Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sean Penn's "INTO THE WILD" and what it tells us about culture and the Left.


"Into the Wild" is one of the better films of recent years, but it’s not without considerable problems. Sean Penn is an able director and has an eye for nice details but lacks a sure-footed personal vision or style characteristic of the great ‘auteurs’. To be sure, personal style can get in the way or overwhelm a particular subject or theme–impose the director’s narcissistic will–, and it is true that some films have more to gain by less directorialism. Still, Penn was shooting for personal filmmaking with "Into the Wild". It’s not your average flat-footed and earnest road movie/story of self-discovery. Penn has employed the vast array of cinematic language to tell a story of this guy who ventured into the wilderness to find his true inner soul. The problem is these techniques generally don’t amount to much beyond art-film eye candy; as such, it may be higher quality eye-candy than most but eye-candy nevertheless. There are breathtaking moments in "Into the Wild", but they are momentary. We don’t sense a sustained directorial vision that pulls it altogether. In some ways, "Into the Wild" is comparable to "Dances with Wolves" and "Passion of the Christ", also films made by actors-turned-directors. Perhaps, actors have a different approach to directing. Most directors approach cinema as something watched and choreographed whereas an actor-turned-director may bring his acting mindset to filmmaking. An actor is always the center of attention, he is watched than doing the watching. This may explain why the eye-candy emphasis in the films made by all these men.
Nevertheless, "Into the Wild" is a pretty good film and some of the images and the story left an impression on me. The story is compelling enough, there are harrowing moments, and the road movie aspect is enjoyable. Most of all, Penn should be lauded for having approached this story from a psycho-biographical than from a socio-political angle. The temptation would have been great in many a liberal or leftist director to turn this story into an inspirational tale of an idealistic young man searching for justice, truth, beauty, and purity in a world corrupted and compromised by greed, deceit, compromise, and whatnot. Though Penn’s sympathies are with the rebellious–and left-leaning–hero, "Into the Wild" is–wittingly or unwittingly–a penetrating analysis and exposure of the left-libertarian rebel mentality(or any radical departure from the norm). We see the desperation alongside the heroism. We see the self-deception within the search for ‘truth’.
It’s often been said that the personal is political, but it’s also true that political is personal. The emotions that fuel the youthful hero’s quest or escape in the movie are largely familial and personal. By temperament, he’s a contrarian who wants to do everything differently. And, his family life, though economically stable, has been lacking in the kind of warmth and trust essential to happiness. Like most young people, he’s full of energy and not quite capable of understanding his own soul. Intelligent and aggressive, he looks and searches outward. Since he’s lived in the world of men all his life, he figures all moral and social discontents are associated with civilization. The only way to find truth is to take leave and reconnect with nature. Or, at the very least, one must always be on the move, not attached anchored to anything or anyone. In this sense, this is a much more truthful film than "Motorcycle Diaries" which would have us believe that Che Guevara’s enraged passions were all about social injustice and American imperialism than his own ugly hangups and megalomania.

In "Into the Wild"–again, whether Penn meant it or not–we can’t help but see the megalomania at the core of Bill McCandless–the hero. He obviously wants attention, recognition, and adulation as a special kid, a wonderful kid, a brilliant kid, a courageous kid, etc, etc. Problem is he’s not really That Special. Sure, he’s smarter than most kids but no Einstein(in an Ivy League setting, his smarts would be dime-a-dozen). He likes to do the odd or wild thing, like running to the stage to receive his diploma. Been there, done that. Maybe in the 50s or early 60s, that might have attracted attention, but in the age of "Girls Gone Wild", that’s Mr. Rogers crap. He’s read a good deal of books and romanticizes about some ideal life apart from civilization, but the 60s generation has done that already. Indeed, he meets a hippie couple who ride around in a trailer and grow old on the road. Again, been there, done that. Also, in this age of the internet where every kid–smart, dumb, pretty, ugly, American, foreign, etc–is a celebrity with his own blog and myspace site, Bill’s egomania is dime-a-dozen. There is no escape, not even in escape, because it’s all been done and told about and read about before in a million books and magazine articles. Bill, at least from what I’ve been able to gather from the film, has a personality much like Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, and Che Guevara. He’s a poet-rebel-tyrant, the sort who’s not even satisfied with power but must keep pushing the envelope.

Some tyrants are satisfied with power and control. Stalin, though murderous, wasn’t much of a gambler. But, Hitler wasn’t satisfied with being Fuhrer of Germany. He wasn’t even satisfied with having won control over much of Western and Central Europe. He dreamt of building a mega-city called Germania and had to gamble everything to defeat the Soviet Union and turn all the eastern territories into parts of the German empire. Mao wasn’t satisfied with power either. As a poet-intellectual, he tended to see everything in a kind of mythical and mystical way. So, he embarked on the Great Leap Forward, as though men could achieve godly deeds if imbued with the proper zeal. After that failed, Mao called on the most cataclysmic revolutionary excess in history, the Cultural Revolution, which was suppose to cleanse the revolution of impurities and re-energize it for a future generations. And, Che wasn’t satisfied with the victory in Cuba. He felt restless and hit the road, traveling to Africa to foment revolution there; the utter failure of that venture only whetted his appetite for more, and he went into the jungles of Bolivia to ignite communist revolution that he hoped would spread all the way to Canada. All these men spoke of history, the people, justice, and so on, but they were driven by their own megalomania, self-importance, passion for power, etc. They tended to have a romantic, mythic, and artistic view of history and humanity than the ‘compromised’, ‘normal’, ‘square’, or ‘bourgeois’ kind. Such people are found in all areas of life, perhaps most in the artistic community where it’s no sin–indeed a necessity–to be wildly imaginative, different, contrarian, rebellious, etc. As art is fiction and fantasy, who cares if the rules and ideas are crazy? Wagner’s madness was no problem as long as it was restricted to the operatic stage. Of course, Wagnerianism was a problem on the historical stage, and this is where art can be dangerous. Art or the system of idol-making does inform the way we see and feel reality, and it has a way of becoming entangled or interwoven with ideas and politics. In time, ideology may become inseparable from Idology. Indeed, a great many people gain their ideology through idology. The songs, the rituals, paintings, and architecture of the Catholic Church have been as important–if not more so–as the Biblical Text in converting non-believers or in making good Catholics out of children. Most communists never read much of Marx. They were won over by catchy slogans, songs like the International, the pageantry and shameless kitsch, leftist artistry, the cult/image of rebellion. And, this is also true of democracies. Many–perhaps the majority–people vote based on the appeals of symbolism, imagery, presentations, and performances. It was not political or intellectual sobriety that led to victories of George W. Bush or Barack Obama. If democracies are generally preferable to autocracies, it’s because no single person or group can grab all the power–though it must be said that US has pretty come under control of the liberal/leftist Jewish elite which gained almost total domination of the media, arts, and academia, the institutions that shape our imagination, ideas, and sense of reality.
Anyway, I got the impression that Penn wasn’t stupid enough to swallow whole the idealistic aspects of the story. Perhaps, he was attracted to this story because it made him face his own demons. As we all know, Penn is a moral narcissist, radical maverick, and a self-centered prick(not necessarily bad for art). Penn must have seen himself in the story of Bill–the good and bad sides. Perhaps, Penn made it partly as a celebration of the wandering free spirit and as a cautionary tale of being wrapped up tightly within oneself. Indeed, that is the irony of Bill’s story. He travels and sees more than most people, but he is trapped in the same place–within himself. On the one hand, he feels morally and intellectually superior and wants to match it with physical superiority; but, his need to prove himself to himself and to people around him betrays a sneaking self-loathing and self-doubt. He roams about freely, but in some ways, he’s a one-man totalitarian state, a kind of hermit kingdom of the soul that seeks utter isolation and independence. Of course, he never is–as his needs are always met by contact with humanity, and indeed when he’s finally alone and isolated in Alaska, he pitifully meets his doom. Also, personal memories keep creeping through the cracks of his iron-walled psyche. The fact that he keeps moving or running is proof that he is running FROM something; as long as he keeps running, he will never be free from that something.
Penn can’t help being a narcissistic-leftist-bullying-clown. People like him are actually as contrarian as they’re radical. They always wanna stick out in the crowd. So, Penn is pro-gay-agenda in the US but will also hang out with the Castros and Hugo Chavez–very anti-gay latin machomen. How is this possible? Because of Penn’s contrarianism. The way he sees it, US is run by evil heterosexual white males, and so Marxism and gay-agenda are both suitably anti-American. There is no real rational system to Penn’s thought process; it’s really a knee-jerk emotional response.
Penn may also have been drawn to this story because of his compromised position as a Hollywood star. Penn sees himself as a true artist, a great actor, and even a greater potential director. Yet, he’s made a good number of box-office hits and have enjoyed Star treatment. He knows he’s talked the talk but hasn’t always walked the walk. Also, even genuine artists are fakers in the sense that they are dealing with artifice. They are pretenders, not doers. Marlon Brando figured this out and disdained acting in his later years. He could play the best this or that, but he was only acting; he was a performer before the camera, not an actor on the world stage. He felt phony, and I suspect Penn shares some of this doubt. As such, Penn celebrated a guy who didn’t just talk the talk but walked the walk of totally ‘free’ behavior. Bill really did what he set out to do–stupid or wise.
Warren Beatty may have felt the same way when he made "Reds". John Reed, whether you like him or not, threw himself into the Bolshevik Revolution. He helped Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin become the leaders of Russia. He wasn’t just a writer or just a journalist but a crusader who devoted his life to a cause. Foolish or not, he wasn’t just an observer or imitator of history but a doer, an actor on the world stage.

Wanting to actively practice one’s ideals or throw oneself into historymaking has long been the theme of many creative and intellectual people on both the right and left. Mishima staged the ridiculous coup and slit his own belly because he felt insufficient as a mere intellectual and writer. Pasolini and Godard both grew increasingly radical and political, feeling compromised as mere ‘bourgeois’ artists; they came to use their cameras like AK-47s or Khmer Rouge-ish machetes. Writers like Garry Wills have condemned John Wayne for having been all talk but no walk, all bark but no bite–Wayne, the hero of many war films, did not ever serve in WWII.

Some artists want to live up to their popularized ideals while others shy away and work to counter the public image of themselves. In American cinema, perhaps Clint Eastwood has gone furthest in the latter regard. Having become world famous for his roles in the nihilistic Spaghetti Westerns and bloody Dirty Harry films, Eastwood-as-director has tried to play down the image of the invincible killer or enforcer with the infallible gun. Some artists need to be more-than-human; Eastwood has been stressing the need to be more-human. Eastwood as director has been telling us that he’s not a star but a rock–albeit a special rock–on the ground. While many directors go for Greatness, Eastwood’s style is unassuming and without Pantheonic gestures. Orson Welles wanted to be the god of cinema–and he had the talent to prove himself. Eastwood wants to be an honest filmmaker.

"Into the Wild" lies somewhere in between Wellesianisms and Eastwoodisms. Stylistically, it’s quite ambitious. Penn is pretty adept–if not brilliant–at composition, editing, and. But, the movie is also down-to-earth and realism-istic at other times. The story shoots for the stars, reality hits the ground over and over.
Perhaps, Penn made this film partly to tell his critics that he knows all about the dangers and foolishness of unfettered radical or maverick mentality. Many people see Penn as a self-absorbed nut, and Penn could be saying, ‘look, if I made a substantially critical film about someone I admire and identify with, doesn’t it tell you that I’m aware of the pitfalls of megalomania?’ Nice try, Penny, but we know you’re a nutter just the same. No one can escape oneself. Not Bill, not Penn, not you nor me. We is what we is.

There is a number of films that came to mind while watching "Into the Wild": "Vagabond" by Agnes Varda, "Jeremiah Johnson" with Robert Redford, "Easy Rider", "Picnic", and most of all, "Here’s Your Life" by the great Jan Troell. There were also aspects of the films of Terrence Malick, especially in the voice-over narration, but that may be the weakest part of the film. For Malick, it worked for "Badlands" and to a lesser extent with "Days of Heaven", mainly because the simple musings against the backdrop of the big world suggested a troubled irony. But, it was disastrous in "Thin Red Line" where we were supposed to regard the voice-over narration as profound philosophical ruminations. In "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven", the narration emphasize the mystery of the world beyond human understanding. In "Thin Red Line", the pompous narration cheapens and reduces what we see; we think... ‘oh, so THAT’s what all of this is about’.
In "Into the Wild", the narration consists of ernest thoughts and observations by Bill’s sister, and they are painful to the ear. They are inane, precious, mushy, gooey, and etc. And, we are supposed to take them straight. "Into the Wild" is not without irony, but irony flies out the window whenever we hear the trite poetic waxing of Bill’s sister. (Maybe, he was trying to get away from her). Her observations don’t really tell us something we couldn’t glean from the story as it unfolds. Also, her words have a way of, at once, sanctifying, spiritualizing, and Dr. Philosophizing Bill to death. Oh, if he’d just ended up on Oprah instead of Alaska, it would have ended up oh so nicely for everyone!
It must be tough sometimes to be both a tough guy and a progressive. Penn sees himself as both and shares the insecurities of fellow leftwing Jewish artists like Oliver Stone and the late Paul Newman. Penn wants to be seen as a tough and rough guy but also a caring sensitive guy. The story of Bill captures both aspects of leftism. On the one hand, there is Bill who is upset with the hypocrisy of mankind and wants to be a ‘good guy’. On the other hand, there’s Bill the rugged man of the wild; and he’s no vegetarian and hunts for food. He’s like Che Guevara of self-reliant survival; indeed, his Alaskan venture ends rather like Che’s Bolivian venture. Both Che and Bill are restless types who must always seek new excitement and new challenges. They want to push the envelope. Thankfully, Bill only wanted to push himself whereas Che wanted to push all of humanity toward his vision of justice. Another figure Bill has similarities with is Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber. Kaczynski was somewhere between Bill and Che. On the one hand, he did want to radically change society; on the other hand, he was hermetic and wanted to be on his own. To his credit, Bill never means no violence to anyone. Also, he hunts only for food. But, I wonder if he realized to what extent he relied on the people and society he held in such low regard. After all, books, guns, clothes, and even most of the food he’s eats were all man-made and mass-produced by modern society. Indeed, people like him could putz around through great distances because there are man-made roads stretching all across this vast continent and because surplus of goods allows a good many people to be generous.
Bill is strange in having both greater empathy and contempt for most people. Unlike most people who stick to family and friends, Bill wanders and gets to know all sorts of people. But, he will not commit to anyone because his personal religion is himself and his own sense of freedom and destiny. He feels that everyone is like a turtle without the balls or guts to do what he’s chosen to do.
Finally, he comes to a bad end, and this is where the movie turns into great art. Bill’s final days are presented with power and poetry. It has the ring of truth without dramatic overload or stylistic excess. It’s painful to watch, and even skeptics must feel obliged to respect a part of Bill’s being which accepted his fate with whatever grace and inner-peace he could muster up. In one way, he dies as the petulant kid wishing to lay a guilt-trip on his parents and feeling superior to rest of compromised mankind. But, in another way, such things no longer matter; weakened, weary, dying of starvation, poisoning(from eating mis-identified plants), and the cold, he comes to sense something bigger than his ego, convictions, and conceits. Up until then, he’d traveled all around United States; finally, it’s as though some higher spirit is traveling through him, carrying his soul to a peaceful place.
"Into the Wild" also keys us as to why leftists make better artists than conservatives–at least in the modern world. However crazy leftists may be, there is a sense of adventure, empathy with others, curiosity, and open range spiritualism. It’s true enough that good many talented leftists are egomaniacs, but they feel a need to understand and connect with the larger world or with the deeper areas of their souls. There’s also a Promethean sense of going where and doing what no one has done before. Much of this may simply be a self-delusional conceit, but delusions may lead to creativity and new ideas.
Oliver Stone and Sean Penn both have this spirit.
In contrast, take conservative entertainers like the Frasier guy and Drew Carey, and you got little more than comfortable notions about good vs bad and social niceties. To be sure, Mel Gibson of "Apocalypto" and John Milius of "Apocalypse Now" have been powerful–if not necessarily great–artists, but notice both have essentially wandering pagan souls(despite Gibson’s Catholicism). Radical leftism may be stupid, but many leftists haven’t been afraid to go to the ends of the world–or at least pretend to--to see and do something different. Of course, leftism is ultimately foolish because its stated goal is a totalitarian society run by radical intellectuals where individuals no longer have any freedom. Of course, anarcho- and libertarian-leftists will claim they are for a progressive and pluralistic order of free individuals, but anarchism and libertarianism are social impossibilities.
Still, leftists–as long as they don’t have total power–have a certain spirit that fuels their creativity. It’s also crucial to creativity that leftists tend to be irreligious or anti-religious. As such, they see themselves as gods. Though this may be immoral and sacrilegious to conservative or religious folks, it’s good for art. All great artists see themselves as gods of sorts. Beethoven couldn’t have composed what he did if he had the personality of your average conservative. Okay, what about Bach and Handel? I would argue that in their art, they didn’t just accept God but searched for God, explored the richness and depth of the spiritual realm. For them, God was as playful and humorous as great and awesome. Today, most conservatives worship God-as-dogma, the Gun-as-baby-bottle, or Greed-as-religion-unto-itself. There’s nothing wrong with God and Guns as long as they are spiritual or political crutches. As for Greed, that’s what money becomes if one sees and judges everything in terms of dollars and cents. This is all the funnier when liberals and leftists generally beat out conservatives in the Game of Greed. Your average Naomi-Klein-reading leftist yuppie is likely to be richer and more materialistic than some Ayn-Rand-reading conservative clod.

"Into the Wild" is not a perfect movie, and Penn is not one of the greatest directors ‘of all time’, but Penn and his movie show us in spades that leftists have the adventurous spirit necessary for personal art. "Reds" by Beatty may be a stupid movie politically, but we can admire the romanticism of Beatty–and that of John Reed. They believed in the drama of history, the epic poetry of the adventurous ego. Bad for politics but good for art. Show me a creative conservative spirit who feels a mad passion to make a great film about Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. None. Instead, most conservatives are Dilbertarian pundits who politically talk the talk but don’t culturally walk the walk. Art and creativity requires a degree of madness. There is plenty of madness on the right but the energy is directed toward religious moralism than toward paganesque creativity. The Right needs to go into-the-wild to discover its own fire of creativity.

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