Saturday, January 10, 2009

Krakauer, Penn, McCandless, and me

Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild is a pastiched account of the life of Chris McCandless, a headstrong young man who leaves his family after graduating from college, then heads west. McCandless eventually ends up in the Alaskan wilderness and starves to death there. Krakauer first brought McCandless into the public eye when he wrote an article about the youth that appeared in January of 1993, barely five months after McCandless's body was found lying in an abandoned bus-- ironically, only a few miles from the ragged edge of civilization-- in August of 1992.

I read Into the Wild and Peter Jenkins's A Walk Across America before heading out to begin my own trans-American walk. They are fundamentally different narratives, with only the most superficial elements in common. Whereas Jenkins was out to reconnect with American people in an attempt to restore his faith in his country, McCandless was essentially trying to leave humanity behind. He did accept help, and might even be said to have befriended people along the way, but the overall impression one gets is that McCandless wasn't deeply interested in relationships.

In fact, the cinematic version of Krakauer's book, directed by Sean Penn and also titled "Into the Wild," includes a line of dialogue, spoken by McCandless to Ron Franz (this is an alias), an elderly gentleman who takes Chris under his wing: "I will miss you too, but you're wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships." (In Krakauer's book, the line is from one of McCandless's letters.) Where Peter Jenkins found God in people, McCandless found God almost everywhere else, and only grudgingly in people.

I'd like to spend some time, now, comparing Krakauer's and Penn's often similar-- but equally often different-- visions of Chris McCandless, and later on I'd like to indulge in what I know will be an apples-and-oranges comparison of McCandless's and my respective personalities and projects. For those unfamiliar with Into the Wild the book and/or "Into the Wild" the movie, a decent Wikipedia entry can be found here. While I will discuss elements of both works, I won't be spending much space recapping them. What follows is written on the assumption that the reader is at least casually familiar with McCandless's story as told by Krakauer, and as retold by Penn.

1. the book and the movie

Krakauer's 1997 book, essentially an expansion of his January 1993 Outside article "Death of an Innocent," is the culmination of a massive amount of research into the life and death of Chris McCandless. Krakauer managed to track down many of the people who had encountered McCandless, and was eventually able to piece together a sketch of McCandless's life after his 1990 graduation from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. McCandless himself was of little help; he effectively broke contact with his family, and everything that was discovered about what later transpired arrived through third-party sources. Krakauer also worked extensively with the McCandless family members, a process that must have been painful for them.

Into the Wild begins with McCandless's death and tells the young man's story by means of (1) a series of speculative third-person flashbacks based on the testimony of the people Krakauer interviewed, and (2) a series of narratives about men who, like McCandless, experienced a similar "call of the wild." Each chapter begins with a quote or set of quotes, often from writers that McCandless would have either known or appreciated: Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others.

While Krakauer doesn't romanticize McCandless's life and death, he does make clear where his own sympathies lie. As he writes in his book's preface:

I was haunted by the particulars of the boy's starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own....In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons. [...]

I won't claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless's strange tale struck a personal note that made dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried-- and largely succeeded, I think-- to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless's story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

As becomes obvious, Krakauer is extremely-- if not completely-- sympathetic to McCandless. His chapter about his own youthful climb along the Stikine Ice Cap to reach the tip of the Devil's Thumb provides the reader with an interiority that Krakauer hopes can be at least partially transferred to McCandless, to fill the first-person void left by McCandless's inability to tell his own tale.

Krakauer isn't out to write a hagiography of McCandless. In his book, he often agrees with experts who think that McCandless made some foolhardy choices as well as some truly stupid mistakes. Krakauer also unflinchingly explores McCandless's rocky relationship with his parents, especially with his father, Walt McCandless. Those whom Krakauer directly quotes in his book often voice mixed or even wholly negative opinions of the boy. But even as Krakauer shows us McCandless's imperfections, he also points out that McCandless wasn't the romantic greenhorn that some critics made him out to be: he accomplished the rare feat of surviving three months in the Alaskan bush, despite having brought in very little food. McCandless had no illusions about what he was getting into; as Krakauer notes, "peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were precisely what he was seeking."

If Krakauer's book has a message, it's that we should step back a moment before judging the adventurers among us. That some people are driven to live at the margins of civilization, to experience harsh extremes, to measure themselves against nature, is no sin in itself. They are who they are in part because of their past, but there is also something more that drives them to go out into the wild, something not easily explainable. For this reason if for no other, it is best to withhold judgment. More specifically, Krakauer wants to defend McCandless from the charge that he was simply a clueless youth, another in a long series of idealistic idiots who heedlessly tromp into the Alaskan wild, some never to return.

By contrast, Sean Penn seems fine with lionizing McCandless. His film "Into the Wild" captures the disordered, paratactic manner in which Krakauer first told McCandless's story: Penn starts his narrative in Alaska (though not with McCandless's death), then presents us with moments, scrapbook-style, from Chris's past, eventually bringing us to the film's climax, which is quite literally Chris's thready heartbeat followed by the outrush of the boy's final breath, and a beautiful pullback from Chris's dead face and into the air, putting us in the position of the boy's spirit ascending to heaven. "Into the Wild" is divided into chapters; these divisions, along with the non-linear narrative, might remind some viewers of a Quentin Tarantino film. The effect mirrors the fractured feel of Krakauer's book, and one leaves the movie with a strong sense that we have only barely scratched the surface of Chris McCandless's mind and heart.

Penn seems personally invested in McCandless's life and wants to put his own distinct stamp on it. Like Krakauer, upon whose work Penn's film is parasitic, Penn spoke at length with the McCandless family, and seems to have relied heavily on the testimony (real or fictionalized) of McCandless's sister Carine. Carine (played by Jena Malone in the film) offers, in voiceover, her thoughts on both family strife before Chris's departure, and Chris's lifelong wanderlust; she also gives us some indication of the deep hurt and confusion the family must have experienced as months and then years went by without any word from Chris.

But because Penn isn't a career outdoorsman, whatever empathy he feels for McCandless is, I think, strained through a Hollywood filter. Penn makes a crucial directorial decision not to include either Krakauer's voice or the parallel experiences of the adventurers Krakauer described in his book: the film's narrative focuses solely on the boy. This may have been a wise decision, given the film's already-ponderous two hour and twenty-minute running time, but it strips the story of a crucial dimension: instead of giving us some way to compare Chris's character to that of similar adventurers, we are left only with Penn's version of Chris.

None of which is to say that Penn botches the job. "Into the Wild" succeeds on its own terms. It takes some liberties with the young man's story; the unconvincing* addition of a potential love interest stands out as one of the more egregious fictions-- but shapes the narrative into something that is both touching and uplifting. It does so, however, at the expense of the pragmatism that infuses Krakauer's book. Krakauer can respect Chris, perhaps even empathize with him, but he also judges Chris from the point of view of an experienced outdoorsman; Penn loves the boy's wildness unquestioningly, and he turns McCandless's life into a paean for the soul's freedom.

Penn's McCandless frequently breaks the fourth wall: we often catch him staring into the camera, sometimes during an Eddie Vedder-saturated montage. The first time this happens is perhaps the best: Chris is seated on the sidewalk of a bridge, eating an apple, and as he eats the apple, he showers it with lavish praise.** The scene ends with Chris (ably played by Emile Hirsch, a.k.a. Speed Racer) gawking at us, grinning, and thrusting his face playfully toward us. Breaking the fourth wall can work well or be disastrous; in this film, I think the technique succeeds in bringing the viewer closer to Chris as a living presence. It does feel strange, however, that Penn is inviting us to be Chris's travel companions. Chris himself would have rejected us, or would have abandoned us after a while.

Penn also sprinkles shots of the sky into his picture, and in almost every case the sky is not pristine: one or more jets can be seen, leaving contrails and marring nature. Penn succeeds at getting us to see the sky the way McCandless would have seen it. The imagery becomes a bit heavy-handed toward the end, but Penn cleverly contrasts it with Chris's dying view of the sky: it's contrail-free when he expires.

Penn's own "authorial presence" is most visible in how he handles a moment in Krakauer's book. Krakauer writes that McCandless wrote in the books he had taken along with him, underlining passages and scribbling marginalia. In McCandless's copy of Dr. Zhivago, he had written, in all-caps, "HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED." Penn the filmmaker treats this as one of Chris's ultimate epiphanies, a belated realization that the people he had been rejecting (in his family's case) or abandoning (as in the case of everyone he had "befriended" on the road) were the ones with whom he would have found true happiness. It's a poignant realization but, as Krakauer writes, we'll never know whether Chris's emphatic note was meant in this spirit-- if he truly regretted his decision to divorce himself from society, and was finally ready to embrace it. Penn decides that yes, Chris had finally understood that you can't divorce happiness from others.

I recommend Penn's film because he manages to capture, through his portrayal of soaring vistas and fantastic panoramas, the natural beauty that can set an adventurer's soul aflame. Penn's cinematography provides a wordless justification for what drives Chris McCandless; like Krakauer, Penn wants us to know that McCandless was not merely the product of his personal demons. But I also advise the viewer to approach Penn's film with caution: McCandless bears a whiff of the saintly by the end of the movie, and Krakauer makes clear that the boy was no saint. That beautiful pullback from Chris's dead face, that soul-ascension into the sky, is deeply touching, but it's also pure treacle.

2. the personal angle: McCandless and me

As someone who had been planning his own long-distance adventure, I couldn't help but be drawn to McCandless's story. Before I had read Krakauer's book, I already knew the highlights: young guy leaves home, gives away his money and possessions, and heads for Alaska in search of... well, I was fuzzy on what, exactly, McCandless had been searching for.

It turns out that McCandless grew up in Annandale, Virginia, placing him near or within Koreatown, and he went to Lake Braddock Secondary School, one of my high school's competitors (Mount Vernon and Annandale are both part of Fairfax County, separated by a thirty-minute drive). McCandless was one year my senior, being born in 1968. We both share a love of quiet solitude, though I suspect McCandless had more voices in his head than I harbor.

It might be cute to find more commonalities between us, but I have no desire to mythologize McCandless any further than Hollywood already has. I know I can be stubborn sometimes, as McCandless was stubborn, but it would never occur to me to abandon my family in search of intense experience or ultimate truth. During this walk of mine, I've been in more or less constant touch with my folks, largely thanks to their parting gift: my BlackBerry. Even when I was in Korea, I could expect frequent emails from my brother David, and often spoke with Mom and Dad on the weekends (I usually griped that they should save the long-distance charges and just email me, but getting Mom to write anything at length is like pulling teeth).

While I've never experienced an attraction to nature and the simple life as acutely as McCandless did, I've always preferred mountains, rivers, and lakes to big cities. Living in Seoul has changed me somewhat in that respect; I can tolerate a big-city existence now, but still prefer the quiet that one finds just beyond the suburbs. As I've grown older, I've lost my romantic view of rustic life and now know it can be just as complex and stressful as city life, but the problems you encounter in the country are more straightforward and less about people playing their petty head-games. That's exactly the sort of human static that McCandless was trying to escape.

When I lived in Switzerland, I never skied. I did, however, hike all over the place, learning all about Fribourg et les alentours, visiting the nearby towns of Marly and Villars-sur-Glâne, tromping forever up and down, up and down the mountains that the Swiss blithely call their "plateau." I camped, I practiced camp cooking, I went out rain or shine. I did the typical American college student thing, backpacking around Western Europe on a Eurailpass for five weeks between semesters during my junior year in college. I've always enjoyed exploring; when I travel alone, I normally prefer to get myself lost, to spend all day feeling my way around a new location, really learning it inside and out.

The travel bug is something you never lose once you catch it, but it's also not the same as whatever was driving McCandless. Chris appears to have resented his status and privilege; he insisted on doing everything the hard way, and according to Krakauer, this sometimes meant going as far as to ignore sage advice in favor of reinventing the wheel. To some extent, any man can understand this particular urge: there comes a point in one's life when one wishes to test oneself, to make one's own mistakes, to accomplish something and to bask in the knowledge that it was done without anyone's help. As one gets older, one starts to see how much the ego permeates this way of thinking, and the wiser among us learn to accept that we were never as free or independent as we had thought.

Even Chris McCandless needed help to reach the Stampede Trail in Alaska, and after giving away $24,000 to Oxfam and burning the rest of his cash when he arrived in Nevada, he ended up doing odd jobs to earn more cash. Most significantly, while McCandless was starving in the Alaskan wild, he wrote the following note, which was conspicuously absent from Sean Penn's version of events:


Whatever independent streak McCandless might have had, he knew he was a goner without outside help. I mention the above note not to gloat (what sane person wouldn't write such a note when in desperate straits?), but to show that McCandless was still very much a part of the civilization he thought he could escape.

Buddhist monasteries that have the luxury of large grounds often have one or several hermitages. Hyeon Gak sunim, an American monk in the Kwaneum order, has talked about spending months in seclusion. The tradition harks back to the dosa, the Taoist mountain hermit-sages, and also to the samnyassin, the Indian forest ascetics. These people lived lives far removed from the madding crowd, but at no point were they ever truly separate from their culture. Buddhist hermits were and remain part of the system. Chris McCandless was part of modern America: he lived in the age of the cluttered sky.

So what's my personal opinion of Chris McCandless? I think McCandless was fundamentally foolish on several fronts: first, you can't run away from the voices in your head; second, it's not a good idea to march into the wilderness insufficiently supplied and equipped; third, you shouldn't be too quick to admire literary heroes who were, in reality, fat drunkards with barely a single season's experience in the wild (I speak here of Jack London, as described by Krakauer); and finally, the pursuit of wisdom-- if that's really what one is attempting-- doesn't have to occur at the emotional expense of those who love us despite our selfish desire to pull away from the circle of care.

But I think Krakauer's book succeeded in gentling my attitude toward McCandless. Krakauer makes a strong case, in Into the Wild, that McCandless cannot simply be written off as a crackpot idealist lacking in common sense. I admire how driven Chris was. I admire how far he took his stubbornness. I admire his lack of timidity, and envy the depth of feeling of which he was apparently capable. He and I could never have been friends, I'm sure: despite our mutual love of reading, I would have been too content, too sedentary to have been a partner in Chris's adventures.

The specter of Chris McCandless hovers over my own journey, like a watchful angel. His voice is now part of the throng in my head, but I'm glad it's there, both warning me away from danger and spurring me onward to the discovery of new things. My own journey was never intended to take me into the wild, but McCandless would have understood my need to stand facing a long, empty stretch of open road and big sky. And perhaps in the end, McCandless might have understood that part of what my own journey is about is making new friends along the way. I'll walk this walk and make my own discoveries, but I fully intend to return to the embrace of home.

*'s Stephanie Zacharek, on whom you can always count for a catty review, says this about Chris's apparent asexuality:

"Into the Wild" is essentially humorless: Chris' encounter with a couple of Swedish tourists, one of them a curvy beauty who lounges boldly on a Colorado riverbank sans bikini top, is one of the few places the movie even flirts with levity. But even then, Chris seems only slightly amused by these amazing Swedish breasts; there's something inert, almost neuter, about him. In a hippie trailer town, he also meets up with a very young singer-songwriter (played by Kristen Stewart, in a sturdy, sensitive performance) who offers herself freely; he nobly declines on the grounds that she's too young, but you get the feeling he's not that interested anyway.

[NB: Zacharek gets it wrong: the young couple say they're from Copenhagen.]

Jon Krakauer says this about Chris and his asexuality:

In high school McCandless had enjoyed a close rapport with two or three members of the opposite sex, and Carine recalls one instance when he got drunk and tried to bring a girl up to his bedroom in the middle of the night (they made so much noise stumbling up the stairs that Billie [Chris's mother] was awakened and sent the girl home). But there is little evidence to suggest that he was sexually active as a teenager and even less to suggest that he slept with any woman after graduating from high school. (Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that he was sexually intimate with a man.) It seems that McCandless was drawn to women but remained largely or entirely celibate, as chaste as a monk.

Chastity and moral purity were qualities McCandless mulled over long and often. Indeed, one of the books found in the bus with his remains was a collection of stories that included Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata," in which the nobleman-turned-ascetic denounces "the demands of the flesh." Several such passages are starred and highlighted in the dog-eared text, the margins filled with cryptic notes printed in McCandless's distinctive hand. And in the chapter on "Higher Laws" in Thoreau's Walden, a copy of which was also discovered in the bus, McCandless circled "Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it."

We Americans are titillated by sex, obsessed by it, horrified by it. When an apparently healthy person, especially a healthy young man, elects to forgo the enticements of the flesh, it shocks us, and we leer. Suspicions are aroused.

McCandless's apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with singleminded passion-- Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently-- to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact.

UPDATE: I should note that Krakauer's book does refer to a certain Tracy (sixteen in the movie; seventeen in the book) who apparently did make moon-eyes at McCandless while the latter was staying with Jan Burress at a "rubber tramp" colony. The book says little more than that about Tracy; Sean Penn seems to have filled in the rest.

**I'm reminded of the fellow who said, "Don't just eat that hamburger-- eat the hell out of it!"


Friday, January 9, 2009

sudden thought

For his next "Throwdown," Bobby Flay needs to visit a boshintang-jip.


where I'm not

The Pacific Northwest has apparently been experiencing a great deal of flooding, the aftereffect of heavy snow. My sympathies, guys. At the same time, I'm glad I don't have to walk through that.

UPDATE: Then again, we on the east coast might not be able to avoid some measure of what's hit the nation's west.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hakim walks 3300 miles in 5+ months

Great video interview on Slate between Alex Chadwick and a dude named Hakim, who started on the east coast of the United States and walked all the way to Venice Beach, California-- quietly, with no fanfare... and almost no cash. How did he manage this feat? He did his own version of couchsurfing, and when homes were sparse, he increased the distances he was walking.

Hakim says he started off walking 7-8 miles per day (which is a smart way to begin, I now realize). Later, and for much of the walk, he followed a particular rule: he had to walk a minimum of 13 miles. Were he to encounter a home before hitting that minimum, he would be unable to accept the offer of shelter for the night.

By the time Hakim had reached the desert of the American Southwest, he was walking with at least three gallons of water and averaging 30-35 miles per day; his pack weighed around 70 to 80 pounds as a result.

Hakim says he did this walk in order to inspire the younger generation by showing that nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it. Pretty amazing. Go watch the video.

Many thanks to reader RWellor for appending this link in a recent comment.

UPDATE: Type "Hakim walks across America" into Google, and you'll get plenty of information about him, especially here.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

the road to happiness

[UPDATE: 네이버로 "the road to happiness" 검색하신 분들 이블로그에 오셔서 감사합니다! 하지만, 그표현을 왜 찾으십니까?]

I have no particular desire to become rich. If there's anything I want in terms of money, it's simply the chance to be free of scholastic debt, and to have enough money to indulge in a few personal projects. That would be all right by me.

Having spent my time since 2002 with the aforementioned scholastic debt hanging hugely over my head, I'm used to financial hardship and have a hard time understanding how money can drive certain people to suicide. I assume this has something to do with cathexis: you extend your ego-boundaries around something, and its fortunes become yours. All the more reason not to invest one's ego in financial matters, eh?

Psychologist Ernest Becker, in his The Denial of Death, argues that when one's self-image includes the notion that one is the hero of his or her own narrative, this generates a sense of immortality, accomplishment, and fulfillment. The loss of that heroic image can lead to various forms of insanity, and even to death (see a quick summary here). I think there's something to this idea, which seems rooted in common sense. The poor bloke in the above-linked article, a German tycoon, saw his empire crumbling and very likely lost his heroic self-perception. He apparently killed himself by walking in front of a train.

There are many roads to happiness, however one defines happiness. My advice, for what it's worth, is to avoid hitching your sense of self-worth to the money truck. It should be pretty obvious that being rich doesn't equate to being happy. Money's important, but is a sudden lack of money a legitimate reason to end your own life?



This post was prompted by a quote from "Real Genius" that appeared on Facebook:

I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said... "I drank what?"

Nowadays, there is a school of thought that says that execution is basically state-sanctioned murder. Socrates is said to have died by drinking a solution containing hemlock, and that he did this as punishment for the crime of "corrupting the minds of the youth" of his day.

My question is this: if execution is essentially murder, and Socrates by all accounts willingly committed suicide, did the state execute Socrates?


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

cultural differences

In Korea, when a woman is pilloried by the cyber-community, she often reports that she feels suicidal. In the West, when a woman is similarly pilloried, she gets pissed off and tracks down her attackers.

NB: The woman mentioned in the above-linked article is Australian, but her hunt for the people who have defamed her is taking place in America.


a liberal take

One of my new friends, Paul Cox of Seattle, doesn't strike me as a conservative. When I was at his magnificent apartment, I recall seeing large Obama campaign posters all over the interior (if I remember correctly, an impressive Obama image watched over me while I slept). Make of that what you will, but I'm pretty sure the posters are a sign that Paul doesn't toe the rightie party line. And that's what makes this blog post of his all the more significant:

In other words, even though the Palestinians don't officially have a nation, for all intents and purposes they do have one-- and they're launching attacks from that nation into Israel.

What on earth are the Israelis supposed to do? Sit there and take the attacks indefinitely? I just don't get what protestors like these folks in Seattle this past weekend are thinking.

The reality of the entire mess is this: The only way these folks are going to get to an ultimately peaceful situation there is when the Palestinians fully accept that the nation of Israel is there permanently. Until that happens, and they recognize that the Palestinians who were evicted-- wrongly, sure-- are not going to get the "right of return," they're just not going to be able to have peace.

The current conflict in Gaza is worthy of discussion; there are many important points to be made. But for now, I just want to make this minor point: if you're a conservative, be careful about stereotyping those on the left.


getting older faster

What with news of elementary schoolers performing sexual acts inside classrooms, it should come as no surprise to hear that a four-year-old boy, somehow angered by his babysitter, shot the babysitter with a shotgun. Hooray for stellar parenting and conscientious gun safety measures!

It won't be long before we start hearing about intrauterine bribery and prostitution among sextuplets.



I just finished watching Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," starring Emile Hirsch. I've got a lot to write about this movie, but it's late and that will have to wait for another time. In short: highly recommended.


Monday, January 5, 2009

at long last

I just dug up a French-language article about UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's inability to speak French-- something of a minor scandal among the French. My translation of the article appears below; the French original is here.

I remember seeing vague articles in the American press about Ban's little French problem, but I was sure that francophone sources would go into the problem more deeply. I don't know why, but tonight I suddenly became curious about this long-dead piece of news, and dug around for a few seconds before finding the Le Figaro article you see below. Enjoy. Now that time has passed, I wonder how Ban's French is doing.

HEADLINE: Ban Ki-moon doesn't speak French.

ARTICLE (December 14, 2006):

The South Korean Ban Ki-moon, who will succeed Kofi Annan in January, failed a test of his French when he proved unable to respond to a question about why French should be the second working language at the UN, after English.

At the press conference following Ban's swearing-in, a Canadian journalist asked him to explain in French why this language should be held above other languages that are more widely spoken in the world, such as Chinese or Arabic.

"I wasn't able to (understand)," the former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs timidly responded in French. "If you could speak lentement [slowly] en français," he entreated his interlocutor. This was done, but Ban was once again unable to catch the meaning of the question.

One of his collaborators then came to his aid by translating the question, and it was in English that Ban then responded that the decision to give French a prominent place had been made by the member states for "practical" reasons. "Each language has equal authenticity," he added.

Ban Ki-moon has been taking French courses for a year.

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. France, a permanent member with the right of veto on the Security Council, which selects the Secretary-General, makes sure that the candidates for this post are up to the task of "working in French." Ban's predecessors in this post (the Ghanaian Kofi Annan and the Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali) mastered, for their part, the language of Molière.

Ban Ki-moon has been taking French courses since launching his campaign to succeed Kofi Annan, and spoke a few paragraphs of his inaugural speech in this language. Jean-Marc de La Sablière, the French ambassador to the UN, affirms that the future Secretary-General is making efforts to bring his French up to the appropriate level.


"King Kong"

Last night, I caught parts of Peter Jackson's 2005 "King Kong," his followup to the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies. Jackson's style is now as unmistakable as Spielberg's: "King Kong" featured the same sort of lighting as the LOTR films did, and many of the same visual tropes were there. Giant vampire bats looked like orcs; large creatures tossed humans around like toys (think: Sauron in "Fellowship of the Ring" and the Ringwraiths' dragon-like flying steeds), and Jackson went nuts with all the insects and spiders-- Shelob writ large. Kong was played by Andy Serkis, the actor who provided the soul for the CGI mocap* Gollum, and there were many moments where Kong, his mouth drawn long and thin in a perpetual frown, strongly resembled a Gollum about to blow his top.

One major difference between "King Kong" and the LOTR films is that the latter films had a complex plot. "Kong" boils down to two elements: (1) gorilla loves woman, and (2) gorilla rampages and everyone else runs.

Actress Naomi Watts was a good sport. Her character, Ann Darrow, gets variously poked, prodded, stroked, flung, thrashed, tossed, dropped, roared at, and breathed on by the massive Kong. On top of this, Watts spent a lot of screen time running, breathing hard, and weeping. Not an easy role.

Not a very realistic one, either. Ann Darrow survives more physical traumas than Bruce Willis's John McClane in any of the Die Hard films. The most painful** scenes to watch were the ones in which Kong grabbed Darrow in his fist, then ran through the jungle, repeatedly smashing both his fists into the ground and levering his body along as he moved forward. If an actual human being had been in such a situation, wrapped inside a huge fist and repeatedly slammed into the ground, his or her spine would have been liquefied. I know "King Kong" is a baroque fantasy, and that we're not supposed to think about such matters, but the abuse Darrow took was distracting to the story; I began to worry more about her health than about the unfolding plot.

I was, ultimately, more interested in how Jackson would handle Kong's arrival in New York than in how he would handle the jungle scenes. Jackson's LOTR movies showed us very little in the way of urban settings (unless you count the white fortress-city of Minas Tirith); I wanted to see how he'd tackle the city scenes. As it turns out, he handled them well enough, but there was an underlying sameness between Kong's jungle rampages and his car-flinging urban tantrums. I guess you can expect people and large objects to be tossed great distances in a Peter Jackson film; we can look forward to more of this whenever "The Hobbit" comes out.***

The actors in "King Kong" were all playing second fiddle to the effects. Adrien Brody's nose-- quel pif, Adrien!-- dominates every scene in which it appears; I assume it has its own agent. Jack Black tried to do a serious version of his usual D&D geek schtick, and I'm not sure it worked. His delivery of the movie's final line left something to be desired. Watts was an able successor to Fay Wray; as far as I'm concerned, she carried the movie. Finally, Serkis's Kong was expressively done-- the sort of work we expect of Serkis, who looks physically unprepossessing in real life, but who is an extremely physical actor (watch the special features on any of the LOTR DVDs to see what I mean; the poor guy went through hell to portray Gollum).

But what exactly is the message of "King Kong"? Is Kong a caricature of the male id, tameable only by Woman? The movie's final line seems to suggest such a reading, though it does so in a way that makes the filmmakers' attitude toward womanhood unclear: "It was Beauty killed the beast" seems to imply that Woman is the downfall of Man.

Or is the movie's message more Crichton-esque, a morality play about what happens when we assume we can control nature? In this interpretation, Kong represents nature in all its unpredictability. Humanity's only answer to uncontrollable natural forces is to destroy them, to reimpose human order over natural chaos, and then to walk away without having learned anything from the experience. Nature can triumph over Man (Kong scales the Empire State Building), but Man is ultimately the one who triumphs, and it's not a pretty sight. Here, with only the woman to weep for Kong's death, we again see a commentary about femininity, but unlike the "Kong-as-male-id" scenario, Woman here is no less than Sophia, i.e., wisdom. She understands the violence being done to nature by Man, and weeps at Man's vain insistence on separating himself from nature.

Did you see "King Kong"? What's your interpretation of the movie's message? And did you like the movie? I enjoyed the visuals (what's not to like about Kong versus three tyrannosaurs?), but I don't feel compelled to see the film again anytime soon.

*Mocap = motion capture, a digital technique by which a fantasy creature's movements and/or expressions are made natural and fluid by mapping them onto the movements of a live actor wearing a special suit with markings.

**By "painful," I don't mean "embarrassing": I mean "making me wince in empathy for what the character is going through."

***Adapting Tolkien's The Hobbit strikes me as a less interesting project than putting The Silmarillion on film, especially that epic creation story at the beginning, which is practically a movie in itself.


kitty kitty

While this video isn't the first I've seen of lions affectionately hugging people, I agree with Mike that it's heartwarming. The message at the end of the video is also good... and that's why, on the eighth day, God created Facebook.


Sunday, January 4, 2009


I'd forgotten how much I used to crush on actress Caitlin Clarke, who plays the role of Valerian (opposite a very young Peter MacNicol) in the 1981 movie "Dragonslayer." The movie was on TV last night, and I went online afterward to look Clarke up, only to find out that she had died of ovarian cancer in 2004. I was surprised at how sad that discovery made me. One website had photos of her as an older woman, probably taken in the late 90s or early "aughts," and I saw with a pang that she was still beautiful.

"Dragonslayer" has become something of a cult classic in the intervening years, though not because it was a B movie. Quite the contrary: it featured a masterful performance by Sir Ralph Richardson as the wizard Ulrich, and solid performances from the other cast members-- McNicol as the apprentice Galen, Clarke as Valerian, John Hallam as Tyrian the vicious knight, Peter Eyre as Casiodorus the king, and-- I'd forgotten this-- Ian McDiarmid (yes, Emperor Palpatine himself) as a priest who has an unfortunate encounter with the titular dragon. The movie also had top-notch ILM special effects (top-notch for 1981, anyway), and both the costume design and atmospherics work well even today: the movie has retained a gritty, gloomy, realistically Dark Ages feel.

The plot didn't insult the intellect, either. For what was purportedly a kid's movie, the storyline was remarkably complex. The ancient sorceror Ulrich is asked by Valerian and her companions, travelers from Urland, to battle the dragon-- Vermithrax-- that holds their land in such terror, but the wizard knows he is too old to make the journey. He therefore allows himself to be killed and cremated, counting on his impetuous apprentice both to carry his ashes to the site of the eventual confrontation and to figure out how to bring the wizard back to life. Galen and his servant Hodge begin the journey to the dragon's lair; it's Hodge, doing "the Master's bidding in his own way," who brings along the wizard's ashes without Galen's knowledge. Hodge is shot by Tyrian, but in his dying moments he gives Ulrich's ashes to Galen. Many seeming accidents turn out all to have been part of the wizard's plan. (For an adult, watching the puzzle pieces fall into place is a pleasure.)

Most of the movie's middle is devoted to Galen's adventures in Urland as he faces the skepticism of King Casiodorus, the wrath of his lieutenant Tyrian, the naivete of the king's daughter Elspeth, and a budding love for Valerian. Galen initially tries and fails to kill the dragon by summoning an avalanche to block the only known entrance to the lair; this merely angers Vermithrax, who launches into the air and goes on a killing spree. Later, Galen is imprisoned by the king, who confiscates the young wizard's magic amulet and tries to use it himself. While in prison, Galen has a chance to tell Princess Elspeth (filiam regis-- the film isn't shy about inserting Latin into the dialogue) that she has been excluded from the king's lottery, i.e., the arrangement by which virgins are selected twice yearly to propitiate the dragon. The news disturbs Elspeth, who sets about redressing the injustice in a grim way. Her actions begin the story's plunge to its visually stunning conclusion.*

The story is not only complex, but is also interesting for students of religion: it takes place at the turning of the age, when pagan magic is fading away while Christianity gains strength. Whether the movie possesses a particular religious message is doubtful, though-- in fact, the movie seems to tweak Christianity's nose as the people at the end of the film praise God for slaying the dragon, despite the previously demonstrated ineffectiveness of the priest, who takes a brave stand but ends up fricasseed by old Vermithrax. Or could the movie be saying that the pagan wizards are as much the servants of God as the Christians? Who knows?

"Dragonslayer" has taken a beating for its wacky musical score, which sounds even weirder now than it did in 1981. The music never quite seems to match the visuals, often sounding too frantic and overbearing, as if the instrumentalists had been asked to drug up before the studio recording. But perhaps because the movie is a sentimental favorite of mine, I don't mind the acoustic weirdness; it gives the story an otherworldiness that pulls my emotions in strange directions.

Speaking of those visuals: I'd love to see them cleaned up and made seamless. The story remains solid, and many of the special effects have withstood the test of time. But a George Lucas-style cleanup could fix problems like the cloud-roiling scene, or the inadvertent transparency of Ulrich's eyes in that same scene (you can see the clouds through them, indicating the use of some sort of overlaying process). I wouldn't redesign the dragon-- which already looks fearsome-- but would enjoy seeing a better CGI version of it to replace the clunky, stop-motion animated creature, which now smacks too much of the monsters in old Harryhausen movies.

If you've never seen "Dragonslayer" before, give it a whirl. It came out a year after "The Empire Strikes Back," a pleasant cinematic connection that any kid at the time would have made as soon as he saw young Galen using his amulet to levitate a backpack à la Yoda and the Force. The movie also contains a good measure of blood and guts (we see one unfortunate maiden get her leg chewed off at the shin by one of the dragon's offspring; we also see Galen use a magically sharpened spear to behead some of those very offspring), and a tantalizing slice of female nudity when Galen discovers that Valerian, who had been passing herself off as a boy when the film began, isn't a boy at all. Yes, that scene probably helped cement my crush on Caitlin Clarke, and no, you don't see any naughty bits. But from a very young age, boys are quite good at undressing women with their eyes: all we need is that little visual hint-- a curve here, a bit of exposed skin there-- and 'tis enough, 'twill serve.

Ah, bittersweet memories. Rest in peace, Caitlin.

*"Dragonslayer" is as much a big-screen movie as Peter Jackson's LOTR films.


strange bedfellows

And now to balance out the post in which I quoted a conservative issuing liberal talking points, I direct you (thanks to Glenn Reynolds) to a post on a famous liberal blog that offers up conservative talking points-- in this case, regarding climate change. Noteworthy excerpt:

You are probably wondering by now -- and if you are not, you should be -- which rises first, carbon dioxide or temperature. The answer? Temperature. In every case, the ice-core data shows that temperature rises precede rises in carbon dioxide by, on average, 800 years. In fact, the relationship is not "complicated."

The above is consistent with the information in "The Great Global Warming Swindle," a video that makes the same point about Al Gore's confusion of cause and effect. Personally, I think Gore's heart is in the right place: he's right to claim that humanity shouldn't make a toilet of its own environment, but he and other alarmists aren't doing a great job of promoting rational dialogue with the increasing number of global warming skeptics out there. (To be clear, the skeptics aren't arguing about whether there's a warming trend in many areas of the planet; they're arguing over how much of this change is anthropogenic. The reason this argument is important is that its outcome may affect energy policy. For example, there might not be much need to talk about (and tax) one's "carbon footprint." Surely there's room for dialogue, yes?)