Going to Alaska
Vision Quests, Quasi-Indians, and Great Escapes on the Last Frontier
"He said he might not survive, and ended with the ritual declaration: 'I now walk into the wild.' Civilization had 'poisoned' him, but the best of civilization gave him words to describe both what he was fleeing, and what he intended to embrace."
This essay surveys the theme of the journey to Alaska as a quest in American cinema. The films Into the Wild
(Sean Penn, 2007) and the documentary Grizzly Man
(Werner Herzog, 2005) are my primary focus. However, the discussion ranges over a dozen-plus films that are located in or on the way to Alaska, from Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush
(1925) to Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy
(2008). The Penn and Herzog films extend a tendency to imagine Alaska as an "othered" dimension. Their critique of the "Lower 48" lifestyle functions as a necessary cleansing that must precede more egalitarian concepts and practices of sustainable living (Jacobs 1999; Agyeman et al. 2003).
These films evoke a sense of déjà vu for me. As a boy, I would look at boots, guns, and camping gear in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue with my father, and fantasize about "Going to Alaska." Stories were circulating around 1959-61, when we lived in Nevada, about homesteading on "the last frontier."1
Dad remembers seeing them on TV, in the papers, and in the junior high weekly readers where he taught, part of a push to recruit settlers for the 49th state. Dad was impressed by pictures of cabbages grown to the size of a half-bushel basket, spurred by volcanic soils and long summer days.
Dad thought about this "free-spirited wild idea" half-seriously for awhile, Mom remembers. We still engaged in Alaskan "sand castling" years later; we still talked about getting chain saws in order to build a log cabin in Alaska. In retrospect I understand that my boyhood fantasies about Alaska were grounded in broader cultural attitudes about wilderness. I recognize a common trajectory with the social and psychological forces that produced these "going to Alaska" narratives: like generations of young men, I was moved by Jack London's Call of the Wild. Whether hiking desert mountains or hitchhiking the byways, I shared in a hunger to escape to the open spaces that inspire vision. In cinematically going to Alaska I wish to understand the collective and personal dimensions of how these stories have "touched a chord" with so many, as Penn says of his reaction to the book Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. I think that Penn's description of the nature of that chord could be applied to many movies about Alaska: "One part was trust issues in a family and society at large," but an arguably "greater aspect was this wanderlust that everybody shares in" (Keyes 2007).
Such issues and urges are not limited to one part of the ideological spectrum. Although Into the Wild "contains elements of ideological critique," Penn and Krakauer place Chris McCandless, hero of the narrative, "in a largely apolitical, homegrown tradition of radical, romantic individualism," as A. O. Scott notes (2007). That individualism has radical elements, but the extremism of someone who drifts north to the last frontier could as well be that of a right-wing survivalist as of a leftist "tree-hugger." "Alaska has long been a magnet for unbalanced souls," observes Krakauer (1993). The state has inspired extreme responses amongst two kinds of "homesteaders." One group wanted to make quick money. That objective has left its mark in movies about Alaska. But the second reason has a perhaps disproportionate presence in the cinematic imagination: Alaska as an extreme wilderness where one can escape from a "poisoned" civilization, and be reborn. This was the "call of the wild" for McCandless and Tim Treadwell, the Grizzly Man. When Chris carves in wood on arrival to Alaska his aspiration to "kill the false being within," I recognize something of my idealism as a young man.
The urge to give up everything in order to live in what James Fenimore Cooper's Pathfinder called "the true temple" has bitten many over decades.2
McCandless and Treadwell both fled from trauma or dysfunctional families, were deeply alienated from mainstream society, and sought a form of redemption in Alaska. Treadwell felt that grizzly bears — one of which eventually ate him — saved him from an addictive personality. Despite troubling facets of Treadwell's personality, I also feel a sense of kinship with him. But by the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century, it had become impossible for many of us to think about Alaska without a healthy dose of parody and satire. Hence I include The Simpsons
in this discussion, as it lampoons many things that we project onto Alaska.
When Homer Simpson drives his family into Alaska, they see a post-apocalyptic landscape dominated by oil derricks and pipelines. "This isn't the way I pictured Alaska at all," moans Homer. He pulls a poster down his windshield, with a picture of the majestic Alaskan landscape. Orchestral swells replace the sound of oil rigs and rain. Unable to see the real
Alaska for the screen of the ideal Alaska, Homer veers off the road.3
Marge flips up the poster, but it is too late: the truck breaks through a guard rail, hurtles down an embankment, and settles on a road below. "At least my poster didn't get torn," says Homer, but his finger squeaking on glass tells us that they are seeing the real
Alaska, except now it looks like the Alaska poster. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" can be heard, along with the oohs and ahs of the Simpson family, now spectators to the Wilderness in its sublime glory: the "Glorious Works of the Creator."4
Going to Alaska, then, is somewhat like the Land of Oz. We are never sure how much of what we see is an illusion on a screen, a projected version of Alaska, often with ourselves as projectionist, our schema overwhelming the reality.5
Into the Wild — "To Kill the False Being Within"
There are two kinds of Alaskans, says a character in Insomnia
: "the ones who are born here, and the ones who come here to escape something." My interest is less in the state than Alaska as a state of mind, and a mythical destination. Alaskans themselves have been cynical about the runaways, including "crackpots from the Lower 48 who come north to live out their ill-considered Jack London fantasies."6 Into the Wild
is about what McCandless learns on his one-way "Alaskan Odyssey" — including what he learned (too late) about what he had projected onto Alaska. But it is also, of course, a mirror for the audience. Our lessons learned through this film are deepened through an awareness of real-life contexts — both McCandless's life, and his impact through a mythic afterlife.
The abandoned bus where McCandless starved to death in August 1992 has become a tourist destination. After people began making pilgrimages, Alaska Park Ranger Peter Christian (2006) criticized "the 'McCandless Phenomenon,'" in which young men "come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape . . . . When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild."7
On dropping Chris off at the Stampede Trail, James Gallien gives him a pair of rubber boots.
His 30-pound backpack "struck Gallien, an accomplished outdoorsman, as an improbably light load" (Krakauer 1993). Half of that was books, which puts a twist on McCandless's ignorance about living in the wild. Ralph Ellison once said he learned how to shoot birds by reading Hemingway.8
McCandless projected his readings onto Alaska. This young man from a privileged background had adapted Tolstoy's attitudes on the spiritual value of renunciation.
The film does not tell us Gallien's thoughts on what Chris left in his truck — including a road map "he'd scrounged at a gas station . . . along with his watch, his comb, and all his money" (85 cents). "I don't want to know what time it is, or what day it is, or where I am. None of that matters," he cheerfully told Gallien (Krakauer 1993).
To call McCandless "stupid" seems excessive, although he willingly did not "know what time it is." Some have called him mentally ill, or suicidal, charges that Krakauer and Penn are at pains to refute. Still, the fact that McCandless set off into the wild without a compass or map indicates the extreme nature of his rejection of "family and society at large." These details underscore the scope of McCandless's tragedy. In fact he succeeded in living off the land with only a 10-pound bag of rice, and a semi-automatic .22 rifle, for two months. He had concluded his "pilgrimage" and was ready to return to family and society, trying to hike out July 3. But he could not cross the Teklanika River, swollen with rains and snow melt. Only when forced to return to the bus did his downward spiral commence. But with a topographical map, he would have known that there was a hand-operated trolley ¼ mile away from where he turned back, with which he easily could have crossed. Such a map would also have revealed the existence of emergency supplies in shelters nearby. But people who knew Chris well, such as his sister Carine, have said that he was so "mule-headed" that if he had been aware of the existence of such back-up forms of help, he just would have gone further into the wild.
So McCandless, fleeing the "malignant force he refers to with venomous derision as "society," tuned out time, date, and location (Scott 2008). What really mattered
to him was voiced by Thoreau: ''rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth" (Scott 2007). Alaskans dismissed him as "one more dreamy, half-cocked greenhorn" who had come unprepared into the wilderness. Krakauer sees more plausible precedents in John Muir, and even the papar — Irish monks who rowed from Iceland to Greenland in cowhide boats when they thought the island had become too crowded. These pilgrims undertook their voyages "chiefly from the wish to find lonely places . . . undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world," as Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen puts it.9
McCandless's quest to escape any possible taint by civilization has a kindred consciousness in the narrative voice Le Clezio's novel The Giants. In this metafiction about the corporate takeover of social space and consciousness, the narrator rages that "one was . . . inside the film, being projected onto the screen in the shaft of light, and so it was really quite impossible to be free . . . ." (Le Clezio 2008: 12). Having realized that he was inside the script of a social system that had lost the spirit of truth, McCandless determined that the only way to catch sight of truth was to lose sight of human society.
Most of Into the Wild is actually about McCandless's social relations, and about "the glory of the North American landscape west of the Mississippi," aided by cinematographer Eric Gautier, who shot Walter Salles's Motorcycle Diaries. As A.O. Scott perceptively notes (2007), "though the film's structure may be tragic, its spirit is anything but. It is infused with an expansive, almost giddy sense of possibility." That joyous spirit, I think, is equally due to the McCandless character's charisma (as channeled by Emile Hirsch) — and to the open spaces where he interacts with other "lost souls."
But I want narrow my focus, using as a framing device two sayings that Chris carves in wood or writes on paper inside the bus, at the beginning and end of his quest to cleanse his consciousness. The first he carves soon after arrival: "Two years he walks the earth . . . . And now . . . comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage . . . . No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild." This was signed "May 1992" by "Alexander Supertramp."
The last words he writes, shortly before dying, are: "Happiness is only real when shared."10
These words-on-wood are Into the Wild's narrative framework, a sort of "Pilgrim's Progress" in which Penn flashes back to McCandless's family background, and his two years of vagabonding, which prestructure his Alaskan Odyssey. After these back-stories, as we watch fragments of Chris's life on the bus and in the Alaskan countryside, we understand more fully what has brought him to this place and state of mind. In focusing on the bus, I will follow Timothy Corrigan's suggestive questions about the construction of the mise-en-scène. What is within the frame, in relation to what is left out, is essential to the "theatrics of realism," he insists. Corrigan asks: "What realistic details in the mise-en-scène relate to the actions of the characters or themes of the movie: the clothing, . . . the props, or the outdoor world?" Or: "What is the significance of this off-screen space or its relation to what is seen within the frame?"(2007: 50-51; 63). Sean Penn constructs a mise-en-scène that dramatizes how the "outdoor world" impinges upon interior space — both Chris's consciousness and living space. By "outdoor world" or "off-screen space" I mean both the Alaskan wilderness and the backstory of Chris's vagabonding and social relations, which constantly penetrate what is inside the bus.
In the film, when McCandless sees the bus on top of a ridge, his eyes light up, and he avidly scrambles toward the bus. This is very human but telling reaction for a young man who refused to carry a watch or a map. "The fact that he had to live in an old bus in the first place tells you a lot," as the ranger Peter Christian writes (2006). "What would he have done if he hadn't found the bus?" He would not have survived three months, clearly. With only his mom's hand-sewn sleeping bag for shelter, he may not have survived a week. At a defining moment in his flight from civilization, he leapt at the chance to inhabit a sort of rudimentary studio apartment. Once inside, it becomes evident that the bus is a link to, and a reminder of, human society, even as it also helps Chris to keep nature close. The bus had been towed in to serve as a bunk for construction crews opening a road to a mine in 1961-63, and was left behind.11
One of the first things that Chris does on entering is to inspect the debris: cooking utensils, a mattress, a wood-burning stove. He throws himself into a species of spring cleaning, and it is clear during his home-making gestures that he feels profound happiness in this isolated domesticity in the wild. He carved his joy into wood, not only the above quote, but evidence of boyish hero worship: "Jack London is King
One wonders what McCandless meant by "ultimate freedom." A "spiritual pilgrimage" in which being "lost in the wild" was a prelude to what? In a last letter to his friend and employer Wayne Westerberg, he said he might not survive, and ended with the ritual declaration: "I now walk into the wild" (Krakauer 1996: 10) Civilization had "poisoned" him, but the best of civilization gave him words to describe both what he was fleeing, and what he intended to embrace. These words were Chris's companions on the bus. Krakauer notes several significant passages that Chris highlighted, in
the paperbacks found with his remains on the bus. From Leo Tolstoy's novella Family Happiness
: "I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love" (1996: 15). And the strange aridity of his love for the wild, for the nonhuman that cannot be tamed — is summed up in the words of his "King," Jack London's novel White Fang
: he sought "the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild" (Krakauer 1996: 10).
This "frozen-hearted" eternal wisdom that was contemptuous of "the effort of life" intruded upon Chris's domestic space, and his psychic space in a myriad of ways. The lethal bite of that which is off-screen, in the "outer world," is symbolized by Chris's need to keep tightening his belt. Each stage of his Alaskan Odyssey, and the closure of the pre-Alaskan flashbacks, is marked by Chris's pulling the belt ever tighter around his disappearing waist. By the time his corpse was found, he weighed only 76 pounds. This is conveyed by the diminutive Hirsch, who dropped from 156 pounds to 115 pounds — a loss of 41 pounds — during the year-long filming (Keyes 2007). As the leather belt hangs down like a famished tongue from his jeans, he has to cut ever more holes with a knife. These holes, and his disappearing flesh, are in a real sense the most visible signs of his Pilgrim's Progress.
This belt itself has a many-layered meaning — as a piece of clothing and one of the "props." McCandless made the belt while he was informally apprenticed to Ron Franz, an elderly leather-worker with whom he formed a friendship while at Salton City and the Anza-Borrego State Park, shortly before leaving for Alaska. The belt is engraved with a linear visualization of many of Chris's adventures during his two years of vagabonding — scenes on cowhide that are shown near the end of the movie. "Executed with remarkable skill and creativity, this belt is as astonishing as any artifact Chris McCandless left behind," Krakauer writes (1996: 37). But he left the belt with Westerberg in South Dakota, where he worked just long enough in April to raise money for provisions.
Each time Chris tightens his belt, it is a reminder of and an elaboration on what he has left behind. This includes friends with whom Chris stayed in contact, who were deeply impressed by his intelligence, courage, and charisma. They were also struck by the "issues" or complexes that haunted him. In particular, many of them remember his rants about parents or politicians and "the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life" (Krakaeur 1996: 37). Some of this comes through in the film's reconstruction of his time with Westerberg, or in conflicts with his parents. All of these voices are present on the bus, as the film constructs the narrative; and one has the sense that a sorting out of these human relationships is very much a part of what in fact constitutes Chris's "Alaskan Odyssey," as he meditates on it, more often than not while sitting on the bus.
When Penn saw Krakauer's book in 1996, it was the bus on the cover that "intrigued" him, pulled him in so that he bought it and read it twice that night . The bus is central to Into the Wild
's symbolic power.
Being on the bus
, in the U.S., is a liminal space between the real and the imagined. Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus exposed the chasm between the imagined democracy and the reality of racial segregation. Many civil rights movement events centered on buses — the bus boycott, freedom riders, etc. Buses were important in the counterculture. As with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, being on the bus meant sharing a set of oppositional values: a subversive attitude toward mainstream culture. These attitudes carry traces of the Beats and a history of glorifying movement-as-freedom, which are echoed in McCandless's personal On the Road
. The use of buses for reporters covering political campaigns also conveys the inter-penetration of the real and the imagined. The bus is often a utopian space moving through an alienating world. Bob Marley's album Babylon by Bus
evokes a sense of the bus as almost a spaceship . . . a cocoon of life-culture like the forest in Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running
or the Rasta dub-pilots of William Gibson's Neuromancer
. U.S. films in which buses move between the real and the imagined are almost countless. Often they carry characters toward freedom or a "date with destiny," such as in Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals
or Spike Lee's Get On the Bus
McCandless's destiny on the bus is death. This jibes with much of the cultural background just sketched. That the book and film succeed in developing narrative momentum when we know all along the tragic conclusion, and that they awaken empathy with a seemingly self-destructive hero, for most of the audience, is a tribute both to the archetypal power of McCandless's life and to the artistry of Krakauer as a writer, and Penn as director. Both book and film convey the tragedy of Chris's death in a way that suggests a triumph of the spirit. Chris posted an S.O.S. on the bus — he wanted to live — but was at peace with the consequences of his decisions. In his last photo he was "standing near the bus under the high Alaskan sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave, beatific farewell . . . . [T]here is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God" (Krakauer 1993).
The film's ending is open to multiple interpretations. One of my students suggested that Chris learns that "nature can be just as terrifying as society."13
In the film he "misreads" nature, confusing a poisonous plant for an edible plant, and dies from a "poisoned nature," an irony considering his obsessive refutation of society as poisonous.14
But the film also clearly conveys something of a spiritual knowledge gained at the end. The last image on the bus is of Chris, now awaiting the end in his sleeping bag, looking up with a look of rapture toward the light of the glorious Alaskan sky.
The critical and economic success of Into the Wild indicates a public hunger for the themes of a self-sacrificing hero, and pilgrimages into the wilderness. We have many templates for icons whose early deaths are understood through the lens of a "meaningful sacrifice" for the liberation of a people, as with Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara, Bob Marley, etc. McCandless's more personal calvary was for the benefit of his union with God-as-wilderness, rather than an attempt to reform a social order. But it is a reminder of what it means to live for an ideal bigger than ourselves, that requires sacrifice.
McCandless's quest for extreme freedom begs the question: "Is such liberation desirable, or even possible?" (Scott 2008). Both extremes of the polarized response to this narrative leave one suspicious. One finds hagiographic praise of the sort that idealists have traditionally heaped on figures such as Che who sought out a heroic death. Such blinkered praise overlooks some troubling features of McCandless's life. First, he had a punitive attitude toward his parents, despite evidence that he was well loved. The irrevocable cutoff of communication with his parents is what may be most hard to stomach, even for those who are sympathetic to the young man's rebellion against materialism, etc. And yet in our heart of hearts, many of us also fantasize about that.
The family that Chris rejected, both biological and national, was represented for the young man by his father Walt. As an aerospace engineer who worked for NASA and Hughes Aircraft, Walt McCandless seemed to embody the values Chris felt born to oppose. His issues with trust started with the feeling of betrayal when his father hid the existence of six children from his first marriage, and was still married when Chris and his younger sister Carine were born. None of this really justifies the virulence of the rejection of his parents that Chris expressed in letters to his sister, or in rants to his friends. But it does help to explain why Chris felt that his father was synonymous with a political and cultural order that he had come to oppose from an early age, and that was characterized by the military expansionism, jingoism, and increasing national self-satisfaction of the Reagan years.
The second problem is McCandless's dangerous romanticizing of the wild. This attitude has exasperated Alaskans, who have to fend with other dreamers who want to "be like Chris." Yet the harshness of their condemnations reveals a cultural myopia. To understand McCandless's rejection of mainstream American life, one would have to consider that much of his critique was justified. The moral bankruptcy of the elites with whom Chris's father worked seemed to require extreme measures, something like Norman Morrison's self-immolation in protest against the Vietnam War in 1965.15
People who take ideas seriously are both a threat and an inspiration. His consciousness set aflame by his readings of authors like Thoreau, Tolstoy, and London, McCandless abandoned his car and gave away or burned his money, then took up residence at the "margins of our society" (Krakauer 1996: 13). Considering that cars, money, and private property are sacred in the U.S., his rejection of his father, of materialism and, apparently, of his country inspired an outrage that was entirely predictable, once the story went mainstream, and other would-be rebels began singing Chris's praises.
On one level, I found the critique at the heart of the film convincing, much as I was moved by the critique at the heart of a film that Penn made as a young man: The Falcon and the Snowman (John Schlesinger, 1985). I find a measure of agreement in this online assessment: that McCandless's death, as represented by Penn, is "symptomatic of an entire American generation, whose malaise with the tragic realities of the modern world . . . reflect the shortcomings in what modern societies and their leaderships often wrongly consider as an evolution toward progress or toward a better life" (Kadivar 2007).
The reception of this film reinscribes the same cultural dividing line that has plagued the U.S. since the 1960s. The right crusades to save their country from the perceived excesses of that era. Meanwhile, U.S. popular culture reveals that running beneath the surface, and sometimes erupting into the mainstream, there is a reservoir of people who dream of striking Samson-like blows against the system they believe has "paved over paradise" and reduced humans to unthinking consumers. McCandless was one of those young people who dreamed of Samson gestures.
But one recurring theme in criticism of McCandless demands attention. The ranger Peter Christian writes: "In the end, he was sadly ordinary in his disrespect for the land, the animals . . . and the self-sufficiency ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier." Similarly, Krakauer quotes a letter from Nic Jans in an Inupiat village in the far north: "Such willful ignorance . . . amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez spill" (Krakauer 1996: 51). This notion that going into the wilderness unprepared is a form of disrespect is similar to the attitude that one hears about a sport steeped in history, such as baseball. Players who flout the rules, or who comport themselves in an unmanly way, are said to be showing disrespect for the game. The game carries a moral weight; those who flaunt written or unwritten codes of behavior are perceived to be committing a quasi-sacrilege. "Play the game right," they are told. There is something similar here in the critique of McCandless's failure to engage with the actual Alaska, and the code of behavior it demands. It implies that there is a moral immaturity in Jack London's romanticizing of the wild.
Christian and Krakauer react with instructive difference to the commonality they feel with McCandless. "I know the personality type because I was one of those young men," writes Christian. But asking "Why am I alive and he is dead?" he seems to feel superior: "if he had respected the wilderness he was purported to have loved," then he would have lived. By contrast, Krakauer seems to recognize a "there but for the grace of God go I" kinship. Having once taken potentially fatal risks in the wilderness, Krakauer sees an enduring value in the young man's wild passion for Alaska. But as for the lessons learned, the perception of "arrogance" in McCandless's attitude toward animals is worth pursuing, and will be developed in my discussion of Grizzly Man. And the argument that McCandless disrespected Alaska's "self-sufficiency" ethos points to a larger problem: Native peoples are nowhere to be found in McCandless's Alaska. But they are a fundamental component of the real Alaska and a cornerstone of cinematic imaginings of Alaska as an American other, as we shall see.
Grizzly Man and Post-Humanism: Dying to Mutate
Werner Herzog's critical but appreciative reframing of Timothy Treadwell, the "Grizzly Man," has helped construct a personality cult for yet another eccentric whose death in Alaska has mythopoetic dimensions. Yet, as with Into the Wild, a good deal of the public response has been harsh. Certain parallels become evident in the trajectory of both subjects, as well as in the tenor of the public response to them — both hero worship and condemnations. Like McCandless, Treadwell has been accused of "misreading" nature. However, this criticism, unlike Sean Penn's celebratory portrait of McCandless, is a central part of Herzog's filmic portrait.
My focus is on Herzog's reframing of Treadwell's Alaska — notably his desire to "mutate into an animal." Framing is crucial in Grizzly Man
, a documentary that is a thought-provoking meditation (in an unusually restrained manner for Herzog)16
on the age-old urge to merge with animals. Within the generic conventions of a quest to Alaska
(those who go there "to escape something"), that urge is given a twist by Treadwell's envisioning of Alaskan bears as a redemptive force. He felt that the bears had healed his own demons; he also adapted them as a sort of shield that would protect him, as with McCandless, against the "poison" of United Stated commercial culture.
The double framing is evident from the very first moments of the film. Treadwell walks into his own frame and speaks into the camera in a confessional theatre that Herzog chooses to use as his subject's desiderata. But before we hear Treadwell's voice, and Herzog's gloss, it is worth examining what Treadwell chose to put in the frame. In the distance are immense mountains with patches of snow and blue foothills. Most of the frame is green pasture. At medium distance, a massive brown grizzly bear grazes. As he talks, Treadwell frequently looks over his shoulder at this bear. There are, then, three subjects in this frame: Alaska writ large; the bears in the background; Treadwell front and center with nature and animals in a supporting role.
Treadwell begins with an obsessive leitmotif: the heroic gesture of confronting possible death, while "protecting" the bears. After enumerating some graphic ways that the bears can do him bodily harm, he announces: "I must hold my own if I am going to stay within this land." For him, gaining a foothold in the Alaskan wilderness, amongst the bears, means becoming a "kind warrior," and when necessary, a "formidable . . . samurai." His gloss on this has a distinctly literary flavor that is also a claim to the possibility of interspecies communication: if he adopts the persona of a formidable warrior, when challenged, then "the bear will believe you are more powerful." This is one variation on what Treadwell will describe as "mutual mutation" with the bears, which implies that he as a human and the bears will read each other. It may remind some readers of Santiago's comments in The Old Man and the Sea
, that if he acts stronger that he is, then the great fish may buy into his gesture.17
Treadwell's opening performative confession is characteristic of his manner of being in front of his camera, supposedly "alone" in the wilderness. "I love the bears. I will protect them, I will die for them . . . . I will become one of them." He walks off frame and is heard saying: "I can smell death all over my fingers." Treadwell seems to have envisioned not only his future death-by-bears, but also his media afterlife: "This stuff could be cut into a show later on," he remarks. But he will have no control over this "cutting," or framing. In the tension between Treadwell's heroic self-concept and Herzog's critical but appreciative reading emerges the dramatic momentum of the film. In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, Herzog framed his own reframing this way: "I have an ongoing argument with [Treadwell] throughout the film [about his] sentimentalized view of Mother Nature . . . the "Disneyfication" of wild nature." In Herzog's view, this is a "misreading of what's out there." Herzog's disagreement with Treadwell's fundamental misrecognition of the "nature of wild nature" is rather gentle, however: "I argue like I argue with my brothers, and I love them" (Ingman 2005).
Herzog recalls his sense, on viewing Treadwell's footage, that there was "something big" about this man's story. "The kind of insight we gain through him into our innermost nature is just astonishing." That interior of human nature revealed through a lens trained on wild nature awakens Herzog's admiration, which comes through early in the film: "I found that beyond the wildlife footage lay a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstacies and darkest inner turmoil, as if there was a desire in him to leave the confinements of his human-ness."
As Herzog narrates, Treadwell's finger reaches into the frame to caress or warn a bear. This finger that penetrates the frame appears often, as with his "pet" fox. It is as if Treadwell is retouching Herzog's reframing: his urge to enter a post-human dimension intrudes into the frame but is also ever-present in the "outer world" off frame (Wolfe 2003).
This desire to "become one of them" is commented on by everyone Herzog interviews, in ways ranging from the appreciative to the neutral to the contemptuous. The ecologist Marme Gaede states the obvious: "He wanted to become like the bear [or] mutate into a wild animal." But her comments add depth, and a necessary antidote to more reductive views, in two ways. First, she quotes Treadwell's last letter: 'I have to mutually mutate into an animal to live the life I live out here.' The mutuality of that imagined mutation is something to which I will return. Second, Gaede is right, I believe, in stressing that this urge to merge with animals, "the sense of connecting so deeply that you're no longer human," has a quasi-religious dimension.
In a neutral mode of scientific observation, Larry Van Daele, a bear biologist, has seen Treadwell's type before. He knows that if Timothy "tended to want to become a bear," he was following a pattern. Val Daele knows, probably from experience, that "when you spend a lot of time with bears . . . There's a siren song, a calling that makes you want to come in and spend more time in their world." Van Daele comments that although "it seems like a wonderful thing" to go into the "simple world" of the bears, this is "in fact a harsh world. So there's that desire to get into their world, but the reality is that we never can."
In his critique of Treadwell's having "crossed an invisible borderline," Herzog follows the framework of Native Alaskan interpretations of Treadwell's tragedy. He interviews Sven Haakanson, PhD, an Alutiiq museum-keeper, who speaks in front of a stuffed grizzly whose paw had recently been cut off by tourists. Asked what he thinks of Treadwell's death, Haakanson responds: "He tried to act like a bear, and for us on the island you don't do that. You don't invade on their territory." His face conveys even more force, perhaps, than his words: "For him to try to act like a bear the way he did . . . to me it was the ultimate of disrespecting the bear and what the bear represents." The camera cuts away from Haakanson's face to footage of Treadwell entering the water, shirtless, to swim with a bear. Asked about Treadwell's claim that he was protecting the bears, Haakanson becomes more forceful: "If I look at it from my culture, Timothy Treadwell crossed a boundary that we have lived with for 7,000 years. It's an unspoken boundary, an unknown boundary, but when we know we've crossed it, we pay the price." The footage shot by Treadwell that Herzog has intercut with this interview shows the bear swimming to within a foot of the human; Treadwell reaches out and touches the bear's back; the bear whirls around, and Treadwell retreats for the moment, startled. This visual narrative could serve to underline the claim that Treadwell is disrespecting the bear, or other claims that Treadwell was deranged. But it also has an "astonishing beauty" that can potentially overwhelm all human attempts to frame this interaction according to ethical standards. Our reading, however, is shaped by the cello of Danielle de Gruttola, which conveys a sense of dread. Under the prodding of Herzog, she evokes a "dark menace" to undercut the misreading of viewers who Herzog knows will tend to romanticize this scene as a "beautiful . . . harmony of man with beast."18
Sam Egli, a helicopter pilot who hauled out four garbage bags of human remains after the bear who ate Treadwell and his girlfriend in October 2003 was killed, is cynical: "Treadwell got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved, in my opinion." Egli derides what he sees as Treadwell's belief that bears were "big scary-looking harmless creatures that he could go up to and pet and sing to and bond as children of the universe. I think he had lost sight of what was really going on."
But indeed there was a form of "bonding." In a confession to Iris, the fox, Treadwell recalled: "I was troubled. I drank a lot . . . . The bears needed a caretaker. But not a drunk person. So I promised the bears: If I would look over them, would they please help me be a better person?" His summers with the bears led to outreach to elementary school students, Treadwell's "off-season" nonprofit job. Giving up drink "was a miracle and the miracle was animals."
Herzog "sees something redeemable in the way Treadwell lived his life" (Prager 2007: 86). This redemption is primarily based on the images he left behind. The footage of Treadwell running with foxes (after his confession) moves Herzog to argue that Treadwell achieves a form of cinematic greatness. "There is something like an inexplicable magic of cinema," Herzog says. When the camera is aimed at animals, rather than at himself, Herzog does indeed often seem to achieve magical results.
Yet there is also an "inexplicable magic" to some filmed moments of Treadwell's interactions with the animals. If the first shot in which he walks into his own frame seems over-staged, what Herzog chooses as the ending footage, a long shot of Treadwell walking away from "his" frame, followed by two bears, has an enduring suggestive power. When he stops posing for the camera and allows us to witness the bears following him "off-stage," he succeeds in reframing the boundaries of what we had thought possible in human-animal relations.
"Sometimes images develop their own life, their own mysterious stardom," Herzog muses. Treadwell was an aspiring actor as a young man, and clearly wanted to be a star. Yet he also desired some fundamentally un-star-like things, within the realm of celebrity culture. Gaede, the ecologist, reads from one of his letters to her: "There are many times when I feel that death is the best option. My work could be taken much more seriously, that in living I can't do." There was a sense in which Treadwell was the embodiment of Bazin's theory of a "cinema of transparency," which required a willingness "to go to the point of dying for your images" (Daney 2003: 37; Johnson 2008: 72).
Herzog might agree that Treadwell was "dying for his images," but the bearish film diarist saw things in a different light. Treadwell says "I love you" so often to his animal companions that one senses something at work here that cannot be captured by film theorists, nor by the derision of the "haters." He says "I love you" with conviction to a fox he nicknamed "Timmy," but he also says "I love you" to the bear that apparently ate him. This is more troubling, considering that he nicknamed this surly old bear "Mr. Vicious." At one point he repeats "I am in love with my animal friends" three times — a characteristic tic. This viewer concludes that Gaedle is right in surmising that "the sense of connecting so deeply [with the nonhuman] that you're no longer human" is indeed "a religious experience." "Greater love has no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends."
Treadwell's "mutation" was a transfiguration. But what was mutual about it? Not only was Treadwell figuratively "dying to mutate" into a bear; he also sensed that the productive afterlife of his work depended on his death. He had to make the ultimate sacrifice in order for his work to mutate into something that benefited the animals long-term. Treadwell and McCandless may not have had a literal death wish, but both accepted the possibility of death as the price for the mutation they desired.
The question of mutuality in a situation rife with anthropomorphism is vexed.19
But Herzog's critique of Treadwell's "Disneyfication of nature" is insufficient. The emotions this self-described "American dissident" aroused are instructive. The Gaedles collected "thousands" of hate mails to Treadwell, and Marc Gaedle reads excerpts on-camera. One condemns Treadwell for "furthering the anti-human eco-religion." Read alongside other letters from the lunatic fringe who describe "liberals and dems and wacko environmentalists" as the perfect "bear diet," one might be tempted to dismiss this. Yet one of Treadwell's last entries in his diary remarked: "How much I hate the people's world." This was after an argument with an airline ticket agent in Kodiak, on his way out of Alaska. He chose to return to the Grizzly Maze, later than usual, where he would encounter the hungry bear that had not gone along with Treadwell's usual companions into hibernation. Treadwell had migrated to the extreme position voiced by a character in T.C. Boyle's environmental dystopia, that "a friend of the earth must be an enemy of the people" (2000: 43). And it would be pointless to deny that for Treadwell as well as for McCandless and for the readers and viewers who have been inspired by their stories, their flight into Alaska has components of an "eco-religion."
Julie Schutten suggests several ways of thinking about "mutual mutation." Some seem far-fetched: "It is difficult for human rationality to entertain the thought that the bears chose to engage in a relationship with Treadwell for 13 summers before eating him," she acknowledges. But Schutten is right that the film allows us to pose "the question of what the ethical principles of interconnectedness, mutual interdependence, and a 'web of life' mentality look like when actually embraced." Herzog's Treadwell suggests that the practice of a "community of interdependent parts" in which humans are decentered is not so attractive as the theory (Leopold 1966: 209). But the deaths of these young men with a "fatal attraction" to the Alaskan wilderness present a valuable lesson: that "moving to an ethic of environmental sustainability . . . requires sacrifice (and) considerable relinquishing of control and a heightened vulnerability of humans to other-than-human forces" (Schutten 2008: 195; 209).
The "baggage" that McCandless and Treadwell hauled into the wild — Chris's books, and Timothy's addictive personality — can be seen as indicators that they played the role of "holy fools." We can criticize their foolishness, but historically, only those extremists who go "beyond the boundary" of social norms succeed in going from the known into the unknown and teach us something new. Like Quixote taking his books too literally, McCandless misread the "tall tales" of nature writers like London. But as Quixote's quests have been an enduring source of instruction and entertainment about the human condition, one suspects that McCandless and Treadwell will long provide "astonishing insight about our innermost nature," to paraphrase Herzog.
Their transgressions of a necessary distance between domestic life and the wild, or between "civilized man" and the "wild beasts," offer an enduring moral. If their deaths were not precisely like Samson in Gaza, they do provide a contemporary gloss on a historical disgust with civilization among young men, as with Huck Finn. But as previously indicated, there are serious omissions in these cinematic representations of Alaska, especially the native presence. In my concluding remarks, I will cast a wider net and survey the trajectory of cinematic treatments of quests in Alaska, and especially bears as a sort of bridge to an encounter with "imagined Indians."
CONCLUSION: "To Call Each Thing by Its Right Name"
A cluster of thematic obsessions becomes evident in cinematic representations of Alaska. The following sketch of four motifs helps locate Grizzly Man and Into the Wild in a broader context:
1. Alaska as an El Dorado — a gold rush in a historical continuum with the sorts of adventures one finds in the California of 1849, as well as the Peru and Mexico of the 16th century;
2. A space where bears are a threat to eat humans, but where humans also sometimes eat bears;
3. Alaska as a place of extremes, where humans come unhinged during their quest, whether this is for gold, ultimate freedom, or simply for food;
4. A place where seekers can receive a vision from native peoples, often through a bear spirit.
Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush
establishes visual templates for the first three of these themes. Chaplin's inspiration for the film first came from a stereoscopic photo of Chilkoot Pass — prospectors climbing up a snowy path.20
The photo appears at the start of Gold Rush
; this is a threshold/gateway into the wild, or into the realm of riches, where men will have to struggle with beasts and beastly weather and often with other crazed humans in order to bring back their fortunes, or die trying. This photo, or live-action recreations of this scene, appears in several Alaska films, including White Fang
A bear follows Chaplin's "Little Fellow" as he tramps into the snowy wilderness, a visual motif parodied in The Simpsons Movie. But Chaplin also sets the template for the theme of Alaska blurring the line between humans and animals. Chaplin and his partner Big Jim are driven by hunger to eat the leather of their boots; later the hunger produces delusions in Big Jim, who imagines the Little Fellow to be a chicken and tries to kill him. But Chaplin's Little Fellow saves his own neck, and both of their lives, by shooting a bear, which becomes their staple food source. The danger of humans becoming food for bears is present in numerous films. But sometimes the struggle swings both ways, as in The Edge, where one member of a "marooned" party of three is eaten by a Grizzly. But when this same bear, which we are told has developed a taste for human flesh, tries to devour the other two city men, they trap and kill it. They not only feast on its meat (and indirectly, eat their friend whom the bear has devoured), but also wear its hide as clothes, hence becoming true men.
In The Simpsons Movie, being followed by a bear leads to the encounter with Native peoples. Homer is saved from the bear by an Indian, who takes him to see a Native "Medicine Woman," who browbeats him into having an "epiphany" in which he realizes his own selfish myopia. With the moral vision induced by this Indian, Homer determines not only to return to his family but to rescue the citizens of Springfield from their entrapment in a dome built by greedy corporate overlords.
The use of bears as a bridge to Native peoples, who act as guides to help pilgrims "go native" in their quests, is a common conceit, which is why The Simpsons
' satire of this tendency is so funny. When it is children who miraculously find a wise Indian guardian, we may find it tolerable, if not credible. In Alaska
, two children set off into the wilds to rescue their father, a bush pilot who has crashed. They are accompanied by a polar bear cub (!) whose mother has been shot by poachers. (Just before shooting the bear, the Charlton Heston character intones that these bears are, "along with the leopard, one of the few animals that hunts man"). The bear follows the children across bays and up mountain streams. When the children crash their canoe, they are rescued by Ben Quincy (Gordon Tootoosis), the mouthpiece for the "heavy dose of Native American mysticism that has been injected . . ."21
Ben lectures his cynical son Chip (Byron Chief Moon) about youths on vision quests who had to "take on a bear's power, or die trying." "These two are on a spirit journey," he declares. Calling the cub "Little Nanook" as he pets it, and describing him as "the one who gives power," he presses a bone carving of a bear into the Anglo boy's hand. "Trust the bear," he advises the children. And of course the bear leads the children to their father, before the children finally return the bear to the wild.22
But when bears and mystical Natives give "special powers" to Anglos with a messianic self-concept, the result can be ideologically incoherent cinema. In On Deadly Ground, Steven Seagal plays Forrest Taft, a roughneck who fixes oil leaks. But after an oil baron (Michael Caine) attempts to assassinate him in a fiery explosion, Taft is rescued by a clan of Inuit. The chief, Silook, speaking through his Chinese American "Eskimo" daughter (Joan Chen), tells Taft, "I thought you were a bear." Later, sitting by a fireside in front of a frozen lake, the old man tells Taft a creation story about the raven, who "formed Bear to be feared by Man, and to protect the land. But now outsiders have come, who do not fear the bear, and do not respect the land." The outsiders are, of course, the oil companies, while Seagal's Taft is chosen as the ultimate insider to "teach them respect." Why? Because, the old man tells him, "You fought Nanook the Bear . . . . In you I have seen a great spirit."
The recurring references to Nanook — subject of the "first documentary"23
which was in fact a primitivist fiction — should alert us to "authenticity issues" in films that try to assign a role to Native peoples — and bears — in films set in Alaska. On Deadly Ground
is particularly egregious. In a dream sequence, Taft fights with and stabs a bear, is thrown into raging waters, and then in a dream within the dream, has to choose between a naked Native babe who beckons on his left and an old Indian woman with a rattle on his right. Using powers of self-restraint nowhere else evident, Taft chooses the old woman. Like the Indian woman in The Simpsons
, she explains this white man's destiny. She is grief-stricken because "I see what man has done to Mother Earth." But never fear, the white Indian (a recurring them in films about Alaska — see North Star
) will save the day. "I have chosen you to go forth and tell them," the old woman tells this tall gringo dressed in animal skins. "You must teach them to fear the bear." This telling and teaching requires Taft to blow up an oil refinery in an explosion of truly apocalyptic scale (monkey-wrenching the oil barons), and then at movie's end, to lecture a group of assembled Native Alaskans about what they must do to save the earth.
There is something faintly pornographic in all this — a pornography of violence, and often pornographic attitudes toward Native peoples, not to speak of the lust for gold and the corruption it elicits (North Star
). Perhaps this was foretold by Chaplin's added narration to The Gold Rush
, where he speaks, tongue-in-cheek, of "the ruthless siren of the Far North, beckoning thousands to her unknown regions." There is a sexualized undertone to the siren song of the "unknown regions."24
Many of Alaska's runaways exhibit monkey-wrenching tendencies. They are often fed up with the commercial life, and would like to gum up the works, or at least thumb their nose at the mainstream. But in the cinematic Alaska, things inevitably seem to go haywire. "Monkey-wrenching" is not limited to idealists or environmentalists, as evident in a scene in Wendy & Lucy
, where a solitary young woman and her dog, on the way to Ketchikan, encounter some "bums" in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. A young man named Icky narrates a story about the destruction of heavy machinery at a Ketchikan fishery. He seems to take some pride in this "inadvertent" act; one senses a willful lawlessness among the Alaskan runaways — as per the contempt for regulations governing human interaction with animals voiced by both McCandless and Treadwell.25
In the movies, Alaska is an "othered" dimension in which the abnormal is the norm. People driven mad by the quest for gold is a pervasive theme in the cinematic Alaska (The Far Country, North Star, etc.). But it is hardly gold alone, or hunger for the wild, that drives people over the edge. They are driven crazy by the days without darkness of the mid-summer sun (Insomnia) or the perpetual night of mid-winter (The Barber). In this extreme environment people always seem to "go over" into another realm that can hardly be imagined outside Alaska. That realm is often animalistic — Call of the Wild. But drawing closer to the animal kingdom tends to be presented as having a redemptive potential, as long as one does not lose sight of the necessary boundaries or buffers between the human world and the wild — as with Treadwell and McCandless.
In drawing conclusions about Into the Wild and Grizzly Man with this history of the cinematic Alaska in mind, I am struck by how human love seems absent from these prior films. The Alaskans we have seen on screen do not seem like a loving bunch, whether native born or runaways — possibly excepting John Sayles's Limbo. The contrast becomes more apparent when one thinks about how very important love is for the relative redemption that both Treadwell and McCandless find in Alaska.
Treadwell's love for animals is voiced in a tone like parents use for infants. Those who have felt overwhelmed by love when talking to their babies should recognize this tone of voice, and may identify with this aspect of the Grizzly Man. It may seem strange to us that he can completely give himself only to animals, and we may pity his estrangement from the human world (children aside, of course). Witnessing his profane rages against the Park Service, we may lose much or all of the empathy we have developed. But when Treadwell says, in The Grizzly Diaries, that these bears have become like his human kin, as he has watched them develop over the years, most viewers should recognize a psychological reality. We can recognize a certain admirable purity in his love when the pilot Willie Fulton says that the biggest tragedy, from Treadwell's perspective, was not that he lost his life but that a bear was killed as a result. As Fulton says with complete conviction, Treadwell would not have wanted even a bear that had eaten him to have been killed.
In the end game of Into the Wild
, McCandless confronts the significance and consequences of his "running away" from human love. But this running away is a "universal human failing," as Michael Casey has written about Che Guevara's flight from family and nation.26
And in the failure there is something of the wisdom of the greatest human tragedies, from the Greeks on. The reckoning at the heart of McCandless's end game begins with the friendship he forms with an old man living in the desert near the California border with Mexico, shortly before Chris left for Alaska. After quizzing "Alex" about the family he has disowned, Ron offers these words of wisdom: "When you forgive you love. And when you love, God's light shines on you." We see that light in the desert sky, as we later see it through Chris's eyes, in the Alaskan sky, at the moment of his death. That light, and a transfigured understanding of love, are central to the story's denouement, and viewers' capacity to "forgive" Chris for so badly misreading nature, and so grievously wounding his family.
This end game makes us see with more clarity the extremity of Chris's unpreparedness. The rubber boots handed to him at the last moment by James Gallien are just the surface. At the moment of his final flight, Ron gave "Alex" a box of supplies including a machete, a collapsible fishing pole, and a fishing net. It seems that, aside from a rifle he bought in Fairbanks, McCandless intended to take almost nothing into the wild besides his books. And it is the rifle and his books that primarily mediate between McCandless and his beloved wild — the rifle outside, the books inside the bus.
When his hunger drives him into a blind rage, he waves his rifle and shouts: "Where are the fucking animals? I'm hungry!" Animals only exist for Chris as meat, it seems. In the bus, he finds meaning in a passage from Doctor Zhivago
. "She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment, and to call each thing by its right name." That citation provides the leitmotif of Chris's end game. Pacing inside the bus as he reads this, he stops to repeat: "By its right name." In fact it is his inability to recognize the right names of the wild, in the filmic version, that costs Chris his life.27
Given McCandless's lack of awareness of Native peoples in Alaska, it is ironic that he tries to save himself with a native ethnobotany — Tanaina Plantlore
. In the filmic version of his descent into death by starvation, this process is accelerated when, this ethnobotany field guide in hand, he goes hand and knees into the bush in search of edible plants. It is only after reading the passage from Zhivago
that he returns this Ethnobotany
and realizes that that he has misread the text. He consumes the poisonous seeds of the Wild Sweet Pea, otherwise known as the brown bear's wild potato, which he had mistaken for the edible Wild Potato Alaska Carrot.28
With Pasternak's words about "right names" in mind, he then reads nature's death sentence: "If untreated, leads to starvation and death." Outside, the only bear we see in this film, a Grizzly, approaches Chris beside the bus, sniffs his emaciated body, and turns away, uninterested in this stringy meat devoid of fat.
Once Chris has zipped himself up and is waiting to die, he sees a triangle of the sky through a bus window, the light that shines on people when they forgive, and love. We see the hand-blocked message he left with his glasses: "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND GOD BLESS ALL! Christopher Johnson McCandless." Penn chooses to cut back and forth between this final signature with his real name, and the carving in wood of his questing persona: Alexander Supertramp. We hear the voice-over repeat: "To call each thing by its real name"; as the camera zooms in on his real name, his voice repeats one last time: "By its real name."
In his agony, Chris sees texts he has read: the word "people" comes to the foreground; he has an epiphany about human community. In a fantasy sequence he runs into his parents' arms;29
in forgiving them, and perhaps himself, he sees "God's light" in the Alaskan light pouring in through a bus window. And as the camera pulls out through the window and back to a distant shot of the bus, the last frame is the self-portrait the real McCandless took leaning back against his beloved bus. We understand that in death, at least, McCandless finally found the meaning of his Alaskan quest.
Treadwell also changed his name (née Dexter). Sometimes the names and identities assigned to us do not match our aspirations. These two "American dissidents" fled their confining names/social norms and tried to reinvent themselves in Alaska. Their quest reframes our understanding of the role of Alaska in the American imagination. "We need the possibility of escape as sure as we need hope," as Edward Abbey wrote (1968/1981: 148-49). In the cinematic rendering of the strangely triumphant tragedies of McCandless and Treadwell, this escape is a hope that springs eternal.
1. A portrait of the "Fifty-Niners" who homesteaded in Alaska just after statehood: William Smith, "In Alaska: Homesteading," Time (11-12-1984). Alaskan homesteading began in 1908; its federal version ended in 1986. Over half a million acres were deeded. See also Roger Starr, "Homesteading Is Still Alive in Alaska," New York Times (11-20-1988). Extending the Homestead Act of 1862 to Alaska: Homesteading and Citizenship; http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/alaska/citizenship.html.
2. True temple, James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder (Signet Classic, 1961), 86.
3. The myth of Alaska functions like Burke's rhetorical screens, filtering or prestructuring what we see. Max Black, Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy (Cornell UP, 1962), 41.
4. Creator — Mark Gatesby, published in 1754, which Roderick Frazier Nash cites as an early example of the turn toward a romantic view of the wilderness. Wilderness and the American Mind, 54.
5. "We often see the schema triumphing over the experience of the individual." In Michael Vannoy Adams, The Multicultural Imagination: "Race," Color, & the Unconscious (Routledge, 1996), 45.
6. This was the attitude of James Gallien, the Alaskan who dropped McCandless off on the Stampede Trail north of Fairbanks, as described by Krakauer (1993).
7. Re: Alaska's response to the imitators, see Sherry Simpson, "I Want to Ride in the Bus Chris Died In," Anchorage Press (Feb.7- 13, 2002); Laura Bly, "Come to Alaska, but Please Don't Go 'Wild,'" USA Today (Oct. 5, 2007); and a Denali Chamber of Commerce online guide that drips with sarcasm along with warnings for those who come to visit "Chris's bus": http://denalichamber.com/news.php?item.8.2
8. Ralph Ellison credits Hemingway with helping "keep myself and my brother alive during the 1937 Recession by following his descriptions of wing-shooting." In "The World in a Jug," Collected Essays, ed. John C. Callahan (Modern Library, 1995), 186.
9. Greenhorn/ Fridtjof Nansen in Krakauer, "Death of an Innocent."
10. According to Krakauer (1993), Chris highlighted this paragraph from Dr Zhivago: "And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness in not happiness . . . . And this was most vexing of all."
11. The bus was a bunkhouse for construction crews attempting to turn Stampede Trail into a road to an antimony mine. "Towns North of Denali Park," http://www.denali101.com/denaliTownsNorthOfDenali.htm
12. Chris Eyre, dir., Smoke Signals (Miramax, 1998); Spike Lee, dir., Get On the Bus (Sony, 1996); Douglass Trumbull, dir., Silent Running (Universal, 1971); William Gibson, Neuromancer (Ace, 1984).
13. Thanks to my student Alex Garcia for the "dangerous nature" concept.
14. Penn shows McCandless confusing the seeds of H. alpinum with those of the toxic H. mackenzii, a theory Krakauer disputes in his book.
15. Norman Morrison: see Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History (PM Press, 2008), 202-8.
16. "To find some sort of ecstasy of truth, I stylize, I fabricate, I stage, I invent dialogue all over the place. [But] I have to make a distinction, though, with a film like Grizzly Man, since Treadwell was dead already when I started the film, you do not juggle around with this material, and you don't do it in your own style. You just don't do it. It's not permissible." (Ingman 2005).
17. Gregory Stephens, "Out Too Far": Half-Fish, Beaten Men, and the Tenor of Masculine Grace in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea," [under review, Hemingway Review].
18. "In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session," special feature of Grizzly Man DVD.
19. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, eds., Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (Columbia UP, 2005).
20. A book about the 1846 Donner Party disaster also spurred Chaplin. David Robinson, "Introduction" to The Gold Rush, The Chaplin Collection (Warner, 2003).
21. mysticism: Review by James Berardinelli; http://www.reelviews.net/movies/a/alaska.html.
22. The "freeing the animal" motif is also in White Fang and Journey of Natty Gann. The choice is portrayed as ours. The choice seems to imply a recognition that we cannot remain in the wild, although we must preserve the wild — as a habitat, but also as a corner of our consciousness.
23. Robert Flahert, Nanook of the North (1922). (Criterion Collection, 1998).
24. Geographical regions and sexuality are conflated in a "staged seduction" of Bye Bye Brazil (dir. Carlos Diegues, 1980), where a performer describes the "secrets of your pleasure box" as: "to the north, your face; in the middle, your navel; to the south, all that I like. My daily bread! My heaven!"
25. McCandless's contempt for hunting laws was expressed to Jim Gallien (Krakauer 1996). Treadwell's defiance of Park Service regulations about distance from bears, etc. is discussed by Herzog; see also Nick Jans, The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears (Plume, 2006). Jans's portrait provides evidence for both admirers and detractors; the latter will agree with the description of the attempt at interspecies interaction as a folly, and the convincing testimony that not even Treadwell's Alaskan friends, but only "gullible greenies in the lower 48," bought his stories that he was protecting the bears from poachers.
26. Michael Casey, Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image (Vintage, 2009), 296. Case is quoting and paraphrasing the poet Omar Pérez López, said to be Che's illegitimate son.
27. An autopsy disputed that poisonous seeds caused the death of McCandless, which Krakauer notated in a later edition of the book. However, McCandless's diaries do include the alarmed perception that he had ingested poisonous seeds. Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild (2007) also concludes that McCandless was not poisoned by eating the seeds of the wild potato.
28. Priscilla Naomi Russell Kari, Tanaina Plantlore: An Ethnobotany of the Dena'ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska (National Park Service, Alaska Region; 2nd edition, 1987).
29. This scene has a structural similarity to The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988), when the Jesus played by William Dafoe imagines coming down from the cross to have a family with Mary Magdalene.
Abbey, Edward. (1968). Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1981.
Agyeman, Julian, Robert D. Bullard, and Bob Evans, eds. (2003). Just Sustainabilities in an Unequal World. Boston: MIT Press.
Boyle, T. C. (2000). A Friend of the Earth. New York: Viking.
Peter Christian, Chris McCandless from a Park Ranger's Perspective, (2006); retrieved 12-26- 2009; http://nmge.gmu.edu/textandcommunity/2006/Peter_Christian_Response.pdf.
Corrigan, Timothy. (2007). A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 6th Edition. New York: Pearson/ Longman.
Daney, Serge. (2003). The Screen of Fantasy (Bazin and Animals). In Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies. Duke UP, 27-31.
Ingman, Marrit. (2005). Discord and Ecstasy: Werner Herzog on Grizzly Man. Austin Chronicle (Aug. 19).
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GOING TO ALASKA — A Select Filmography
Michael Bafaro, The Barber (2001)
Carroll Ballard, Never Cry Wolf (2004)
Charlie Chaplin, The Gold Rush (1925/1942)
Nils Gaup, North Star (1996)
Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man (2005)
Fraser Heston, Alaska (1996)
Jeremy Kagan, The Journey of Natty Gann (Disney, 1985)
Randal Kleiser, White Fang (1991)
Anthony Mann, The Far Country (1955)
Christopher Nolan, Insomnia (2002)
Sean Penn, Into the Wild (2007)
Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy (2008)
John Sayles, Limbo (1999)
John Schlesinger, The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
Peter Swatek, The Call of the Wild (1996)
Steven Seagal, On Deadly Ground (1994)
David Silverman, The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Lee Tamahori, The Edge (1997)
Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Diaries (1999)
teaches Cultural Studies and film in the English Department at the University of South Florida. From 2004 to 2008 he was Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Film at the University of West Indies-Mona (Jamaica). At UWI he earned a masters in Spanish literature, with a thesis on Subcomandante Marcos and the poetics of indigenismo
in Zapatista discourse. His film criticism has appeared in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Kinema,
etc. His writings on Latin American literature have appeared in journals such as Latin American Literary Review
Stephens is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley
(Cambridge University Press, 1999). His article "Corn-Fed Culture"
appeared in the May 2010 issue of Bright Lights.
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