Monday, December 9, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
It’s a rarefied and probably dubious distinction. What exactly does it mean? I wouldn’t say, for instance, that the designation applies to pleasure. This wasn’t my favorite movie of the year in terms of cinematic endorphins. That distinction would belong to, say, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz or Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book.
I wouldn’t necessarily claim that this movie qualified as a work of art. If I were looking for sublime aesthetic rigor, I might be more inclined to choose No Country For Old Men, which felt almost flawless in execution.
For relevance, social or political, I’m ill equipped. I didn’t see any of the major documentaries this year. Nor have I been able to catch the raft of Iraq movies before they went flying down the whitewater of popular culture. Without having seen De Palma’s Redacted, how can I even remotely comment on relevance in the year’s movies?
No, I’m thinking more in terms of our specific project, “our thing”, as Tony Soprano might call it, the thing that should give our site its distinction, the hope of a conversation that can be conducted across enemy lines, between people who think radically different things about the world. Such a movie would have to be large enough in scope and theme to give shape to notions of meaning or the lack thereof, indeterminate enough to be open to a broad variety of interpretation, a kind of cinematic blank slate in some ways, not always a virtue in the movies.
I won’t claim any great originality. A lot of critics loved this movie. But I think it’s an important film, maybe the most important American work of the year, and I would argue that it embodies to perfection the principle at work on our site, expressing a desire to break the terms of our social and cultural predicament, yearning in the same breath for a deeper and wider comprehension of each other, the country, and the world. As a work of art, it’s hopelessly naive and totally conflicted.
Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is “purple”, in our sense, because it allows aesthetic room for two opposed belief systems to coexist at once: a religious value that finds meaning in the death of one lost individual in the wilderness, if one were to seek such a meaning, and a human value that finds whatever meaning it can assign, or maybe none at all.
In my case, I see an endless complexity of forces in the movie, a sociopathic urge to reject human frailty married to a romantic idealism bordering on the spiritual, a desperate urge for self-destruction balanced against the will to create a new possibility born out of despair. I see a spiral of unresolved urges that strikes me as emblematic of a national moment when anything seems possible, from the transcendent to the catastrophic.
In case you haven’t seen the movie or heard about it, Into The Wild is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a son of the white upper middle class who turned his back on all his inherited privileges, and on his dysfunctional family in the bargain, and headed into the American West of dream and hope, looking for redemption or reinvention or both. In his early twenties, he took extraordinary risks that culminated in a solitary trek into the Alaskan wilderness. As a story, it resembles Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, but it’s far less cerebral and eccentric than that film.
In so many ways, Into The Wild can seem inferior, and Herzog’s movie shows why. Herzog is a master of his medium, and Grizzly Man, which tells the story of bear-lover Timothy Treadwell and his expedition into the Alaskan wilderness, is a masterpiece. It is both idiosyncratic and universal, cerebral and wildly emotional, and sustains many repeat viewings. By contrast, Penn’s movie has a sloppy, slobbering quality. It throws itself at the audience. It pleads for its protagonist in a naked, even embarrassing fashion.
The actor who plays McCandless, Emile Hirsch, doesn’t give the movie a lot of psychological depth. The music tries way too hard to force our responses, Eddie Vedder needlessly attempting to sing us into compliance. Some images have the feel of the worst cliche; when our adventurer shakes his wet hair, the sun-drenched drops go flying in slow silver motion. That kind of photography borders on beer, car and hair commercial.
But I stick by my judgment. The images accumulate, and so does the emotion. By the end, I felt undiluted senses of wonder, sorrow, regret and longing. I thought of my past, I thought of my son, choices made, and the future unknown.If this isn’t the Purple State, I don’t know what is.
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