Blasphemy, hubris and naïveté

I’m mulling over a pair of films I watched this weekend, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which I saw all the way through for the first time, and Sean Penn’s version of the Krakauer book Into the Wild.

Both were brilliant films for different reasons, and too much has been written about La Dolce Vita for me to bother with adding much more. I will say, though, that, given fifty million dollars to burn, I would love to take a stab of remaking this film with a coherent plot. Is that sacrilege? Is that blasphemy? I’m not saying the original is flawed by any stretch, just that I tend to tell stories differently. I can’t watch anything without thinking what I would do different. I sat through the whole film thinking impure thoughts like: what if each scene had a stronger transition that threaded one to the next; what if there were just a pair of overarching narrative elements, a touch more obvious, layered on top of everything else; what if we gave the audience just a hint more to grasp onto? Would that be pandering? Dumbing it down? Destroying the whole point of the film and its chaotic, jubilant, circus-like anti-narrative? I’m just saying.

Into the Wild resonated with me for another reason. About five minutes into the film, my wife looked at me and said, “My God, this is about you.” There were some strong critical reactions against this film (and also much praise), but there is also a specific subset of individuals who have lived this story, albeit likely with less tragic outcomes. It’s the American road story, it’s Thoreau, it’s the pursuit of ideals, the hubris and naivete that is the basic pulse of our culture. That’s what led that scraggly  piece of parchment under glass in Philadelphia. It’s what led, dare I say, to the audacity and idealism that brought our current White House occupant to the capital steps on Inauguration Day.

In the case of Alexander Supertramp in Penn’s film (and Krakauer’s book), his personal demons and hubris carry him too far. But plenty of us have read Thoreau or Nick Adams and taken it to heart, striking out for some purity of purpose. Wildness, Ralph Waldo said, is the salvation of humankind. That wildness could be nature. Or it could be the audacity and recklessness that leads us to pursue whatever it is that we’re after.

It takes a certain amount of hubris and naivete to sit through a film like La Dolce Vita, or The Godfather, or Double Indemnity, or There Will Be Blood and to think to yourself, “I could do that.”

Without naive idealism, you’d never sit down and start scribbling a script, dropping it in the mail on a lark with the notion that someone might want to read it and then plan on investing a lot of money in making a film out of it, as happened to me. Without naivete and a touch of ego, you might not spend years working on a novel, piling up a hundred rejections, finally sitting down and reading through it again and thinking, “hey, this is pretty friggin’ good,” and then settling in and bracing for your next hundred rejections. Which has also happened to me.

Penn nails this particularly American blend of blindness and idealism. This is a tragic story, but also very American. And in many cases, it turns out differently.

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