Call of the Wild
Actor-Director Sean Penn Explores the Backcountry Inhabited by A Solitary Man
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Here's the man-bites-dog story of the Toronto International Film Festival: Sean Penn is a happy man.
Last year, Penn was busy incurring Canadian wrath by daring to smoke a cigarette inside a hotel during a news conference, resulting in a fine for the hotel and high dudgeon from the Ontario government. This year, Penn is back as writer and director of "Into the Wild," which had a triumphant premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and opens in Washington tomorrow. Lighting the first of several Marlboro Lights, having solicitously asked, "Are you okay with cigarette smoke?" and opened a window first, he eagerly dives into conversation about his new movie, which he adapted from Jon Krakauer's 1996 bestseller about Chris McCandless, a recent college graduate whose solitary sojourn to the backcountry of Alaska ended in his death.
To devoted readers of "Into the Wild," which has become a watershed generational text on a par with "On the Road" and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Penn's movie will no doubt prove a faithful rendering of Krakauer's by turns dispassionate, unsettling and deeply affecting chronicle of McCandless's final two years.
But to anyone who's paid attention to Penn over the past 25 years, the movie is vividly, even uncannily, inscribed with the cardinal themes of his own life and career, from the restlessness of a man given to solitary cross-country road trips to the obsessive search for authenticity that sometimes borders on the self-destructive. Impulsive, charming, compassionate, manipulative, brave, cruel, foolish, uncompromising, infuriating: It's difficult to know, when talking about "Into the Wild," whether one is talking about McCandless or Penn -- even when Penn himself is talking.
"This movie brings up questions about reckless risk," Penn allows. "But what I want to say to people when they question the risks he took, whether it was related to the suffering that happened to the family as a result of the loss of his life, you know, I venture that most of the young men and women fighting, particularly the men, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, the biggest part of it is a rite of passage. It's, 'Am I up to this?' -- forget the politics totally when I'm talking about this -- and that's a tradition that at times has been a very noble thing; at other times it's more controversial. But in either case, in a young person, it's always noble to pursue something that in Western culture, in the United States, has been homogenized. There are no more rites of passage that will just present themselves for you to survive, and protect the people you love. So you have to go in pursuit of it, and without that you miss the boat."
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Penn, 47, speaks in paragraphs, his words rushing out in a deep, gravelly torrent. But he mumbles, his chin tucked in toward his chest, his hand splayed across his face, consigning his pearls of insight to the life line of his left palm. That wouldn't be worth noting were it not for the fact that it's so at odds with the persona of a man who has fiercely devoted his life to being heard, whether as a performer, polemicist or provocateur. "Forget the politics," says the man who just returned from visiting Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and who once took out a full-page ad in this very newspaper to protest the run-up to the Iraq war. Not likely.
But as important as politics are in describing Penn, the notion of pursuit -- heedless, headstrong, hot pursuit -- probably best defines him, or at least the version of his life the American public has been privy to since he made his screen debut in "Taps" in 1981. A year later, he took the lead in his iconic performance as stoner Jeff Spicoli in the teen comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a role that looked deceptively simple but that announced to astute observers that here was an actor of rare assurance, sensitivity and intensity underneath the bong-happy half-mast eyes.
Just as he was making his mark as an actor, it seemed, he was seeping into the public consciousness in other ways, first as a Hollywood "bad boy," marrying, fighting and finally splitting with Madonna, then settling into a comfortable role of husband, father and Thoreauvian citizen activist, admired and derided in virtually equal measure.
Sean Penn is a road rat, a reader, a clotheshorse and a gifted mimic, especially after a few drinks, if his friends are to be believed. Those same friends describe him as the consummate outsider and, as such, the quintessential American: inquisitive, testing, physically tough, disarmingly self-deprecating. He's an outsider even in the profession. In 1996, after his wife, Robin Wright Penn, was carjacked with the couple's two children outside their Malibu home, Penn moved the family to Marin County, where they live on a piece of walled property neighbors liken to "a small liberal arts campus." If such a physical shunning of Hollywood wasn't literal enough, Penn has taken eccentric, even controversial doglegs from the brand of liberal activism that town is known for.
While his colleagues sign petitions, host the odd fundraiser and stick to safe causes, Penn has been something of a lone wolf: In 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq war, he spent almost $60,000 to take out that full-page ad, an open letter to President Bush, begging him not to invade Iraq ("Help save America before yours is a legacy of shame and horror"); he later visited Iraq and Iran to write articles about his impressions for the San Francisco Chronicle. Last month, he visited Venezuela and spent two hours with Chavez, resulting in a photo op with the leader that Penn's handlers, if he allowed himself to be handled, might have nixed as ill-advised. (Such is the catnip Bill O'Reilly and the "South Park" team have come to rely on.)