Saturday, December 1, 2007

Into the Wild/10 Bulls


Last weekend I went to see this film, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and I think it might be a masterpiece. Or at least, there are reasons for saying that it's really, really good. You can read a very good review of it by some random Aussie blogger here at, and from which I've pulled a couple of particulary good quotes.

The basic plot is (based on a true story) that Christian McCandless, straight-A college student, abandons his middle-class lifestyle in the early 1990s to journey across America - "rather than the road so obvious, he embarks on a road rarely so sincerely travelled – donating his entire college fund to OxFam, destroying all his i.d., and disappearing into the still wild frontiers that live in the midst of, and beyond, American civilization." It seems like the film could be rather preachy or sentimental, but thankfully it doesn't take itself too seriously. There are plenty of gentle laughs in the story of the reinvention of Emile Hirsch as 'Alexander Supertramp' - it's not a comedy though, despite the appearance of Vince Vaughn in a small but key role - as well as a lot of real pathos and despair in his eventual journey to the Alaskan wilderness.

Into the Wild is a long feature - I reckon about two and half hours - but I never really felt boredom encroaching. The film is a study of character ambiguity much more than it is a simple story of self-discovery; the people McCandless meets, befriends and proselytizes to, and the places he travels as the determined, eager Supertramp sketch a multitude of American society and culture. Not to mention landscape, of which the towering Alaskan peaks are only the most dramatic. Accompanying this lush visual and literary experience is the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. I'm on a big Lungfish (and Pupils, the same band minus the rhythm section) kick at the moment, and while it might be a bit of a stretch to connect their various bands, there is something of the same spacious, weighty alternative-grunge, or folk atmosphere about it. There's definitely something very liberating and American about big/loud guitars, and not just (necessarily) in the Springsteen sense.

"The soundtrack... plays no small part in helping this film work its seemingly easygoing magic. Hard Sun has to be the song of the year but more importantly the musical feel is organic, subtle, and happy to be taken or left. There is no sonic cheapening of the moment with obvious emotional or responsive cues. The story is so beautifully told that Vedder only has to add to what is already a great accomplishment, rather than accomplish what hasn’t been done. Similarly the cinematography is subtly stunning but never overbearing. While the camera captures and conveys zen-like moments of motion and stillness, its ultimate achievement is delivering an almost objective truth that allows the viewer to respond in their own personal way."

Why I am writing about this on Steady Diet of Books is for a variety of reasons. Like I say, this is a literary film. Not just in its scope, but in part quite specifically so; McCandless is an avid reader of Russian literature (Tolstoy, Gogol) as well as American authors such as, unsurpisingly Jack London. What is a bit of a surprise is the lack of mention of Kerouac; more of surprise to me, of course, as anyone who has been following this blog might have noticed, I'm a big fan. Into the Wild sounded on at least the one level like a great Kerouackian adventure, and that was how I would have and did sell the film.

McCandless's hyperliterary tendencies are really quite central to the psychological and philosophical lines of the story; as the achingly real modern-day idealist who uses the timeless, to him, emotions of the nineteenth century authors to redefine his world. As his sister, whose character acts as the outside, objective narrative of the film, remarks, he had a quote for every occasion. His ability to intone chunks of literature with intense fervour is something I envy somewhat, my own memory not extending to verbatim absorption of even the greatest works - those around me may instead be quite thankful of that. And while if I was to trek out of organised society, it would be based at least in part on The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, the completely different references of this film only reaffirm the variety and expanse of Western or near-Western literature.

In any case, McCandless's journey completed lacked the on-again-off-again hedonism of Kerouac's, and its sincerity was social and physical as well as spiritual. Which brings me, rather lengthily, to the second reason why I'm posting about this film. For better or worse, environmentalism is about the only ideology to which I really subscribe anymore. Part of it is about being politically and socially conscious, but part of it is that truly transfiguring artistic view of the world which I first found in Kerouac. Pirsig, too, rekindled in his physical and philosophical American journeys that appreciation for worldly nature which is, probably, latent in our childhood sense of wonder. In music, as well; I got a little sidetracked already into the earthy, folksy and Taoistic guitar sounds of Lungfish - but on my other blog I've already posted some more lyrically evident pieces on environmentalism.

Finally, the last thing I'll say about Into the Wild is to briefly mention the character's anti-materialist stance. By some reviewers this has been portrayed as selfish and arrogant; while by others as noble, pure ideal. The truth is that it's somewhere in between; hence the film being a study in ambiguity. Actually, it's like an update of Rebel Without a Cause to the modern versions of idealism and rebellion.

In political science today, and I guess this is kind of sociological as well, the attitude referred to is that of 'postmaterialism'. A nod to the constructed complexities of postmodernism, the postmaterialist generation care less about material social issues (jobs, welfare, health) than they do about less tangible subjects such as the environment or quality of life. (The implication being, of course, that they are provided already with substantial if not excessive material benefits, and regard issues concerning their distribution as inconsequential). Against this kind of idea, environmentalism is meant to look hypocritical, and we lose that authentic Kerouackian artistic stance which, at least implicitly, Into the Wild portrays.


While doing some reading for an essay, I came across this passage in a book called ‘Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985’, by Samuel P. Hays. In my opinion at least it forms a really eloquent, if academic, defence of 'postmaterialism':

“All this seems rather complex and contrived; public interest in environmental affairs is far simpler. It stems from a desire to improve personal, family and community life. The desires are neither ephemeral or erratic; they are evident in many nations, first in the advanced industrial and consumer societies and then in more recent years in those of middle and even earlier stages of development. They express human wants and needs as surely as demands for better housing, more satisfying leisure and recreation… We customarily associate these with human ‘progress’, which normally is accepted as a fundamental concern unnecessary to explain away in other terms. An interest in the environmental quality of life is to be understood simply as an integral part of the drive inherent in persistent human aspirations and achievement.”


10 Bulls, a 12th-century illustrated Zen (Chan) Buddhist poem, symbolizing the different stages on the journey to enlightenment. From the Zen Flesh, Zen Bones anthology, with modern woodcuts by Tomikichiro Tokuriki:

1. The Search for the Bull

2. Discovering the Footprints

3. Perceiving the Bull

4. Catching the Bull

5. Taming the Bull

6. Riding the Bull Home

7. The Bull Transcended

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

9. Reaching the Source

10. In the World

"In the pastures of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.

Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,

My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.

I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!

Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.

Deep in remote mountains they are found.

These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

I hear the song of the nightingale.

The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,

Here no bull can hide!

What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power are inexhaustible.

He charges to the high platueau far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The whip and rope are necessary,

Else he might stray off down some dusty road.

Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.

The voice of my flute intones through the evening.

Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.

Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Astride the bull, I reach home.

I am serene. The bull too can rest.

The dawn has come. In blissful repose,

Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Whip, rope, person and bull – all merge in No-thing,

This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.

How may a snowflake exists in a raging fire?

Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.

Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!

Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without -

The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.

My clothes are ragged and dust-laden and I am ever blissful.

I use no magic to extend my life;

Now, before me, the trees become alive."


typingisnotactivism said...

kudos. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a special little volume indeed.

gabbagabbahey said...

you're welcome. I just picked Zen Flesh, Zen Bones up recently although I knew of some of the stuff in it from Kerouac et al.

When I saw the film I realised that it would make a nice companion piece to 10 Bulls, both of them being rather touching yet profound accounts of spiritual journeys...

Readage said...

Just found this blog through your music blog, which I read regularly and enjoy...this post made me think of Mt. Eerie, who tackles a lot of these themes in his music...he's got a kind of "cycle" of songs that include the phrase "in the world" and are a nod to the poem you posted and a lot of Buddhist thought, trying to reconciling it (the spiritual/environmental implications) with modern/"postmodern" existence etc. You'd probably be very into his stuff.

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