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Source: Into The Wild

Thank God for the New Yorker, at least this week. While movie reviewers all over the country have gone weak in the ankles over Sean Penn’s new movie Into the Wild — apparently so beautiful and cinematic and inspirationally episodic that oil companies might use its clips to sell drilling rights in wildlife refuges to Al Gore — David Denby cannily senses the bogus within.

Many Alaskans have long been exasperated or downright hostile over the mythologizing of Chris McCandless, the hapless college graduate who walked “into the Wild” in 1992 and starved to death in a derelict bus a day’s walk up a mining access road on the north side of Denali National Park.

That the story illustrated an unnecessary outcome, one that provides no more spiritual insight than a flattened jaywalker, has long since become a cliche in Alaska. (As the father of a 21-year-old man who sometimes pursues ideals without an eye toward practicality, I also feel terribly for the kid’s parents.)

That first Jon Krakauer and now Sean Penn have transformed this senseless death — whether triggered by poison or insanity — into an irony-free celebration has become one of the most bizarre episodes in the portrayal of modern Alaska by the media. Many people from Outside seem to dismiss the Alaskans who criticize as cranky misanthropes who failed to see a new Christ among them. Yet that’s not it.

Denby, himself sounding nauseous over the breathless canonization of a camping accident, touches on one of our gripes.

“McCandless didn’t experience enough of life for his rejection of it to carry much weight, and Penn can’t see the egocentricity in a revolt that was as naïve as it was grandly self-destructive,” Denby writes in his review published in the Oct. 15 issue.

I liked this line too:

“Penn shoots the movie … in a facile, commercially lyrical style — he can’t stop swirling around mountaintops, as if he were selling S.U.V.s.”

For all those non-Alaskans heartily sick of the self-congratulatory lessons drawn by Sean Penn and author Jon Krakauer, here are some other antidotes to settle your stomachs.

First, the dark abyss lining the silvery cloud surrounding the McCandless story is the speculation that the kid in real life was suffering from mental illness. Over the years, various psychiatrists have found symptoms of pending breakdown in McCandless’ increasing isolation and his journal flip-flops between personas.

Daily News outdoors editor Craig Medred outlined the case for early onset schizophrenia in this column published in 1996. There’s a lot of other comment on this interpretation on the web. While the sport of diagnosing the once-famous, now-deceased should be played at your own risk, viewing the McCandless plot from this angle makes the subsequent adulation even more weird.

Even without the possibility of psychosis, you might find yourself baffled by the existence of three competing theories for McCandless’ “accidental” death.

As the Cult of Chris McCandless points out in the interesting article appearing last month in Mens Journal, Krakauer at first proposed that McCandless poisoned himself while eating seeds from the wild potato, yet never revised his theory after lab testing found no sign of toxic substances in the plants. Penn shifted this theory to another wild plant, the wild pea, one that also has not been found to contain any poisons.

This is old news in Alaska, with many particulars. George Bryson wrote about some of the convoluted issues in this article published this week in the Anchorage Daily News. What has surfaced publicly only in past few weeks is that Krakauer has finally acknowledged that there’s no evidence that either the plant of the book or the plant of the movie contained any poison at all. He now argues that the seeds must have developed a mold as they sat in a Ziplock plastic bag, and that it was this mold that generated the alkaloid that weakened and then killed McCandless.

(And one might ask: Where is Krakauer’s sense of the absurd? Can he really be saying that a spiritual guru ascended to heaven because his food got snarky in a baggy?)

Listen to the NPR clip of a four-minute interview with Krakauer by Melissa Block, and the refreshingly skeptical column by Fairbanks News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole. (We might say thank God for the News-Miner.) As Cole explains:

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Sean Penn films Emile Hirsch
Source: Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer has decided to revise his theory about the death of Christopher McCandless.

The latest copies of “Into the Wild,” with a new cover photo and the “Now a Major Motion Picture” blurb on the front, still contain the erroneous information about poisonous seeds that has appeared in every copy ever published, but Krakauer said in an NPR interview Thursday that he has changed the text for a new edition.

The timing leads me to believe that it was an article in the September issue of “Men’s Journal” on McCandless — which said that no poisons were found in wild potato seeds tested at the University of Alaska Fairbanks more than a decade ago — that prompted Krakauer to unveil his new theory.

I have written about the UAF findings several times over the years, but the “Men’s Journal” article by Matt Power was the first that I know of to bring the issue to a national audience.

Hearing Krakauer describe his new theory in a recording on the NPR Web site, it seemed to me like something manufactured out of thin air, but to be fair, the idea should be put to a scientific test.

This is relevant because for Krakauer and movie director Sean Penn, it has been important to make the case that McCandless did not die just from starvation in 1992 in an abandoned bus, but because he accidentally poisoned himself. If he died from eating something that wasn’t known to be poisonous, Krakauer contends, then McCandless “wasn’t quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be.”


Finally, the best story written about the McCandless myth — one that shows why the kid was precisely as reckless and incompetent as some argue — came from Alaska writer and University of Alaska Anchorage faculty member Sherry Simpson, and it’s essential reading for all those people who want to understand why Alaskans fail to find an authentic heart to this tale. A Man Made Cold by the Universe explains better than any other article why many Alaskans feel such repugnance to whole story.

After visiting the bus with friends, and reviewing a laundry list of more significant wilderness survival tales, Simpson pondered the motivation that brought scores of people to hike to the bus on pilgrimages. She considered the irony that so many had hiked in and out without mishap — after all, we are talking about a long day hike up a jeep trail from one of the state’s busiest highways and not any sort of a wilderness bushwhack.

She discussed how Alaskans react badly to the notion of McCandless as some exemplar because the Alaska chapters of his story illustrate so many bad choices and such fundamental misunderstanding of the local environment.

This is what bothers me — that Christopher McCandless failed so harshly, so sadly, and yet so famously that his death has come to symbolize something admirable.

His unwillingness to see Alaska for what it really is has somehow become the story so many people associate with this place, a story so hollow you can almost hear the wind blowing through it.

His death was not a brilliant fuck-up. It was not even a terribly original fuck-up. It was just one of the more recent and more pointless fuck-ups.