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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Into the Wild

As an actor, Sean Penn has exhibited an appreciable range in the characters he has portrayed, but as a director, he seems permanently locked into one emotional aesthetic, that of the sophomoric adolescent male. Each of his movies has been gratingly obvious and whiny, striving so hard and with such tunnel vision to achieve certain emotional themes that subtlety and sophistication are just the first casualties, with dramatic integrity following close behind. Penn’s 2007 feature about a college graduate who cuts ties with his family and begins aimlessly crisscrossing America, Into the Wild, however, is his least terrible feature. It is still zoned in on adolescent resentment, fear of adult responsibilities, and the single-minded pursuit of narcissism, but where his previous movies have sought unsuccessfully to disguise these attributes in nominally adult characters, here Penn, who wrote the script and directed the film, embraces the culture of adolescence straight on. The hero has the same name as Penn’s own deceased sibling, so that every voiceover reference to him missing or his parents’ guilt (and they occur steadily throughout the film; there are also numerous crosscuts to his anxious parents) takes on a self-conscious meta-level reinforcement of the movie’s primary themes. It may have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but it is resonant depth, nevertheless.

Into the Wild, which has been released by Paramount (UPC#0973-63481249, $30), will eventually come to be known as Penn’s masterpiece, and it is destined to acquire a feverish cult popularity, as young men, when they eventually discover the movie on home video and through word of mouth (it’s going to take some prodding), will embrace the film with the same fervor that a previous generation embraced On the Road. The movie is episodic as the hero, played with a strong Leonardo DiCaprio vibe by Emile Hirsch, meets different people and has different adventures. To Penn’s credit, these interludes are the film’s classiest sequences, creating engaging and entertaining portraits of various individuals-a wheat farmer, a pair of Scandinavian tourists, Hal Holbrook’s retired widower, a pair of aging hippies (the film is set in the Eighties)-each giving the movie an energy boost so it can travel along with Hirsch to the next interlude. Yes, Hirsch’s character sees nicely dressed people eating at a restaurant and he seethes at their conformity, but Penn never really takes his side, so you don’t resent the moment. Hence, the 148-minute adventure becomes an epic journey across America and through the young male self (coupled with never-ending fantasies about the people who are missing him), and although its values are cringe-inducing and its pain is sniveling to those who know better, it is ambitiously true to its own vision and monumental in the effort and consistency it has employed to achieve that goal.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer looks fine. Penn’s image compositions seem haphazard, as if he had thought really hard about some and left others to chance. His direction is incomplete in a lot of ways. When Hirsch’s character is dying in Alaska from starvation, it’s an idealized death-he looks skinny, but immaculately clean, with no sores on his body, his feet or his face. Even his books look brand new. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has an adequate dimensionality and a reasonable amount of detail. The musical score, much of which was composed by Eddie Veder, is rather dull and redundant. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Paramount has also released a 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (UPC#0-97361316949, $40). The first platter is identical to the standard release. The second platter has two production featurettes running a total of 39 minutes, and a trailer. One of the featurettes looks at the background of the film, which is based on a true story, while the other covers the actual production.

April 15, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon