Home is an unusual film and difficult to categorise. It seems straightforward enough at first as a documentary record of one woman’s ‘adventure’ over four years (2011-2015) and covering 20,000 miles. Sarah Outen has one prime objective – to complete her long journey around the world using only her own muscle power. She must be the ‘engine’ that makes her travel possible by rowing boat, kayak or bicycle. She can’t accept any lifts and if her kit fails her she must swim or walk. It’s a dangerous and exciting personal trip into the unknown.
All of this seems clear enough but the film’s tagline hints at something else when it reads ‘An outward journey inward’. This suggests that Sarah has two ‘journeys of discovery’ – one concerned with the world she encounters each day, both the environment she moves through and the people she meets, and the other the things she learns about herself from those encounters.
Sarah’s double ‘journey’ also reminds us that a documentary has a narrative just like any fiction feature and this one most resembles the film genre of the road movie. Road movies traditionally set out to find new experiences in different places and to explore how the central character changes as a result of those experiences. The road movie is the archetypal American adventure and the idea of a story that is a ‘journey’ for the central character is also an American idea with Hollywood films often presenting a ‘quest’ which the hero must undertake to reach a final goal. We might ask: “What is Sarah’s goal?” Will she know when and if she achieves it?
But narratives don’t have to be ‘linear’ and they don’t have to strive for specific goals. Sometimes the story goes full circle and the characters arrive back where they started but still changed in some way. What is important is to note that ‘documentary records’ are inevitably ‘narrativised’ – made into stories that are accessible for audiences and offer the same pleasures as fiction narratives. How will this affect Sarah’s story?
In the famous spoof Western movie Blazing Saddles, the hero rides around a giant rock in the desert and discovers an orchestra playing the exciting musical score accompanying his ride on screen. It’s a brilliant way of exposing the artifice of cinema and the ways in which audiences are prepared to suspend disbelief. As Sarah kayaks along a turbulent river or cycles across the desert, how often do we stop to wonder who is using the camera? Sometimes it is Sarah herself but her options are limited. We know there must be another camera operator and a support crew. Home does in fact refer to the support and logistics crew needed to bring the kayak (‘Nelson’) or the bicycle (‘Hercules’) to the right place when Sarah arrives in her rowing boat. Sometimes we even see the crew. None of this diminishes Sarah’s achievement or takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary experience. But it does refer to a particular filmmaking practice.
Home is edited by the Canadian director Jen Randall of Light Shed Pictures. Officially she is also co-writer and director of the film. It is often said that the meaning in films is ‘created’ in the edit suite. Home is a 92 minute film created through careful selection of shots from hundreds of hours of footage shot by nine different camera operators. Jen Randall started work on the film only after Sarah had returned.
Home is now a film but Sarah’s journey was also a blog, followed by people all round the world. The film is now on release in the UK and also winning prizes at the specialist film festivals for ‘adventure films’ like Kendal Mountain Festival and Banff Mountain Film Competition. The film’s release has been organised mainly through independent cinemas and Sarah has often appeared in person at these screenings to conduct a Q&A. Screenings are listed on the website below and the next appears to be in Peebles in January 2020. When the screenings tour is completed the film will become available on VOD.
Home is extremely well put together and the narrative works. There are many surprising moments and several relationships of different kinds that Sarah experiences over the four years. This certainly isn’t 90 minutes of only staring at seas and rivers and mountain roads – though they do feature of course. Jen Randall has said that the key ‘Eureka moment’ for her searching through all the hours of footage was when she looked at the footage of the Pacific crossing. This gave her a sense of the ‘shape’ of the narrative. It is also the most emotional and dangerous part of the whole story.
Many people say that they have been inspired by Sarah’s story and these kinds of adventures are both popular with film and TV audiences and arguably necessary for our culture. The film includes romance, friendships and Sarah’s own personal battle with mental health issues. This is a film that should get you feeling for Sarah and thinking about what she has achieved.
You can find out a great deal more on these two websites
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.
L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.
As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.
We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!
This is the third in my case studies of Kristen Stewart roles in independent films. In this she was 16/17 and only makes a 12 minute appearance. I’ll come to that later. In the meantime I have this long and highly-praised film to deal with. It’s written and directed by Sean Penn – who in her comments on my ‘Thoughts on Acting‘, Rona picks out as an actor with whom Stewart has some things in common. That’s an interesting observation but it creates a problem for me since, though I know something about Penn’s ‘status’ as an actor/director, I was amazed to discover that I’d only previously seen one of his films as actor or director. I can only conclude that he chooses projects that don’t usually attract me since I’ve nothing against the guy. At least it means that I approach Into the Wild without preconceptions.
This is a very well-known story but if you don’t want to know what happens, be warned, there is a major SPOILER in what follows.
We know that the film is a form of ‘independent’ since it was financed by the now defunct ‘indy brand’ Paramount Vantage. But this means that it has studio backing and a budget large enough to allow shooting in several widely scattered locations (IMDb suggests $15 million). In genre terms this is a road movie, a form of ‘coming of age’ story and a ‘spiritual adventure’ that eventually becomes a ‘survival film’. It is based on a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer that documents the true story of a young graduate who decided to abandon his expected career path and to seek to ‘find himself’. Cutting himself off completely from his parents and sister Christopher McCandless travels West from his graduation party in Atlanta in 1990 and spends two years on the road and in various temporary jobs/communities before he heads ‘North to Alaska’ where he intends to spend several months alone ‘in the wild’. He never made it out of the wilderness and died in 1992. In 2006 Penn’s film was joined in production by Ron Lamothe’s documentary The Call of the Wild in which the filmmaker repeats many of the journeys made by McCandless and in doing so refutes some of the claims made in Krakauer’s book and Penn’s film. But it is the book and the Hollywood feature that have attracted readers/viewers and critical acclaim.
Even from this brief description of the story it’s clear that Into the Wild is an American story. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) follows in the steps of real and imaginary American characters driven towards the frontier/the wilderness/the ‘new world’. It’s a story of individualism and in cinematic terms it uses ‘American genres’. It isn’t surprising then that it has received both critical and popular support. I suspect some of that support is focused on the young man’s story and some on its philosophical and cultural underpinnings. Personally, while I responded to the film’s technical and artistic achievements in cinematography, music (at least most of it) and performances, I didn’t feel fully engaged because I had problems with McCandless as a ‘character’. I’m wary here since I don’t want to offend the real McCandless family and also because it appears that Sean Penn may in any case have changed aspects of the story. I’ve read suggestions that McCandless (who changed his name to ‘Alexander Supertramp’) is a representative of Generation X in the US – born in the late 1960s and ‘coming of age’ in the early 1990s. We are all allowed to be a bit daft in our early 20s but this is a disturbed young man who draws on the work of a variety of writers such as Byron, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London – and seems to have little common sense when it comes to survival in the wild.
Penn tells the story through a flashback structure, opening with the arrival in Alaska and then going back to Emory University and graduation day. The narrative then shifts between Alaska and a series of episodes broken into ‘Chapters’ detailing the central character’s adventures and relationships with characters he meets. Kristen Stewart’s appearance comes in the Chapter titled ‘Family’ in the later stage of his journeys through California. McCandless refused to contact his parents when he left Georgia and Penn reveals their anguish. Also ‘cut out’ was his sister (played by Jena Malone) and it is through her voiceover that we learn of the reasons why Chris wanted to part from his parents. His treatment of his sister, however, remains a mystery. When he arrives in Slab City, California (which Wikipedia tells me is the meeting place for ‘snowbirds’ in their camper vans looking for a desert retreat in Winter) Chris meets up with an older couple he has encountered before. It’s an emotional reunion with Rainy (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) as ageing hippies who now run a travelling book stall. Jan has a son she hasn’t seen for many years and she asks Chris about his parents. Rainey pushes Chris towards a meeting with Tracy Tatro a young woman who they have seen performing a song at the evening community concert. This is the Kristen Stewart character and she joins the trio for a meal. Since this is the Christmas holiday period the image of ‘family celebrations’ hangs over the proceedings. Chris/Alex is resolved not to ‘weaken’ and he leaves a few days later after turning down Tracy’s invitation to her trailer while her parents are away for the day. But before he leaves, he joins Tracy to sing a duet at the next concert.
Kirsten Stewart sings two songs but I don’t know if she plays the guitar on the soundtrack. It’s difficult to analyse the performance of the songs. The first, ‘Tracy’s Song’, is credited as written by Stewart and David Baerwald (a well-known singer and composer of songs for films). The second is one of my favourite songs, ‘Angel from Montgomery‘ written by John Prine. Whereas ‘Tracy’s Song’ sounded merely pleasant and Stewart’s singing lacked confidence, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ was truly affecting and Stewart and Hirsch together sound accomplished – Hirsch sings harmony and plays an electronic keyboard of some kind. The duet refers back to a live Bonnie Raitt track in which she sings with John Prine. My problem/query is: does Kristen Stewart deliberately sing the first song in a less accomplished way so that the duet becomes more of a revelation? Or is it that I’m reacting to a song that I’m very emotionally attuned to? Did Penn and his musical advisers choose ‘Angel from Montgomery’ deliberately for its impact in terms of music and lyrics – which could be seen as particularly relevant here. This is a potentially optimistic chapter in the film about family and a possible future that is rejected as Chris/Alex is determined to still go to Alaska. Stewart plays a performer in several of her roles, most obviously in The Runaways but also as an aspiring actress in Still Alice where she is seen in a ‘summer stock’ production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. These ‘performances’ within a film narrative attract the attention of both Stewart’s fans and her detractors. Kristen Stewart has referred to her approach as ‘mostly playing myself’. To perform ‘badly’ – i.e. as an amateur/novice – is presumably quite difficult for a young actor with plenty of experience but who still feels that she needs to prove herself.
Judge for yourself how well she sings ‘Angel from Montgomery’:
Kristen Stewart’s 12 minute cameo works very well in the film and this must have been a very useful role for her. A few years later she would find herself working again with the French cinematographer Eric Gautier whose work on The Motorcycle Diaries had impressed Sean Penn. That film was directed by Walter Salles who would direct Stewart in On the Road (2012). Kristen Stewart picks her films very well since she has worked with not just excellent acting talent but also top directors and crews.
I must confess that the more I studied Into the Wild, the more impressive it became – but I couldn’t get away from my irritation with the character. I’m very puzzled though by the box office figures for foreign markets published by Box Office Mojo. I’ve argued that this is a quintessentially American narrative. Yet the foreign total is in line with the norm – the international take is twice the size of North America. But the real interest in the breakdown into individual markets which shows fairly modest returns for traditionally strong markets such as the UK and Scandinavia but high figures for France and Italy (which together are bigger here than the US and Canada. Perhaps Rona is right and Sean Penn’s reputation in France is a contributing factor. Into the Wild took less than $2 million in the UK and over $13.5 million in France (roughly the same size of market).