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ESSAY

Darker shades of green

December 23, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Eden is burning. The third rock from the sun is heating up, and the garden of the American imagination is on fire with scorched-earth imagery, four-alarm prophesies of doom and the growing cult of "sustainable" consumerism.

Frito-Lay boasts about making "carbon-neutral" potato chips. Bookstore shelves sag with titles such as "The Virtuous Consumer" and -- groan -- "Sustainable Living for Dummies."

Think all this started with Al Gore and his inconvenient Nobel Peace Prize? Think again.

The planetary and human costs of overconsumption reemerged as a major cultural theme this year, but it's an idea with deep roots in the national psyche, as evidenced by two of the year's best films: Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."

Neither of these thoughtful, passionately crafted movies imparts any sort of crude "eco-friendly" message. Yet both explore the notion of America (and, by extension, Earth) as a former paradise under siege.

That idea is as venerable and loamy as the banks of Walden Pond, and it raises the same question for us that it did for Henry David Thoreau when he took up roost in his handmade cabin in the Massachusetts woods in 1845.

Is it desirable, or possible, to turn our backs on modern life and retreat into blissful Transcendentalist solitude, communing with flora and fauna? Should our goal be to banish humanity and return "the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden," as the radical Voluntary Human Extinction Movement proposes? Or should we admit that the utopian garden is long gone, and that in order to reconnect with nature (let alone save it) we must confront the destructive forces within ourselves?

"Into the Wild" and "There Will Be Blood" probe deeply into these themes and are serendipitous companion pieces. "Into the Wild" is a lyrical psychological portrait of an idealistic young man, Christopher Johnson McCandless, who tried to turn himself into a modern-day American Adam by dropping off the consumer-conformist treadmill but paid a fatal price for underestimating Mother Nature's mean streak.

"There Will Be Blood" presents a bleaker, more disturbing profile of the fictional Daniel Plainview, an oil driller ferociously played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a classic American, rugged individualist whose fanatical pursuit of wealth and power leaves a black stain on everything he touches. Although "Into the Wild" reflects our preferred national self-image as earnest, well-meaning Thoreau-ians, American economic history is also personified by the single-minded Plainview.

Spiritual journey

Adapted by Penn and Jon Krakauer from Krakauer's 1996 bestseller, "Into the Wild" recounts the true story of McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, a quixotic college grad from a well-off family who in the early 1990s disappeared into the Alaskan outback.

The movie celebrates the uncompromising integrity and Emersonian self-reliance of its hero, compellingly portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch. But it also questions whether McCandless' tragic end -- dying of starvation, alone and hallucinating -- is necessarily the best way to serve mankind or attain harmony with Mother Earth.

Though raised in affluent D.C. suburbia, McCandless could have stepped out of a 19th century German bildungsroman, a high-minded wanderer in the wilderness of his own tortured conscience. Disillusioned with what he saw as a soul-dead, consumerist society, McCandless turned to nature in search of spiritual transcendence.

This idea of retreating to wide open spaces in order to purge yourself of civilization and its discontented (and in McCandless' case, to escape your bickering parents as well) echoes through American culture (Walt Whitman, Huck Finn, Jack London, "On the Road") and reflects a very American belief that virtuous living is akin to self-realization. As the wife says to her husband in a recent New Yorker cartoon, "Yoga made you cranky, meditation made you anxious, but driving the hybrid you have found yourself, Walter."

But "Into the Wild" also serves as a cautionary tale about the folly of saving your soul by turning your back on mankind (and common sense). McCandless' tendency to treat life as if it were an extreme sport is contrasted with the lives of other characters in the film who seem to have found more temperate, manageable approaches to surviving off the grid.

Thoreau was one of McCandless' idols, but as Rebecca Solnit points out in her just-published essay collection, "Storming the Gates of Paradise -- Landscapes for Politics," Thoreau wasn't urging his fellow Americans simply to drop out of the human race and go pick berries. The author of "Walden" was also the author of "Civil Disobedience," a supporter of abolitionism who went to jail rather than pay taxes to support what he believed was an immoral war with Mexico.

Unlike McCandless, Thoreau was no babe in the forest. "To be in the woods," Solnit writes of Thoreau's philosophy, "was not to be out of society or politics."

Capitalist quandary

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