Into the Wild of Hollywood

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Can a celebrity ever feel and see the world like a regular person? Is it pretentious of them to even try?

BY JOHN STEPPLING

I wanted to give a quick re-cap of the film festival as a sort of addendum to our ongoing discussion. I really found only one film, American Gangster worth talking about, and even that was hardly a visionary effort, though it had it clear merits. My last night was one of those epiphanic few hours that come to one in some shadow-like negativity — and culminated in the worst film of — well, fuck, maybe ever. Sean Penn’s Into The Wild is still causing me night sweats and palpitations.

I think of Benjamin and his frequent speculations on third generation dupe experience. Coupled to that was the increasing failure of the culture to hold on to even basic narrative. The Penn film is perhaps the perfect expression of a society utterly cut off from both nature and emotion, let alone historical or political consciousness. The film is based on a book about a young affluent idealist who gives away his graduation money and works flipping burgers (and driving a combine, etc.) to pay for a trip up to Alaska where he imagines a pure existence in harmony with nature. The hubris of this boy, at least as depicted in the film, is staggering, as well as his profound lack of self awareness. Penn is perfect to tackle this lack of self awareness with an even wider lack of self awareness. Actually a double bill with Herzog’s Grizzly Man seems in order. There seems to lurk in young white Americans of a certain class a kind of suicidal frisson that is connected to a marketed notion of what nature is. One starves and one is eaten by the bears he claims to love. But what is more to the point is Penn’s superficiality. I’m wondering how many people in history have actually climbed atop a mountain or hill and stood Christ-like staring up into space? One? None? Well, in Hollywood, everyone does it, and usually they do it a couple times. In this case it exists alongside the requisite walking on a fallen tree trunk, arms stretched wide, balancing, as an expression of this ersatz freedom. These are both visual and conceptual cliches. The idea of nature has been so reduced, and so sanitized and notions of personal autonomy so wedded to consumer addiction that when a movie star like Penn tries to come to terms with our devouring consumerist society the result only reveals what could most generously be likened to an after-school TV special.


Our hero is essentially a narcissist and a deeply immature twenty-something whose political awareness extends no further than giving Oxfam some of his family money. Now, lest it sound as though I’m in some way against idealism or purity of purpose; I’m not. But what one finds in the film, at least, is the vision of another privileged white boy (Penn) who hasn’t the intellect to imagine what is really at stake in this story. Chriss McCandless, the protagonist, reads a lot of Thoureau (natch) and Tolstoy — then finds *authenticity* in working class life and then runs off unprepared and rather arrogantly, into the Alaskan wilds…..and, uh, dies. Now, what is tricky when discussing this film is that reading Tolstoy is great, and the working class probably is, by and large, more aware of certain human truths relating to sacrifice and disappointment…… HOWEVER, the working class is also OVER WORKED and tired and frustrated and usually angry. My experience on construction jobs and other lousy hourly wage-slavery, is that people are mean and resentful and beaten down by a life of hardship. They are not happy and lustful and full of natural integrity. But for Hollywood actors, I guess there is this shadow self they drag along behind them, as Bly likes to describe it. This baggage often takes the form of a demasculinizing finger pointed at them saying…..”you’re only an actor”. What you do isn’t REAL. Such are the simplistic levels at which both public and private discourse seems to happen today. The man who got eaten in the Herzog was likely acting-out (sic) his disappointment at not getting the Woody Harrelson part in Cheers for which he was in the running. The Spectacle is everywhere in our psyche — and when stories like this one come along there is usually a short hand for class that appears. One class is rich and white and repressed, the other is a bit darker and louder and enjoys stuff a bunch more. There is no real analysis of how this works. And then the signifiers for freedom, for authenticity, and for even for tragedy are tossed around irrespective of context. So, signifiers are all they are. There is no deeper resonance at work, there is only a pallet of primary colors from a director who has had, it seems, even less life experience than our protagonist.

 

Hearts and Minds

A REPLY BY GUY ZIMMERMAN   Yes, John, I agree with you about Into the Wild. By the time the kid started balancing on logs in the misty forest I was longing for a deus-ex-grizzly as in the Herzog film. It’s not just that Penn was over the top in how he handled that story – I actually question whether a good film could ever be made out of that material. You need some kind of irony to look at maudlin adolescent angst without wincing, but any kind of irony looks only cruel when the object of it is so pathetically lost in a dream, and an off-the-shelf one at that. But these same facts are what make the Herzog film, Grizzly Man, so deeply disturbing and memorable. I think I posted on the Herzog when I watched it six months back or something. I’m a big Herzog fan (though you could make a case he’s uneven.) His romanticism is self-aware, and there’s always a powerful force subverting that romanticism, which gives his films their pervasive tension. The Penn film is just flaccid. It manages to be saddening in a completely uninteresting way. And yet taste being what it is, I do find myself shocked to hear people speak about the film in hushed tones, full of reverence. It’s awkward because one can’t engage in a debate about a work of art that is so obviously ersatz, so there’s just this silent reassessment of the person who’s embracing it. The same thing happens quite often when learning that someone you take seriously believes, for example, that Tom Stoppard is a playwright of lasting value.

It’s an interesting few weeks here with the NeoCon citadel under assault from various directions, but still able to muster some black magic. Muttering Dick somewhere pacing around, besieged, his heart about to give out…

Guy Zimmerman

John Steppling and Guy Zimmerman host our celebrated (and often irreverent) VOXPOP blog devoted to cinema, stage & cultural and political critiques. John is currently teaching film at Lodz (Poland).
6 comments on “Into the Wild of Hollywood
  1. MORDANT AS EVER! Messrs Steppling & Zimmerman should have a program of their own reviewing films on camera every week. Forget Roger & Eberts! This is the real deal. Why can’t Cyrano seek funding for that? They could distribute this kind of material as they distribute text, it would just be video. I think this is an idea worth considering. In any case, while we wait, I’m sending Sean P a note with the URL for this piece. He ought to read it. This is the kind of critique that most big-time American actors need and rarely get.

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