When was the last time you left a theater wishing you could sit up all night with the filmmaker and discuss the movie you had just seen?
It happened to me recently after a matinee of Into the Wild, the true-life drama written and directed by Sean Penn about the doomed journey of self-discovery undertaken by a young man named Chris McCandless at the dawn of the nineties.
I’ll likely never have the chance to talk at length with Penn, but thanks to the Sundance Channel and Grey Goose Entertainment I was able to learn more about his interest in McCandless’ story. That’s because when I returned home, DVD screeners from the third season of Iconoclasts were waiting, including tomorrow night’s opener featuring Penn and Jon Krakauer, the author of the best-selling book about McCandless on which Penn based his movie.
Iconoclasts pairs innovators from different fields for stimulating, wide-ranging conversations that go much deeper than the standard television talk show. Each episode is shot in a different locale and structured in its own way. For example, in this episode Penn and Krakauer spend most of their time together in the remote region of the Alaskan wilderness where McCandless spent the final months of his life. This particular pairing is a bit different from the norm, in that Penn and Krakauer already have a close bond that was forged while working together on the same passion project.
For the record, I haven’t read Krakauer’s account of McCandless’ travels, and I am not particularly impressed with what I learned in the film about McCandless himself. Perhaps the book paints him in a more sympathetic light than Penn’s film, which depicts McCandless as a smug, spoiled, young man from a well-off east coast family, who cruelly severed all ties with his loved ones (this after receiving an education at Emory University, an offer of a new car at graduation, and a generous trust fund that still had $24,000 in it when he completed school). He then sets off in 1990 on a cross-country journey to prove that he could live without societal conventions, everyday comforts, and survive on his own. He died in 1992 at age twenty-four after surviving 113 days in a remote region of Alaska, living in an abandoned bus. The cause of death was the ingestion of poisonous berries he thought were safe to eat.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who isn’t impressed with McCandless. Krakauer reveals later on, that many Alaskans despise Chris. “You glorified him and he was an idiot!” Krakauer is often told.
But I enjoyed Into the Wild anyway, in part because I’m a sucker for movies shot in spectacular remote locations that look breathtaking on big theater screens (and somehow never look as awe-inspiring on plasma TVs), but also because McCandless’ story had me thinking about life in the early nineties. (How often does a trip to the multi-plex inspire you to think about anything?) As I watched the movie I realized that McCandless’ generation, known at the time as Generation X, was the last wave of young people who did not grow up in the wired and wireless world we now inhabit. If he had lived another year or two, he might have found some of the answers he was seeking through online interaction. At the very least he might have been armed during his wanderlust with more useful information taken from any number of Web sites. We learn in Iconoclasts that in the weeks immediately preceding McCandless’ death, (when he was slowly dying of starvation and unable to leave his immediate environs because mid-summer glacial melting had turned the nearby Teklanika River into a raging deathtrap) he could have simply trekked a few miles upstream to milder waters and possibly gotten help.
In 1992, however, ours was still a world without a cell phone in every pocket and a computer in every home. Life would begin to change spectacularly within two years of his passing.
During the hour, Penn and Krakauer also reveal why it took so long for Penn to turn Krakauer’s book into a movie (it has something to do with McCandless appearing to his mother), they drink a toast to McCandless with his favorite cocktail (a White Russian), and pour some into the ground (“a little for him,” Penn says wistfully), and return to the now-famous bus, which is still full of McCandless’ stuff from fifteen years ago, even though it has been a tourist destination for many years. There is also much recapping of highlights from both men’s careers.
Not all editions of Iconoclasts are so finely tuned to a movie or another project from the moment, but they are almost always as absorbing as this hour, and sometimes even more intriguing (last season’s conversation between Maya Angelou and Dave Chappelle being one obvious example). Upcoming pairings this season include Alicia Keys and Ruby Dee, Mike Myers and Deepak Chopra, legendary television producer Norman Lear and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz (can’t wait for that one), and two natives of New Orleans, jazz great Wynton Marsalis and chef John Besh.
By Ed Martin
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