to bad things. Society just doesn't know any better. But, Chris McCandless does know, doesn't he? He's the arrogant Byronic hero, charismatic but self-destructive. In Men's Journal, Matthew Power (2007) compares Chris McCandless to Timothy Treadwell, who quite famously spent time--in Alaska--with bears and eventually was, along with his girlfriend, killed and eaten by one. (See the documentary Grizzly Man for more on Treadwell.) Power quotes Craig Medred, "the outdoors columnist for the 'Anchorage Daily News' [who] believes that [McCandless] was suffering from schizophrenia... 'McCandless didn't need the wilderness,' he says. 'He needed help.'" Further, Power describes the Alaskan view of McCandless...
Alaskans fault Krakauer for romanticizing McCandless, thereby encouraging others to model themselves after his life. Before the film has even been released, its has become common to blame Hollywood for further glamorizing a senseless tragedy. As Dermot Cole, a columnist for the 'Fairbanks Daily News-Miner', puts it, "To sell the story, they've made it into a fable. He's been glorified in death because he was unprepared. You can't come to Alaska and do that."
But, what's wrong with fables? They teach us important lessons about life. Does "Little Red Riding Hood" romanticize leaving the path? No, it reminds us that the path is there for a reason, there are dangerous things out there in the wilderness. (There's much more to "Little Red Riding Hood" including a whole lot about gendered expectations and female adolescence, but the simple version will do for this comparison.) Arguably, Into the Wild tells us the same thing. Might it romanticize Chris' adventure along the way? Sure. But, ultimately, it cautions us to be wary. He tells Wayne (Vince Vaughn),
I'm gonna be all the way out there, all the way fucking out there. Just on my own. You know, no fucking watch, no map, no ax, no nothing. No nothing. Just be out there. Just be out there in it. You know, big mountains, rivers, sky, game. Just be out there in it, you know? In the wild.
And, I get that. A lot of people watching this movie probably do. And the movie lets us. It relies on it. And, those who Diana Saverin (2013, December 18) calls in Outside, "McCandless Pilgrims" want that experience. Presumably without dying at the end of it, but if they are like the Bryonic hero, themselves, they are probably arrogant enough to think they will be fine because they won't make any stupid mistakes like Chris McCandless did.
Now is as good a time as any to mention that the poison theory in the film comes from Krakauer's book which was published before the seed testing was completed. Power (2007) writes:
Of course, this flies in the face of the McCandless that the public has embraced, and Krakauer's take has survived subsequent reprintings of the book.
But, then we get into an interestings side issue. McCandless--in the book and the film--dies from poison that makes his body unable to take in nutrients. What the movie doesn't show was that there was means to cross the river just a mile downstream, but McCandless didn't even know to look. What we have here is something like an accident. Not bothering to look down stream puts the fault on Chris. We don't want that. The story doesn't want that. It wants a nature so romanticized as to be dangerous. A nature so dangerous that even this great Byronic hero who survived for two years as a leather tramp couldn't survive it.
That is the fable. That is the lesson.
Chip Brown (1993), in the New Yorker, describes an "Alaska that belongs as much to the estate of the imagination as to the actual earth, and which sustains the crowded parts of America with the sentimental idea of a last frontier." This is an American story just as all those Westerns I watched last month are American stories. We love a frontier. We love the idea that we can tame the wilderness and make a life in it.
But, we also love to be humbled before the glory of the natural world. It's rugged individualism all the way, until God (or nature) shows us our limits. We want it both ways.