In 1990, an Emory graduate and DC-metro native named Chris McCandless donated his entire savings to OXFAM, gave away his belongings, burned in car in a field out West, and eventually fell out of contact with his family. In that time, he had traveled up and down the Western United States sometimes by foot, by boat, or hitchhiking. McCandless was motivated by a neo-Walden (maybe more neo-Rousseau) desire to experience life as the most purest form of Man in a world that seemed to him riddled with absurd baggage that had corrupted his most basic civility.
It had been done before, even long before Thoreau penned Walden. A trend of young men from well-off families who had backgrounds similar to McCandless: intelligent, good students, accomplished athletes. Chris’s parents owned a business and lived in the suburbs. These modern day adventurers would eventually resign to the wilderness, and it was often a failure to really prepare for it that lead to early deaths. McCandless, at the age of 24, died only two years after resolving to indulge this indefinite primitive experiment, surviving 112 days in the Alaskan wilderness until he was poisoned by a variety of plant he’d eaten. His story was retold in Jon Krakauer’s article for a 1993 issue of Outside, “Death of an Innocent,” before being turned into Into the Wild, a book that included Krakauer’s own experiences in the wilderness, and most recently, adapted for film by director Sean Penn.
Critical reactions to McCandless’s story and those of his predecessors tend to miss the point of their voluntary transformation: it was an act of escape. They found it baffling that society should continue to accept it’s own absurdities without question. In a way, their escape was something like Fight Club, but without the violent catharsis. The simplest example of this point is when McCandless wanted to raft down the Colorado River and was told by a park ranger that he’d first have to get a permit. Before he was issued anything, however, he’d have to put his name on a waiting list, although reservations for permits already filled the next twelve years. McCandless, in stunned disbelief asks, “12 years – to paddle down a river?!” He padded anyways, permitless.
McCandless and his fellow escapists also had to go to great lengths to satisfy their separation from the world they’d view as alienating and corrupt, wandering far into the fringes of the last bits of isolated, American wilderness. McCandless made that journey nearly 20 years ago.
One of the characters in Charles Williams’ suspense 1962 novel, Dead Calm, later adapted twice for film (the first being an unfinished Orson Welles picture), suggests that there is no idyllic setting to retreat to anymore. That the young painter who wants to go to Polypenisia to live like Gaugin once did won’t find what he’s looking for. “In the first place, there’s no escape from our so-called civilization anymore; the twentieth century is something we’re locked into and there’s no way we can get out; when we got to Papeete we’d probably find the same jukeboxes, the same headlines, the same cocktail parties, the same jet service from here to there, the same Bomb, and the same exhortations to embrace the finer life by buying something.”
If trivialities conquer the universe, the only escape then, is within yourself. Tyler Durden most poignantly demonstrated this in Fight Club, and his philosophy was simple: “just let go.” In 1993, director Peter Weir’s Fearless was released. It was more of what might be thought of as an independent drama by today’s standards, one delving into philosophical debate rather than typical hum-drum narrative. More importantly, it offers a different view of escapism in the modern, 20th century-saturated world.
Adapted from Rafael Yglesias’s novel, it stars Jeff Bridges as Max Klein, a plane crash survivor. This is how the movie immediately begins and we see Klein who, almost paralyzingly nervous about flying, can’t help but to ignore his colleague assures him that everything will be just fine. Then there’s the crash. Klein appears dazed amidst the wreckage, but looks to help other passengers. His behavior seems almost matter-of-fact, and instead of notifying his wife and son of his survival, he checks into a hotel and visits an old friend before police come knocking on his door, having finally found him. But in those few days since the wreck, he had entered a strange new plane of invincibility. And in his disappearance, a sort of escape. He became invisible to his world and sort of wandered through it like a living ghost, no longer burdened by or afraid of anything. (In one scene he closes his eyes while driving on the interstate and allows the car to veer as it may while he presses the accelerator to the floor). The film does an amazing job of demonstrating that abstract for the viewer, to see the world as Klein does before and after the crash.
While he manages to transcend the limitations of his previous life, it’s something that his wife and others around him don’t seem to understand. And the local news crews that constantly hound him, parade him as the 6 o’clock headline hero. John Turturro plays Bill Perlman, a psychiatrist hired by the airline to console the survivors, but the ones he can’t seem to connect with are Max and the seriously depressed Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez, earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this role), who blames herself for her infant son’s death (she was holding him in her lap when the plane crashed). Max views most everyone around him reacting to the crash (the lawyer, the media, Carla’s husband, etc.) as selfish and instead, he befriends Carla and helps her with her emotional recovery, trying to share with her the changes he had undergone in attempt to help her start letting go. That her child’s death isn’t something she can change, nor something that she could blame herself for.
As Max and Carla become closer friends, he draws further away from his wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini) who doesn’t understand the lasting personality change in her husband, and further becomes frustrated when he tells her that she didn’t really understand what he had gone through when they crashed, nor that she ever could. How could he go back to what he had escaped, or what would it take for her to reach that unbound reality, too, especially where it took drastic means to transform Klein?
(The video clip above is a fan video montage using scenes from Fearless. Song: “Excess” by Tricky.)
Filed under: after the 90s, bring on the kleenex, commentary, cult flicks and obscure picks, indie, reviews | Tagged: Chris McCandless, escapism in film, Fearless, Into the Wild, Jeff Bridges, John Turturro, Jon Krakauer, Peter Weir, Rafael Yglesias, Rosie Perez | Leave a comment »