A walk on the slow side

Sean Penn resists all that Hollywood moralising in a trip to the Alaskan waste

<strong>Into the W

On a list of people and places to which I would turn for advice, Hollywood ranks even lower than the careers officer at college, who assessed my questionnaire (likes: the arts, dislikes: confrontation) and decided I was ideal prison warder material. Most of my classmates received the same suggestion. It must have been a slow year for HM Prison Service.

I've never met anyone whose path was altered by lessons learned from a Hollywood film, but still the industry persists in offering unsolicited counsel. Overworked studio executives are forever green-lighting pictures that tell us to spend more time with our families; for many of the sons and daughters of LA studio brass, the only evidence that daddy or mommy loves them is the release of another guilt-ridden film in which Jim Carrey or Tim Allen learns to play catch in the backyard.

Coming a close second in the "To do" list foisted on us by Hollywood is the insistence that we should shake off our cloistered, complacent lives - presumably while still spending more time at home - and march off into the great unknown. (I tried that once. I ordered a mochaccino instead of a latte. It didn't work out.)

This hypocrisy has resulted in some preachy film-making (American Beauty, Regarding Henry), and I was fully expecting to add Into the Wild to the inventory of self-righteousness. The raw material is certainly there for a full-blown lecture on how we've lost touch with what really matters: university graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) responds to his icy, affluent parents' offer of a new car by donating his $24,000 of savings to Oxfam and trekking off toward the Alaskan wilderness. On his travels, he meets a pair of plaintive hippies and an uninhibited Danish couple, among others, and is propositioned by a teenage waif with an acoustic guitar. Typical - you venture into the middle of nowhere and you still can't escape sensitive singer-songwriters who want to be Tori Amos.

Happily, the film soft-pedals the life-improving subtext. It has been adapted by its director, Sean Penn, from Jon Krakauer's book, which turned the real Chris McCandless into a folk hero among young males with non-conformist leanings. Others are of the view that he was a narcissistic twit. What's encouraging about Into the Wild is that it accommodates both readings. There is romanticism galore in the photography, which is eye-catching without transcending the level of travelogue. On the other hand, Penn knows how to pull us up sharp: "King of the Road" plays on the soundtrack right before Chris experiences the disadvantages of being a boxcar hobo. But if I had to put money on where Penn's own sympathies lie, it would be with the idea of Chris as a gap-year messiah. "You're not Jesus, are you?" someone asks the lad, before Penn tips his hand by filming him on a mountaintop in a crucifixion pose.

There's more idolatry to contend with in the frequent glimpses of people gazing fondly at Chris, in case we'd forgotten how adorable he is. Admittedly, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than staring at Emile Hirsch. His feral good looks - he's like a boy-band cutie in the throes of a lycanthropic episode - hint that the "wild" of the title applies not merely to the landscape. He's also adept at mining Chris's ambiguities, and underlining his youthful arrogance. It's unusual for a US film to feature a lead character who is virtually unknowable, even borderline dislikeable. But Into the Wild largely succeeds in telling Chris's story without advising us too explicitly how to feel about him, or how his experiences are applicable to our own lives, which is fairly wild in itself.

Penn's last film, The Pledge, showed him to be a film-maker of immense grace and control. Into the Wild is a more skittish piece, as befits its subject; with its abbreviated scenes and jumbled chronology, it is as disrespectful of convention - and, occasionally, as indulgent - as its hero. But I couldn't help thinking that Chris would have reached Alaska more quickly if he wasn't afflicted by that widespread condition known as slow-motionitis, where the sufferer becomes unable to go for a stroll or take a shower without life slipping into lyrical half-speed.

Pick of the week

In Memory of Myself (U)
dir: Saverio Costanzo
Spiritual crises at a Venetian seminary.

Air Guitar Nation (15)
dir: Alexandra Lipsitz
The air guitar world championships documented. I could’ve been a contender . . .

Planet Terror (18)
dir: Robert Rodriguez
Second half of the Grindhouse double-bill. It can’t be any worse than Death Proof.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide