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).
I missed the first few minutes of this film, which was a shame as it provided a gentle introduction to the festival proper. Road movies set in Central America are not unusual but this one reverses the familiar trajectory and instead of heading North to the US, the protagonists go South to Panama from Costa Rica. César is a man past his prime but still working as a PE coach for local children. When he falls ill from heart disease his son ‘Tito’ must travel North from Panama to see him. This is a struggle for Tito who is an albino with the common affliction of poor eyesight. He has always felt a failure in the eyes of his macho father, a Panamanian of African-Caribbean consent.
When he recovers, César determines to drive his son back to Panama where he is due to participate in a regional 10 pin bowling contest. This means driving 1,000 kilometres in his beat-up Lada. Tito tries to persuade him not to try but it’s useless. On the way they pick up a young woman and her mongrel dog. César mocks his son’s inability to maintain a relationship with a woman (he was married and then quickly divorced).
Nothing much happens on the journey – or rather nothing much that is unexpected. I’m wondering about the possible national typing metaphors that the three central characters might represent. César is given a commitment to boxing like many Caribbean-Americans, Yadia is Spanish, possibly Amerindian and albinos are always significant minorities, invoking strong passions. I’m guessing that there is something I’m not picking up on. The story is presented in CinemaScope and it looks good and sounds good with an attractive music soundtrack. The film’s official website gives details on the crew with different creative inputs from Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador. Director Juan Sebastián Jácome was born in Ecuador and trained in Florida. This feature debut is a strong calling card for further Central American feature production. I noted that the Panamanian producer Luis Pacheco was also involved in production on Los colores de la montaña, one of my favourite films at the !Viva¡ festival in Manchester a few year’s ago.
This is certainly the most intriguing film I have seen so far this year. It’s tempting to suggest that something is definitely happening in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the first half an hour or so of Highway I thought I was watching an independent film. Only when the A.R. Rahman songs start to come thick and fast does it begin to appear conventional. Even then, the performances by the leads Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt are extremely good. Bhatt in particular is beautiful and vital in a tricky role without having any of that false Bollywood glamour. Because I don’t follow Bollywood gossip, her performance was very fresh for me and I could enjoy it without the hype. I did wonder if she was related to Mahesh Bhatt (she is his daughter) and she lives up to her family name. The film appears to have had a reasonable budget (around $4.5 million) and most of that seems to have gone on the wonderful cinematography in some difficult locations. The feel of authenticity in many scenes again suggests an independent aesthetic. There is also a device whereby each half of the film starts with what appears like a home movie/video academy frame sequence which then morphs (for no reason I could determine) into a full ‘Scope framing. I’d be grateful for any reading of what this might mean.
Highway is a road movie and a romance as well as a social drama. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali first explored the narrative idea in an episode of a TV series in 1999. Two strong elements of the story appeared in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the first of these, a bride from a wealthy Delhi family escapes from the wedding preparations, this time with the reluctant groom. Their car is parked at a petrol station when a robbery takes place and the bride is taken as a hostage. She proves to be a lively captive and when her captors learn of her background they swiftly move her out of the region. The ensuing road trip moves through Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The leader of the gang, Mahabir, knows that because of Veera’s status, ransom demands are going to be met by a police (and military) response. What he doesn’t know is how Veera will behave.
The first part of the film is likely to be difficult for mainstream audiences. There are long periods when little happens plot-wise but we begin to slowly understand why Veera behaves as she does. Veera experiences something akin to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ when hostages develop relationships with their captors. But Veera’s responses are also informed by her childhood memories and her unhappiness as a rich urban young woman, seemingly cut off from the world around her.
I’m not sure that the film has been helped by the hype that surrounded its release in India (including, I read, tie-in fashion merchandising!). But if you are happy to watch a film with relatively long passages of beautiful scenery, pretty good music and a young actress giving her all, I’d recommend Highway.
This was the winning film in the European Features competition at BIFF. I saw it in two parts, having to see the opening after I’d seen the rest of the film. I don’t think that this spoiled my enjoyment. The plot is relatively straightforward. Adele is a teenager living on a farm in a remote and wooded area in Germany. Her withdrawn demeanour is briefly sketched in and she barely communicates with her parents. She is surprised by an escaped prisoner who has got into the farmhouse but instead of betraying him she decides, after learning that he has killed someone, to help him. They run away together and she then tells him that she will help him over the border into France – but in return he must push her off a cliff. This unlikely scenario then sets up a fugitive chase/road movie. Two characters must learn to work together and to learn about themselves in the process. The narrative has a form of ‘open’ ending and I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
In the interview below, the director Emily Atef explains that it took her several years to develop the script and organise the production – in fact she made two other features during this period. At one point she was selected for a Cannes ‘Residence Award’ which enabled her to move the development forward substantially. Atef has clearly been on industry radar for some time. Born in Berlin to Franco-Iranian characters she has also lived in the US and in London but now she is based in back in Germany. After watching this film I realised that I have a DVD of her 2005 feature Molly (about a young Irishwoman who travels to Poland). I must watch it again and post on it.
Kill Me is a success for various reasons, not least the performances by the two leads. Roeland Wiesnekker (Timo) is an experienced Swiss actor who suggests a character turned in on himself. He’s tall and dark and bear-like compared to the blonde Maria Vargus as Adele, known in the UK for her role as Klara in The White Ribbon. There is excellent use of landscape and Emily Latef tells us that she received regional funds from Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Probably most important though is the way that the script ideas are handled. It’s a classic case of not ‘doing a Hollywood’, so at the beginning of the film we don’t get any real explanation of why Adele is so withdrawn and certainly not why she would want to fall from a clifftop. Instead we have to piece her story together from looks and scant plot information. She will later tell Timo something but there is still plenty concealed, especially about his back story, so we travel with the pair never quite sure what will happen. I will reveal that the pair will reach Marseilles which is a ‘liminal’ region, not quite France, but not yet Africa and an iconic ‘end’ to Europe. In the Q&A below somebody asks the director if she ever considered a melodramatic ending. I think we know that she didn’t, though I must say that the location she chooses has been used in the ending of at least one great French melodrama of the 1930s.
The film has been released in France and the international sales agent is the well-known distributer-producer Les films du Losange (long associated with its co-founder Eric Rohmer). I hope they are able to find distributors in other European countries. It is a worthy winner of Bradford’s competition.
Here is the Interview/Q&A when the film was at the Raindance Festival in London in 2012: