Chris McCandless, Reconsidered

 

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.

slideshowIn high school one day a friend handed me a book with a black and white photo of an abandoned, snowy bus on the cover.  “Read this,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.” I  raced through the book in two or three nights, carrying it with me from bedroom to bathroom and back. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a riveting read for my impressionable adolescent mind, and I admired McCandless’s extreme search for a meaningful life.

Today Chris McCandless’s story has expanded beyond Krakauer’s 1996 book into a Hollywood movie, and many admirers travel to Alaska to visit his final resting place, the Magic Bus. Chris’s quest echoes Thoreau’s claim that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” where creature comforts dull our passion. 

Both mocked for his foolish naivety and admired for his soulful searching, Chris’s tragic death, as recounted through Krakauer’s empathetic story-telling, has created a complex legacy. Although he is far from the luminous saint I saw him as an 17-year-old, I still respect his risk. In reality, Chris was neither a saint nor a hero – he’s not even the cultural emblem he’s become over the past twenty-five years. He was merely human. Ivan Hodes, writing for Alaska Commons, assures as much:

McCandless was not a transcendent saint, nor was he a bumbling, arrogant dis-respecter of nature, and to press him into service as an emblem of anything is a mistake. . . Chris McCandless was deeply kind and supremely selfish; tremendously brave and jaw-droppingly foolish; impressively competent and staggeringly inept; that is to say, he was hewn from the same crooked timber as the rest of us.

His greatest mistake was isolating himself beyond the reach of others. But no matter how sexy and dramatic Emile Hirsch makes Chris look on screen, Chris’s disregard for his family and others was selfish, and his final wisdom, scrawled in his paperback of Doctor Zhivago, displays his own epiphany: HAPPINESS ONLY READ WHEN SHARED. Although he experienced much joy in his travels, the deepest, most abiding joy demands connection and communion with others. Life is inherently relational, and all of our cultural emphasis on individual authenticity can, in extreme measures, be ultimately toxic. The truth is: life itself is only real when shared. 

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Three Billboards and the Furnace of Reconciliation

ows_151127833372566Frances McDormand delivers one of this year’s most fiery performances as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Coping with the brutal death of her teenage daughter Angela seven months prior, who was raped and murdered, she rents three billboards on the edge her small Ozark town reading: Raped while dying – And still no arrests – How come, Chief Willougby?

She infuriates Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby feels attacked and appeals for sympathy, confessing he has pancreatic cancer. Dixon – a racist, ignorant mama’s-boy – aggressively flaunts her efforts by abusing his authority.

The story unfolds with utmost theatrical pizzazz with comical dialogue and superb acting. McDormand radiates a taut, transcendent anger as she flares up like flame; with lyric profanity, she chews out a Catholic priest who challenges her actions. With playful charisma, Rockwell humanizes Dixon as we (eventually) root for his redemption.

Three Billboards is a prayer of anger, a cry against Mildred’s tragic loss. Like real life, there is no clear resolution. But the emotional average of this intense, surprising film is ultimately hopeful. The best bonds are forged in the furnace of suffering.

 

Birdman (Or the Unexpected Sources of Self-Worth)

birdman-michael-keaton-posterIn America, we worship celebrities, adorning them with accolades. In Birdman, director Innaritu explores the fickle nature fame. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) formerly a famous Hollywood superhero in the “Birdman” trilogy, is rehearsing for his Broadway performance based on Raymond Carver’s short stories. He feels and looks washed up, saying to himself, “I look like a turkey with leukemia.” Haunted by his Hollywood days, his Broadway debut seeks both public relevancy and personal redemption.

His own alter ego trails him in a Birdman suit, hammering away at Thomson’s sanity with doubt and fear. While Thomson is walking in the street, he passes a man screaming Shakespeare:  “It is a tale. Told by an idiot. Signifying nothing.” That’s what Riggan most fears: he is nothing. Yet he presses on. When a NYTimes critic threatens him, he says, “You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything! The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything…” This is the heart of Birdman: self-worth in any artistic endeavor is not contingent upon the critics or accolades. What truly matters are the intangibles: risk, effort and vulnerability.

And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.

IT and Youthful Camaraderie

it-trailer-6There is much to love about Argentinian director Andre Muschetti’s much-hyped adaptation of Stephen King’s novel IT. The child actors have fantastic on-screen chemistry, leading the movie with sincere camaraderie, and Pennywise, played by up-and-comer Bill Skarsgaard (son of Stellan), is a true terror whose voice vacillates from a squeal to a snake-like slither. The film as a whole is intense, with jump-in-your-seat scares alleviated by the comical dialogue of the Loser’s Club. Like Stranger Things, the film simmers in eighties nostalgia, with kids roving around on bikes as the beast lurks in their small town.

Like Heath Ledger’s now iconic (and Oscar winning) Joker in The Dark Knight, Skarsgaard taps into the primal fear that clowns seem to embody so effectively. Whatever it is that makes clowns so perennially creepy, Skarsgaard makes any moviegoer skeptical of walking too close to the street sewer. The true hero of IT, however, is the Loser’s Club, proving that  whatever the form one’s shape-shifting demons take, only by sticking together are they able to combat the existential threat of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. No one can defeat the demons alone.

When you’re a kid, you think that you’ll always be… protected, and cared for. Then, one day, you realize that’s not true. If you open your eyes, you will see what we’re going through. ‘Cause when you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer. Until it’s too late.

 

Best of Summer 2017: Climb On!

To wrap us this summer – and to combat the summer blues as fall quickly approaches – I have below catalogued a couple summer highlights. Enjoy!

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits

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Tommy Caldwell recounts his adventurous life from growing up in Estes Park Colorado to becoming an an elite climber who, as of 2015, climbed Dawn Wall, an unprecedented feat on the granite of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Along the way, he recounts his riveting experiences: being held hostage for one week in Kyrgyzstan with three fellow climbers, a tumultuous divorce with fellow climber Beth Rodden, and the joy of falling in love again with his now wife Becca and the birth of their two children. What makes Caldwell’s memoir so memorable is his thoughtful voice that is both emotionally honest and jubilant. You can also watch his TED Talk. Tommy is a wise steward of his own suffering. Trails can make us or break us – the true test is how you recover, get back in the saddle, and kick some more ass.

 

When I was a teenager, failure was suffocating. Trying your hardest and coming up short can be psychologically and emotionally exhausting. But each time it happens and you begin anew you become better, inured to the feeling. In more recent years, failure has fostered in me a deep curiosity about the mysteries I had still to unlock. (235)

Meru

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By far the best documentary I have watched in a while. Although this was released a couple summers ago, it still resonates today, especially in light of Alex Honnold’s recent free solo of El Capitan. Meru tracks Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk and their two attempts to climb the Shark’s Fin route up Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas. What sets this adventure apart is the back story: they explore the depths of their own motivation and drive to climb and the risk it entails. Add the sublime scenery with a Jon Krakauer cameo and you have yourself a bona fide ensemble of thoughtful mountaineers who truly show you the marriage of passion and commitment in their vocational virtuosity.

 

You can’t just be a good ice climber. You can’t just be good at altitude. You can’t just be a good rock climber. It’s defeated so many good climbers and maybe will defeat everybody for all time. Meru isn’t Everest. On Everest you can hire Sherpas to take most of the risks. This is a whole different kind of climbing.

Jon Krakauer

 

Land Ho! and the Vicarious Pleasure of Film

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In the playful indie Land Ho! Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson play two ex-brothers-in-law who travel to Iceland together to escape the ennui of retirement and experience a little adventure. The improvised performances by Eenhoorn and Nelson entertain as they explore the city and countryside of Iceland. Colin (Eenhoorn), a banker who is a bit melancholy after his recent divorce, and Mitch (Nelson), a retired surgeon who fizzes with vulgarity, provide a comic contrast of temperaments. Mitch pretty much plays himself as a brash, pot-smoking, expansive fellow with no filter, and Colin plays a more reserved, observant type.

Following the typical arc of travel-buddy films – exotic food is consumed, sublime scenery abounds – Land Ho! delivers the goods, with no false lines spoken by either character in performances that are largely improvised. They tap into the insuperably refreshing novelty of travel, and the movie becomes a vicarious, brief escape with these characters where the quotidian becomes an adventure in itself: eating, drinking, walking. Land Ho! jovially joins the canon of road movies as an effortless escape to Iceland with a meditative, comedic energy between Eenhoorn’s interior burn and Nelson’s expansive lust for life.

Want Not and the Vanity of Trash

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Take a moment and, wherever you are (home, office), look at the contents of your trash can. Maybe you have separate bins for paper and plastic, or, like many, you simply pile all of your trash into one can, classification be damned. It is so easy to throw it away – the rotten fruit, the clothing tags, the fast food containers – and never think twice.

In Jonathan Miles second novel Want Not (2013), he makes you wonder. Before I read the first paragraph, I pretty much knew what the main theme was: trash. The first epigraph (of three) from archaeologist William Rathje proved my assumption correct: People forget, they cover, they kid themselves, they lie. But their trash always tells the truth.

Miles explores how Americans deal with their trash through three different stories: 1) Talmadge and Micah, a young freegan couple who met at Burning Dan, squat in an abandoned building in NYC. Along comes Tal’s old college buddy Matty to squat with them, the serpent in their garden. 2) Professor Elwin Cross, NJ resident who teaches at Marasmus State College and who is recruited by the government to help create a landmark for a waste site in New Mexico to last 10,000 years. 3) Dave and Sara, along with their daughter Alexis, living an life of hyper-consumption. Dave is a debt collector, and Sara is a widow (whose husband died on 9/11), her daughter Alexis a confused adolescent with a secret.

The nucleus of the novel is Micah, who Miles layers with the most depth by diving deep into her back story halfway through the novel: her youth in Appalachia with an eccentric father and an absent mother. Back story is one of Miles’s prime gifts as a writer; he develops most of his characters through back story, moving from the present and past through seamless flashbacks. Another strength of Miles’s is voice. He captures the East Coast urban slang of his characters. In the opening scene, as Talmadge is scrounging through the trash in a back alley, a man accosts him for some money and, after realizing what Tal’s doing, preaches:

Incorporate. That’s how you change shit, man. Not like this. This is just provocatization. You got to twist it from the inside. You gotta get up inside it to where you can cut the wires, you know what I’m saying? . . . . Nothing happen in this country without the I-N-C-period, you understand?

After reading the opening scene, I was afraid the story would be a whiny, pro-environment-green book, the characters mere mouths for Miles’s politics. But, again, Miles moves deeper. The man can write. Want Not is compulsively readable. Part-time jobs notwithstanding, I would’ve gladly read the novel in one day. Miles kept me on edge with his jumping from story to story, making me wonder if any of the characters would cross paths. Though the stories are obviously related by theme, they don’t intertwine much, but when they do (near the end), it’s similar to the characters in the movie Crash: the timing is perfect and, although contrived, still moving.

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To give you a taste of Miles’s fine prose:

And the hunger: the everywhere night-and-day hunger that seemed to her so impossible – how could so many be so hungry and contaminated, yet the earth still be spinning, the newspapers publishing, the factories factory-ing, the lovers loving, the preacher’s preaching? How could God justify this lopsidedness, with endless Hamburger Helper granted to one side of the world and what looked like nothing to the other? . . . . It can’t be like this but it is; it must change but it can’t.

The heart of Miles’s message: how futile it all is. The waste, the global inequality, the hunger, desire itself. Throughout these pages, I heard the voice of Solomon whispering, “All is vanity. All.” Following the internal thoughts of Micah as she sees poverty in India, this passage ties into an obsession of mine: theodicy. The possibility of a loving God despite the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Why must there be starving children in the world, especially when in places like the USA there is a glut of food? I sympathized with Micah’s conclusion: “It can’t be like this but it is; it must change but it can’t.” However, I do think it can change, at least on a smaller level: you and I thinking more about how we use our trash and how we live our day-to-day lives.

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Want Not has everything I like in a book: thoughtful and well-written, engaging plot, well-developed characters, a message between the lines. If you’re curious about Miles and his life, he has his own web site. His authorial photo on the book jacket is itself indicative of his theme: the trashcans on either side of him. Most reviews I’ve read rave on Miles’s novel (Dave Eggers: “a joyous book, a very funny book and an unpredictable book, and that’s because everyone in it is allowed to be fully human.”), and I agree. Again, the prose itself is smart and gripping, and the lively characters made me think about how I live my life and how I’ll at least think twice about what I throw away. I anticipate Miles’s next novel.