Thursday, February 28, 2008

Call of the Wild

2007, US, directed by Ron Lamothe

Ron Lamothe's documentary traces the path followed by Christopher McCandless, the young man who died in the Alaskan wilderness after a peripatetic journey across America in 1990-1992. McCandless became the subject of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild (filmed by Sean Penn in 2007), but this is a much more personal version of the story. Lamothe follows essentially the same route that McCandless took, in summer 2006, only Lamothe has a video camera in hand for his journey. He occasionally links up with friends for part of the route before he plunges completely into McCandless's world and resolves to hitch his way across a large section of the US.

Lamothe's film aims to illuminate McCandless's specific journey but also the ideas that inspired him and other members of what Lamothe views as the restless Generation X (Lamothe, a contemporary of McCandless's, sees his own itchy feet against this background, and his film interweaves his own experiences - travelling across Africa as a 22-year-old, or his home life in Massachusetts - with those of his subject).

Lamothe's a trained historian, and to his credit he doesn't simply take his thesis and run with it: he gives time to those with contrary views, including a college friend who thinks the whole "Generation X" designation is bunk, before arriving at his conclusions. He also probes the details of the McCandless story to form a more nuanced picture of the end of McCandless's life, one that contradicts the conclusions of the Krakauer book (and Penn film), while he exposes an extraordinary gap in the original investigation (by both police and journalists) that casts McCandless in a subtly different light, whether you view him as a fool or a romantic hero (the Alaskans interviewed seem to uniformly take the former view, often expressed in pugnacious terms).

Lamothe runs into some of the same people McCandless encountered, but also forms brief on-the-road friendships of his own (he has a knack for hitching rides from some extraordinary characters). This blend of McCandless's tale with that of the teller is generally very effective: it draws the viewer right into the story, giving a vivid sense of the charms of life on the road, and the exceptional diversity of the American population's preoccupations. The film doesn't quite master the arguments about Generation X - Lamothe perhaps isn't quite sure what they are, beyond having a sense that something was different - but his film is an important counterpoint to the more mainstream telling of the McCandless tale, which was overdue for a corrective.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States