Into the Wild: a poetic meditation on freedom

Once every couple of years, there comes a movie that is both unapologetically soulful and offers a gentle philosophical take on one of the timeless myths and human tendencies. In Sean Penn‘s latest film, the trick is that the full implications of the myth and of the thing that drives the protagonist are not fully driven home and illustrated until the last act.

Based on a book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild follows Christopher McCandless, a young college graduate who decides to abandon his worldly possessions in order to pursue the Thoreauvian dream and live “in the moment” in the wilderness. Believing that career is a “20th century invention,” McCandless subscribes to myths spun by Jack London and Jack Kerouac instead and sets out to Alaska to experience natural life in all its immediacy. In a rare cinematic opportunity, we are taken along with him, thanks to fine cinematography, a colourful array of characters along the way, and an excellent portrayal of the movie’s protagonist by young actor Emile Hirsch. One scene that stands out in particular is McCandless killing a moose. It both vividly illustrates an intimate aspect of living in the wild and provides an almost existential moment-to-moment take on the newly discovered aspect of the character.

As the story unfolds and the passionate dharma bum meets several interesting individuals, the inner workings of his desires and drives are gradually revealed to us: it is not simply the bliss of freedom that he is after, but also permanent escape from his parents (played beautifully and without much dialogue by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt). At one point, McCandless even decides to give up his family name and give himself a new one, one more in tune with the lifestyle he has chosen for himself: Alexander Supertramp. A gesture that perhaps signals that it is the symbolic value rather than the intrinsic ideals of eastern philosophy that compels him to keep going further into the wilderness.

He meets a hippie couple (Brian Dieker and Catherine Keener), a sharp contrast to his own parents, who are left saddened by his departure since he reminds them of the son they lost. A girl who is a romantic interest and a friend is also left behind heartbroken. Finally, in what is probably the most galling scene in the movie, an old man he meets and makes friends with, played by the perfectly cast Hal Holbrook, realizes what it is that ultimately drives McCandless as they say goodbye in their final scene together.

Even though Holbrook’s character is probably the anchor for the viewer’s sympathy, the movie is very kind to other characters as well, even McCandless’ parents, especially as it progresses to the final scene. If it is occasionally judgmental of McCandless, it certainly does not allow the audience to walk away feeling unsympathetic, ultimately revealing him as a child who must submit himself to prolonged periods of utter solitude to discover and feel the human value behind a simple cliché that most people learn the easy way.

Into the Wild is a gentle meditation on the poetry of the road and the extent to which personal philosophy is coloured by our own bruised sensibilities (some people don’t feel they deserve to be loved, says McCandless to the aging hippie at one point) and the drive to be free, primarily free of emotional attachment to people. It explores the thin line between idealism and escapism, freedom from and responsibility to others, and the degree to which our tendency to sleepwalk through our choices can sneak up on the ideal of living in the wild.

A job well done, Mr. Penn.

Revisiting Serenity: Universal considering sequel, says actor

It is definitely a great week for science fiction fans. First, there’s Deckard dreaming about electric unicorns on the big screen again and yesterday there was this:

“They had to put [the new Serenity DVD] out because they’ve been selling out of the other one and so Universal’s like ‘So, let’s do another one.’”

Moviehole‘s Clint Morris talked to Alan Tudyk, recently seen playing Doc Potter in 3:10 to Yuma, so that’s where the quote comes from. Apparently, DVD sales are reprising the success of Firefly, the prematurely cancelled Joss Whedon series which accomplished a small miracle by going from 14 episodes on television to a movie, mainly on the strength of word-of-mouth recommendations and subsequent great DVD sales. Not only that, but Serenity was named the best SF movie of all times by SFX magazine earlier this year and won a couple of notable genre awards – the Nebula Award for best movie script and a Hugo for best dramatic presentation. And deservedly so. Here is a quick reminder.

Serenity picks up several months after the events in the last episode of Firefly. Captain Mal Reynolds has spent some time without two positive influences in his life – Book, a reverend and the moral centre of the Serenity crew, and Inara, Mal’s confidante and love interest. Consequently, at the beginning of the movie, he is a much darker character than he was in the series: more cautious, more calculated, more driven by fear for his crew than by traditional hero principles. He is closer to Jayne in terms of motives than to the Mal we saw in Firefly and the old Mal is not really restored until he meets Book again.

The film subverts the concept of the hero very early on by defining him as the person who gets other people killed and the plot is very much in line with the definition: River endangers the crew’s lives to uncover the truth about the planet that is at the core of the story, Simon does the same by protecting his sister, the crew turn their allies into targets after escaping from the Operative, an agent of the Alliance, and the Alliance itself is revealed as an institution that had a noble goal once – creating world peace – but their goal wiped out nearly the entire population of a planet and turned survivors into monsters. There is a lot of density to the central theme, all in all, and it keeps being echoed throughout the film and applying to protagonists and antagonists alike.

Another argument in favour of the technical brilliance of the script is the exposition. Easily the most elegant segue from one story to another (series to movie), the movie’s opening sequence lets the introduction into the Serenity universe unfold in a chinese box structure: an Alliance teacher providing a spin on history, which turns out to be River’s flashback while she is held by the Alliance, the scene of Simon, introduced as her brother, rescuing her, which is then revealed to be a recording that the Operative is watching and, finally, his question “where are you hiding, little girl” getting the answer in the opening credits, which bring us the first shot of Serenity, the ship, where we then meet all the main characters in a swift unbroken sequence.

Belief seems to be the main driving force in the movie and it is explored on several levels. First, the Serenity crew are shown living from one job to the next, without much interest in the bigger picture or much faith in the future. Mal’s sole interest is keeping his crew alive, Kaylee fears that the isolation will drive them all mad, and Jayne is still his old sociopathic mercenary self. The interplay between peace, serenity, isolation, madness and death hits a peak when the ship is literally disguised into death in order to pass through Reaver space.

Interestingly, belief is better explored through the movie’s antagonist, the Operative, who is also an outsider, an isolated agent working for the benefit of the Alliance, than it is through the Serenity crew. His belief in the cause and recognition of love and the most powerful force in the universe is played against his willingness to sacrifice people who are supposed to benefit from the cause. Book, who is revealed to be a former operative himself, shows that there is a way out of the trappings of the faith based on ideology alone. In the end, Mal too reaffirms a positive outcome to the theme of faith, echoing the Operative’s words as the ship sets out on a new journey with River as the new pilot.

If there is a science fiction movie released in the last decade or so that deserves a sequel, Serenity would be it. Let’s hope something comes out of the latest rumour.

Review: David Lynch’s Inland Empire

How many characters does Laura Dern play in Inland Empire, how are the contexts in which those characters appear interrelated and is there even any point in asking any of those questions in light of the fact that Lynch himself said that he shot the film without a script? (And what does that mean, without a script, anyway?) Does the film end after the credits roll or only after Laura Dern gets the well-deserved Oscar? And why is it that, when you’re watching that rabbit in the beginning, the rabbit gawks back at you?

My impressions of the film immediately after seeing it were scattered. The main one, the gloves are off. No more Mr. Nice Lynch. As possible as it was to see Mulholland Dr. as one of the most beautiful character studies ever made, accessible to a degree even after the first viewing, and at the same time maintain a polite, civilized distance from the fiction itself, Empire resists the left side of the brain and uncompromisingly draws the viewer in and forces him to simply experience the film.

Lynch does this partly by inserting elements of horror, with the use of the score (especially in the scenes on the movie set, with music reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood in the background), and partly by having the movie resist any kind of meaningful interpretation. There is no coherent chronology, no apparent logic to the scenes with characters played by Laura Dern, and not a single solid point of reference to go back to as one confusing scene follows the other. At one point, it looks like the movie is about to end with the death of the protagonist, in a scene that irresistibly mirrors the end of Marc Foster’s Stay (Ewan McGregor, Ryan Gosling, Naomi Watts, script by David Benioff), but Lynch decides to say another thing or two and the director yelling “cut” obliterates the possibility of an easy ending.

Still, the basic difference between Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive goes a bit beyond the chaos of characters and degree of Lynch’s bitterness about Hollywood, expressed in different ways, from the parody of sitcoms, drawing a blatant parallel between a film star and a prostitute, to setting the first horror scenes in the dark corners of a movie set. In Mulholland Drive, as well as in the somewhat less accessible Lost Highway, Lynch applies his brush strokes on discernible characters whose central problems lead them to a breaking point. In Inland Empire, he uses a presumed character to attack the idea of identity itself as an autonomous entity. I say “presumed” because he juxtaposes several strikingly different personalities in different contexts, at different times, or after different experiences, all played by the same person. While Mulholland allows the viewer to make out an intuitively graspable protagonist and the way her mind works, the way she annexes the woman she loves and reduces her to a helpless projection in her fantasy, nothing boils down to a single character in Empire.

In a way, it is not at all strange that a director who leans on the universal nature of human experience to such a degree that he provides the audience with little else to hold on to, has finally gotten rid of the limitations of ‘character’ and instead set out to knock about the very definition of identity as something well-rounded, autonomous and discrete. Other than contrasting a person (actress) with the character she plays, several different personalities contained in the same physical character, he also shifts experiences, feelings and tendencies from one character to another. For instance, several characters get stabbed in the same way, one character dreams about something that another character is going through, or a character (e.g. Nikki Grace’s husband) is presented as jealous or aggressive only for those traits to then be illustrated on another character (e.g. the aging actress seeing the chorus of prostitutes or having Dern transform into a Calamity Jane of sorts who talks about the horrific things she did to a man who assaulted her once).

About a week after seeing the film, it occurred to me that this particular take on characters reminded me of something that Paul Auster, New York author and master of all things fragmented, monomaniacal and disintegrating, best known in the world of film for his cooperation with Wayne Wang on Smoke and Blue in the Face, wrote in one of his early works, Portrait of an Invisible Man, in reference to his sister and her deteriorating mental health, comparing identity to a house:

At what moment does a house stop being a house? When the roof is taken off? When the walls are knocked down? At what moment does it become a pile of rubble?

With Lynch, of course, it is dangerous to assume that the house exists to begin with.

The soundtrack is out on September 11. Here is the track listing:

Inland Empire

01 David Lynch “Ghost of Love”
02 David Lynch “Rabbits Theme”
03 Mantovani “Colours of My Life”
04 David Lynch “Woods Variation”
05 Dave Brubeck “Three To Get Ready”
06 Boguslaw Schaeffer “Klavier Konzert”
07 Kroke “The Secrets of Life Tree”
08 Little Eva “The Locomotion”
09 David Lynch “BBQ Theme”
10 Krzysztof Penderecki “Als Jakob Erwachte”
11 Witold Lutoslawski “Novelette Conclusion” (excerpt) /Joey Altruda “Lisa” (edit)
12 Beck “Black Tambourine” (film version)
13 David Lynch “Mansion Theme”
14 David Lynch “Walkin’ on the Sky”
15 David Lynch / Marek Zebrowski “Polish Night Music No. 1″
16 David Lynch / Chrysta Bell “Polish Poem”
17 Nina Simone “Sinnerman” (edit)