I’m probably the last Democrat to see “Into the Wild,” the film based upon priceless adventurer writer Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name. I had read excerpts from Jon’s book in “Outside,” magazine. So I knew what to expect. Which is why I had avoided the story treating it like an Insync song – I knew it was popular but it wasn’t supposed to be popular to me.
This coming-of-age story about the fragile soul that is Chris McCandless seems like the quintessential liberal anti-suburbia, pro-Jack Kerouac, road-journey. Set up is progressive archetype all the way: the socialist protagonist eschews the trappings of American success to bond with those he deems less fortunate and an earth he feels isn’t as appreciated as it should be. As depicted in the film and in Jon’s writings, it seems Chris wasn’t at all that way. He was a more 3-D character than most gave him credit for and as a journalist and prolific profile writer, I should have known that he wasn’t the cliche I expected.
For those who haven’t heard of the story, days after graduating from an elite private university in Atlanta, Chris, an affectionate, compassionate young man with a penchant for wanderlust, sends his remaining college fund money – $20,000 – to the progressive help group OxFam and takes off to go find himself and a future he can stomach. He says nothing to the parents, who presumably outfitted him with all that cash, footed the bill for his college years and paid for this room and board for the last 19 years and simply disappears in his Datsun. Along the way he burns his money – literally and sets off on a wild adventure.
After months of frolicking around America the beautiful, living with beatniks, hippies, good folks and good ole’ boys, Chris finally decides to test his carnal nature against God’s creation in Alaska. It seems nature was too formidable a foe.
I waited so long to see this movie because I couldn’t take another depiction of some self-indulgent white kid with more than I could ever dream of throwing it away for some soul-searching journey. Only the rich, I believe, have the luxury of escape.
Only the rich and the criminal – which to some is redundant – can throw off the cares of this world and be so wholly involved in self that they could disappear without a trace and have no one depending upon them enough that they had to be found. When I was 15 years old I told my mother I wanted to take a year after graduating high school to travel and “find myself.” She grabbed my shoulders and pushed me into the bathroom. “Here,” she said pointing to the mirror. “There you are.” And that was all the self-discovery space I received.
So it was with contempt and a drop of envy that I sat down to watch Chris’ story fictionalized but highly matched in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild.” I was pleasantly surprised.
I was charmed by Chris’ film character. Yes he was totally against commerce but he also wasn’t afraid of hard work. He earned what he needed and he created everything else. I admired his self-reliance as much as questioned his cowardice. I thought it was cowardly to run away from his family and not confront them for the hurt they caused him. But hey to each his own.
I found his innocence radiant and ridiculous and, as it turns, out fatally dangerous. He was an idealist but we all know that life is filled with reality. And Chris – noted in his journals – learned too late that you can’t run away from life in order to find true happiness. And so I started thinking that this film I so abhorred was really reaffirming for those who choose to stay in life, who choose not to check-out. And it seems Chris, through his posthumous diary, agreed.
Jon says Chris’ untimely death was really a series of naive mistakes. Blinded by his search for truth through ideal-colored glasses Chris failed to bring a little reality to his picture. But I say Chris’ demise came because he forgot one fundamental thing – to know means death because only in death can we truly know.
In all of us there is a little of Chris – a knowledge-seeking being desperately trying to make sense of an uncaring and unkind world. We search for that truth in literature, in people, in church and in the land. We are all Adam and Eve wondering why we’re here and taking bites out of apples that we think hold the key. People like to say it was God’s limitation that did the first couple in. I like to think it was their hubris. Their quest to not just know God but to be equal to God. This hubris is the fuel driving that human quest for purpose.
For Einstein it was theoretical physics. And for Chris, it was nature. But in our quest to know we encounter things that are simply inexplicable. And in our journey to touch what I believe is God we fall short sometimes, more than not, with disastrous consequences. Atom bombs, mental illness, suicide and unintended deaths can arise.
As a God-believer I accept my limitation. As a Christ believer I marvel in my salvation despite them. But as a plain ole’ human I remember, as we all should, that I am but a blink in a world of stares and sometimes we don’t really matter. Even though at others times we do.
So I’m glad I saw this movie. It confirmed my mom’s assertions. That you are where you’re at and no earthly realm can give you more self-discovery than that. Oh and it’s just reckless to go to stay in the Alaskan bush, climb a mountain, swim in an ocean by yourself. Duh.