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November 20, 2007

Richard D. North asks, could Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alex Supertramp, have made a good monk? Into the Wild - Sean Penn

Posted by Richard D. North

Into the Wild
Written and Directed by Sean Penn
certificate 15, 2007

Sean Penn has made a very remarkable film and not least by its having an almost completely believable and likeable roster of characters. Chris McCandless is beautifully done, and wonderfully inhabited by Emile Hirsch, but one warms to practically everyone Penn puts up on the screen. Of course we can't know what drove Chris to abandon mainstream life and slip out into the margins and beyond, but we are certainly interested enough to care that, one way or another, he took on the wilderness and the wilderness won.

Chris ends up starved to death in 1992 in a bus - number 142, late of the Fairbanks City Transit System. It is, as he says, his "Magic Bus". It is a piece of civilisation itself (though only fortuitously put in Chris's way), and quite near civilisation and there are friendly huts and escape routes nearby - but he seems to know nothing of them. By having no more than a sketch map, he can produce authentic wilderness within a few miles of road. Very Post Modern.

The film deals tangentally with ancient themes. Why do people climb mountains? Why do they become monks? Set against gorgeous scenery, it is centrally concerned with existential matters. So the question arises: does the film do justice to the inner journey that Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alex Supertramp, was on? In short, is it a good biopic?

It isn't. It is crucially untrue to its advertised source, a very good 1996 book of the same title by Jon Krakauer, an adventurer and journalist who was on the case from the start. It seemed at first sight that Sean Penn wildly over-egged the dysfunction within the family that brought Chris up, and therefore led us overly to sympathise with Chris's being at odds with the world.

It turns out, however, that one of the important sources for the film, Chris's sister Carine, endorses Penn's reading of events. Indeed, there is also the tacit or seeming endorsement of his parents Walt and Billie, who have not, so far as I know, disputed the highly-coloured account of a mildly violent household which appears in the movie but not in Krakauer's book. (I say mildly: Chris's high pressure father seems to have hit his high pressure mother, but Carine uses language which implies more the occasional bruise than the broken bone.) So Penn seems on that score to be more on the money than Krakauer.

Even so, the film won't really do. It is an ideological piece, along the lines of American Beauty or Fight Club. Down with consumerism! Down with the suburbs! You know these riffs. Chris may have been affected by a tense and even violent family life, but unless Krakauer is completely wrong, there were rapprochements between his father and himself before the last two years' wandering that are portrayed here. Penn has given us a species of psycho-babble which is not the more attractive because it seems often to have been uttered by Chris himself. Indeed, Chris's prating is one of the few very unattractive things about him - though it seems to suit Penn.

Anyway, Chris was brutally selfish in his dealings with his parents, and his sister, who didn't deserve it. Since this book and film have no serious interest except as a morality tale of some sort, it is important to note from the start that McCandless begins with a considerable deficit.

While we're at it, Chris was horribly bossy. He was bumptiously opinionated about how others should emulate his spiritual journey. This is especially true as he lectures kindly old Ron Franz, a caretaker and Catholic who befriends him. But Chris is not a "user" any more than he is a loser. He enters into no contracts of familiarity and reliability with those he meets, and so is within his rights to dump them freely.

In vivid flashbacks, we watch how Chris wanders in the West for around eighteen months, alternating between casual work and anchoretic spells on his own. But he is drawn to Alaska, as plenty of others have been before him. It is one of the beauties of Krakauer's book that the author triangulates Chris's journey within several other similar indigent travels, including Krakauer's own.

Much of the controversy surrounding the case has centred on Chris's arrogance and over-confidence. Alaskan survivalists especially have lined up to disparage his effort. Krakauer is clear that it is pointless to criticise Chris for being under-prepared for an Arctic spring and summer in the wild, not least because he lasted much longer with much less than plenty of others.

Chris seems to have picked a degree of unpreparedness as the very essence of the adventure. Just as monks are enjoined to explore the "provisional" - to abandon safety and anxiety about the future - so Chris wanted to take his chances with a carelessness which was neither suicidal nor accidental. Though he is never quite without stuff, he is scrupulous about having very little of it.

The fact is that Chris was entirely within his rights to saunter in the wilderness with a wilful indifference to the necessities of survival. Indeed, it is arguable that he made some very interesting decisions in that regard. He wanted to strip himself down and see what happened.

Penn captures very well the way Chris was a mystery. Old Franz feels he can talk to the boy in religious terms. Chris's granary store boss is giddily and admiringly, but briefly and voyeuristically, caught up with the boy's rhetoric about the transcendental spiritual journey West which is the birthright of all Americans. Indeed, it is one of the deep failings of the film that it wholly ignores Krakauer's telling of the way Chris's family background and his own childhood include powerful elements of camping and wandering with his parents and siblings. His father was born in Greeley - the epitome of Go West! romance. Chris died in the sleeping bag his mother made for him and one of her silver spoons was on the table. Penn doesn't tell us this.

And so we creep back to the heart of the Penn movie and its failure. Chris was in rebellion against "plastic" America and it is only part of the absurdity of his world view - and of Penn's world view - that both men were happy to portray the McCandless family as representing it. It is part of the nonsense of the film that it allows the idea that there is a horrid mainstream America and that only in the margins, gaps and interstices of this society is there any decency. By this language, vagrant hippiedom is the best kind of morality whilst working class life has some merit, and suburban affluence is of course an emotional, spiritual and intellectual desert. This is R. D. Laing and Divided Self and Foucault and Madness and Civilization all over again. When society is mad, only the sick are well.

Oh, and of course the ruling classes suborn some good working class people and use them as bailiffs. So Chris Penn gives us Chris getting beaten by a railway guard - though in Krakauer's account Chris was warned off at gunpoint, and even briefly goaled for railroad hoboism, but not beaten black and blue.

It must be admitted that Penn is sort of filmic genius. We saw it, surely, in The Pledge. In this new film, almost every interaction Chris has is perfectly crafted. In noisy bars, in clinches, in heart-to-hearts - the dialogue feels spot-on and the acting is getting on for miraculous. I don't think we have any difficulty accepting that Chris did and said the things Penn shows us. Plus, we like the guy - which seems to be bourn out by every account we have of him.

In reality, and the film can't quite avoid telling us this, Chris McCandless seems to have charmed and impressed everyone he met, whether they were "mainstream" or "marginal". To a surprising degree and a moving one, he was helped and mentored - and even loved - by almost anyone he let get sufficiently close. He was, in short, a lovely as well as a cruel young man. It perhaps doesn't count as an act of cruelty, but whilst Penn shows us Chris lecturing old Franz, it is Krakauer who tells us that the old boy really did up-sticks and go into the wilderness soon after the boy did. Lord, was Chris Christ-like?

Was his journey a serious one? In some sense, it obviously was. For as long as there has been a civilised human enterprise, there has been a desire amongst some extremists to abandon the urban and see what is left, both within and without. Chris's version of this desert enterprise was thoroughly recognisable and brave and even well-directed. It won't do to make of him a damaged human being (whether or not damaged by a wicked society) as though here was a Columbine Killer, or even a young Islamist terrorist driven mad by a fuming sense of injustice.

Even if his reading of the wilderness classics was trite to a degree, and overly-romantic, and disastrously free of the healing balm of wryness or scepticism, it was at least passionate. And he put his money where his bookmark was. He was much more thorough-going than his heroes Tolstoy or Thoreau or Jack London and not the worse for that.Indeed, Penn does a grave disservice to the mystery Chris was exploring. By rooting Chris's spiritual existentialism in a social or familial or political dissidence Penn's Chris becomes more of a patient and less of a pilgrim.

Chris McCandless wanted to test himself very much, and even to destruction if need be. He doesn't seem to have flinched from that mission, and that surely brings nobility to the project.

Spiritual extremism strikes a nerve now as it always has. We have recently had Into Great Silence [see my review: Being a fly on the monastery enclosure wall] the movie about La Grande Chartreuse and it demonstrates that such people still get formed and still greatly pique our curiosity. Indeed, in her book An Infinity of Little Hours: Five young men and their trial of faith, Nancy Klein Maguire has just given a very vivid account of how a handful of young men in the 60s disappeared themselves into the Parkminster charterhouse in England, and in his Finding Sanctuary, Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth, tells us that Parkminster is full of monks, right now.

Because Chris was interested in monastic parallels, it is in this terrain where we find good comparisons, and - I think - good criticisms. I can't imagine that any abbot would allow a boy like McCandless into his walled spiritual desert without getting him first to go back out and straighten his relations with his family. And the monastic tradition would also require that he understood that as alone and existential as the monk's life can certainly be, it is done for love of God, the human family, and (to be groovily modern about it) the Planet. Chris's solipsism would have been dealt with and - I imagine - to some extent reformed. On the evidence of the Jamison book, by the way, Chris and Penn's world view would find all too much endorsement in some monasteries.

Krakauer seems to be spot-on when he emphasises that some of Chris's last messages suggest that he understood that an inner journey must be essentially outward-looking. Amongst his last writing (never abundant) there are scrawls on his copy of Dr Zhivago: "HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED", and that was close to an underlined passage on the importance of loving one's neighbour. What's more, Krakauer emphasises that Chris was never a loner in the sense of being anti-social, or even a permanent hermit. Indeed, he not only may have been ready to return to society but might have "moved on" in quite a big way. His sojourn in the desert may have matured him.

The tradition of monastic and other spiritual literature is useful here. Take Thomas Merton, our most famous modern spiritual monastic writer. Some monks have argued that the better Merton wrote about being a monk, the less he was able to be one. And one can argue that Thoreau was only brilliant on a wilderness experience he imitated as a tourist rather than endured as an intimate.

Chris McCandless took his adventure to an extraordinary extreme, and failed. But had he lived, we can easily imagine that he might have grown into a very considerable figure. He seems not to have been prone to "green" or environmentalist pieties. He seems to have made none of the mistakes (as I think them) that we saw in the case of Timothy Treadwell, the youngster in Werner Herzog's movie Grizzly Man [see my review: A snuff movie (almost) with grizzly bears], who got eaten by his subjects, also in Alaska. He does not seem to have been drawn to any kind of activism, along the lines of, say, Doug Peacock [see my: The environmentalist as macho, working class, cowboy]. Chris might have outgrown his gauche characterisation of mainstream America. He might have been very useful in exploring and discussing the "examined life" of the 21st century. He might, a little like Merton or Thoreau, have become more of a celebrity hermit than an actual one. But then hermits are of limited use compared to ex-hermits.

As it is, he died doing what he wanted to do and that is seldom a complete waste. And as Krakauer and even Penn wonderfully show, we can follow his trail - and benefit from it - much better than he can ever have supposed. What is the opposite of disappearing without trace?

Richard D. North's Fools For God, an account of Christian monasticism (Collins, 1986) is available for free download at More recently, Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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