Friday, November 09, 2007

'Across the Universe' and 'Into the Wild'

Sean Penn has now directed four movies, and this two hour and 27 minute film is surely the best of the bunch. The movie is based rather closely on the true story of a honors graduate from Emory University, whose family trauma leads to his going 'walk about' all over the American west, and finally 'into the wild' of Alaska.

I have to say that I was quite unprepared for how profoundly theological this movie was, and it went right to the top five of my list of best 2007 films for a whole host of reasons.

This lovingly prepared and produced film is not just another nature flick or save the whales film. To the contrary, it is about the human journey, the spiritual journeys all humans go on., and the lessons of life one learns along the way. Emile Hirsch (something of a De Caprio look alike) gives the performance of a life time in this poignant film. Hal Holbrook should also get a nomination for best supporting actor as well.

It is truly too bad this film is only in limited release, as it deserves to be seen as widely as possibly, if for no other reason that it serves as a cautionary tale about the dangerous effect of bad marriages and bad parenting on one's children.

Chris McCandless was a remarkable, and fiercely independent soul. He had bought the myth of rugged individualism as found in Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' and in Tolstoy as well. He had bought the lie about how one does not need other human beings to be happy or fulfilled in life. He was also profoundly influenced by Transcendentalists like Thoreau. It is one of the most gripping moments in the movie when McCandless writes in his copy of Pasternak 'Happiness is not real if not shared'. But alas, he learned this truth too late.

There are other profoundly theological moments in the movie as well. In the desert south west Chris (who called himself 'Alexander Supertramp' whilst on the road) meets a man who has painted a whole hill with Bible verses and indications that God and Christ love us. Chris agrees that it is indeed all about love and God, but even later when the Hal Holbrook character tries to tell him that when you forgive, you love, and God shines upon you when you do so, he still does not apply the lesson. There were numerous chances along his great western road trip when he could have learned this lesson, called home, at least talked to his one and only sister who had never done him anything but good, but he stubbornly pushed on-- 'into the wild'.

Of course we can admire his strong sense of adventure. We can admire his courage and kindness and hard work and ingenuity as well. But there was a hubris as well involved, which was eventually to cost him his life. I will not spoil the film by revealing its end but it is both tragic and telling. He leaves a note behind saying that his life as been a blessing and he thanks God for the gift of life. But 23-24 is frankly too old to die, especially when one is in such robust good health.

Like so many road movies, this one two has its share of characters and cons, gypsies, tramps, thieves, and hippies that one meets along the road, which keeps the story moving and interesting. One sees along the way how Chris is an honest person, a very giving person (he gave away all $24,000 in his savings account to Oxfam before taking the trip), a non-materialistic person, and a person who refuses to take advantage of a young girl who throws herself at him. He has many virtues.

But alas, Chris has inhaled the heady oxygen of extreme freedom that comes with being entirely dependent on oneself (or so it would seem), and being alone in a remote place. But how free is a person really, who simply defines freedom as having no encumbrances, alliances, obligations, or limitations except those that are self-imposed? Freedom, real freedom is so much more than the absence of such things in one's life. It is rather the presence of peace, love, joy, God's best gifts and presence in one's life. As the NT says 'if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed', and one does not need to go to a remote place in the world to experience such freedom. Too late Chris gets a glimpse this truth. I would recommend this movie to anyone and everyone, but take your tissues with you. This movie will touch you in its painful honesty and truth, and its familiarity to anyone who has endured difficult family relationships.

Of a very different sort is 'Across the Universe', a musical featuring a selection of the wonderful tunes of the Beatles, lovingly rendered in new arrangements to good effect. If for no other reason than the music, which is excellently done this movie is worth seeing. But there are other merits as well. The cinematography is grand, especially the psychedelic bits and pieces. And there are interesting cameo appearances by Bono and Joe Cocker, to good effect. Furthermore, the male lead 'Jude' (as in 'hey Jude don't make it bad'), played by Jim Sturgess is very natural and convincing in his role. The weakness of this movie however is the weakness of so many musicals, its plot, or in this case the lack thereof. Julie Taymor the director deserves all the credit in the world for weaving into the plot lines from the songs as well as the songs themselves, not to mention the characters names' (and to some extent personalities) come from Beatle songs as well such that sometimes song lines drive the plot developments, which is interesting, but this cannot overcome the plot weaknesses. The attempt to set the story in the turbulent Vietnam War period, without actually having much connection with the war does not work very well, for this is mainly a love story about two people not really involved in the war. Still I am glad to have seen this film. But on a limited film budget, by all means go see and discuss 'Into the Wild'. You will be enriched and not come back with ticks or chiggers clinging to you either. You may come back humming Neil Young and Stephen Still's old classic-- "Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground, mother earth will swallow you....."


Drew Tatusko said...

Thanks for the review of Into the Wild. Coupled with its amazing soundtrack by Eddie Vedder your review has sold me on something I need to find time to absorb.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your movie reviews. I'm putting "into the wild" on my list of must see films.

Falantedios said...

Into The Wild reminds me of the play "Manfred" by Byron.


Brian Vinson said...

What seems to be left out of "Into the Wild" is the fact that Chris didn't have to die. If he had a basic map, he would have known that he was a mile away from a river crossing. He would have known that there was food available nearby. His tragedy was that he wasn't prepared for his adventure.

charles ray loudermilk said...

Hey Ben,

Your blog is intrinsically informative and thoughtfully woven, I so appreciated your knowledge on many issues. More so, I'm thankful that I could find your review for into the wild. Recently, I heard an interview on NPR with Hal Holbook and I must admit that he is the reason for my interest in this movie. So far your reviews have steered me away from the depressing and to movies like into the wild which are, to my amazement, directed by Mr. Penn!