(Each week, sanity dictates that I must indulge in a few positive pop-culture experiences to make up for the Daddy Day Camps and Good Luck Chucks of the world. Every Friday, I offer a few of them.)
1. Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild (Anchor Books, 1996): Though Sean Penn’s film adaptation of this book is coming soon—Monday for me, but it’s a very early screening—I picked it up after finally joining the rest of humanity in catching up with Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s harrowing first-hand account of the historically tragic 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest. Himself an adventurer and mountain-climber (both books were expanded from articles he penned for Outside magazine), Krakauer is drawn to man’s brave and sometimes foolhardy attempts to conquer (or at least survive) nature at its most extreme. But more than that, he has an appreciation for those who choose to live in the margins, rejecting the security and order of modern society for a less conventional (and far more dangerous) physical and spiritual journey. He’s an excellent journalist and a vivid writer, and his personal perspective as an outdoorsman illuminates in a way that would be impossible for an office-bound scribe.
The story of Chris McCandless could not have found a better teller, though it’s worth noting that many others saw his life much differently. McCandless, a bright college graduate from a well-to-family, was found dead by some moose hunters in the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley in 1992. It was the end of a wild journey that began two years earlier, when he graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and dropped out of civilization, severing all contact with family members and traveling under the invented name “Alexander Supertramp.” Before leaving, he donated the $25,000 in his savings account to charity and would later abandon his car and burn all the cash in his wallet. With only essential supplies in his backpack—enough to where he could still move in a dead run—he made his way around the country by hitchhiking from place to place, pausing occasionally to scrape together some money in various jobs (from flipping burgers at McDonald’s to doing brutal farmwork in South Dakota) before plunging back into the natural world. When he headed off into the woods for his final adventure in Alaska, McCandless was ill-prepared for the conditions: He didn’t have proper clothing or footwear, his gun was of an insufficient caliber to hunt down big game, and the vegetation in the area was too scarce. When his decomposed body was discovered, he had withered away from starvation.
Reading Into The Wild, I couldn’t help but recall Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s great documentary about Timothy Treadwell—another troubled, naïve idealist who paid the ultimate price for living free in the Alaska wilderness. In both cases, many people felt that these men got what they deserved, especially the locals, who had witnessed more than one fuzzy-headed dreamer head off half-cocked into dangerous terrain and never come back again. Yet the differences between the two men are telling: Treadwell made the fatal mistake of anthropomorphizing the bears he was living amongst and “protecting,” willfully neglecting the fact that when nature demanded it, he would go from friend to food. McCandless made his mistakes, too, but he had a much more clear-eyed view of nature and was resourceful enough to get out of some scrapes that would have defeated the less intelligent or experienced. It’s clear from the start that Krakauer respects McCandless’ effort, however flawed and painful to those who loved him, but he lays out the facts strongly enough to where readers could come to the opposite conclusion.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how Penn interprets McCandless’ adventure. Knowing Penn, I think it’s safe to say that he’ll treat the young man with a certain degree of reverence, but his motivations and unstable personality are open for interpretation. On the one hand, he’s driven by an angry, wholesale repudiation of the modern-day America, which he sees as artificial, money-driven, wasteful, and constricting. On the other, he joyfully embraces the natural world and commits himself to living like Thoreau and having the sorts of adventures he read about in Jack London novels. On balance, I think his infectious desire for real freedom is his defining personality trait, but there’s a dark side to his quest that I hope the film acknowledges, too. Whatever the case, Into The Wild is a great read, and a quick one at 200 pages.
2. Nicky Katt. I’ve written about Katt before in an Inventory piece called 10 Character Actors Who Should Be In Every Movie. But it’s worth saying twice: This guy is an incredible talent. Katt gets third billing in the new Neil Jordan film The Brave One—which I won’t offer an opinion about yet, since it doesn’t come out until mid-September—but it’s not that significant a role, since the majority of screen time is given over to the leads, Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard. But Katt, as ever, makes every scene count, appearing here as Howard’s partner in an NYPD detective unit. In an extremely somber film about vigilante justice, Katt brings an explosive wit that catches you completely off-guard, delivering lines with such intensity and speed that you have to catch up with them for a second before laughing. He’s wired like a young James Woods, but he doesn’t call quite as much attention to his theatrics, which may explain why he’s still a relative unknown when he should sit at the top of every smart casting agent’s list.
For those who don’t know him by name, there’s no doubt many of you will remember him for being “that guy” in several films by Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh. Linklater introduced him in Dazed & Confused as the “dominant male monkey motherfucker” who taunts Adam Goldberg (“I only came here to do two things, man: kick some ass and drink some beer”) and beats him for much longer than the poor guy anticipated. That role was Katt in a nutshell: Lean, volatile, frightening, and funny. Soderbergh gave Katt perhaps my two favorite roles of his: As a contract killer in The Limey (his improvisations on the set of a TV show are particularly funny) and better still in the much-maligned Full Frontal as an community theater actor playing Hitler (in a play called The Sound And The Fuhrer) who has an oddly touchy-feely interpretation of the role. (To Eva Braun: “I’m too committed to my work to sustain a serious relationship right now. I bring my work home. I’m distracted. I’m taking a swim in Lake Me.”)
Anyway, it’s good to see Katt get third billing in a major studio movie, even if he’s a distant third in this case. I feel like he’s one long-overdue breakthrough role away from being a go-to scene-stealer. You heard it here first.
3. Anthony Bourdain vs. Rocco DiSpirito. One of the great pleasures of Top Chef this season has been Anthony Bourdain’s presence not only as a guest judge on the show, but as a now-permanent fixture in the TC blogging line-up. I’m a great fan of Bourdain’s: His justly celebrated book Kitchen Confidential is the sharpest, funniest piece of writing I’ve encountered about the restaurant trade and I loved his travelogue A Cook’s Tour nearly as much, not just because of his famed willingness to go anywhere and try anything, but for his inspiring passion for food (peasant and haute cuisine alike) and world culture. I suppose his brash, hyperbolic personality can rub people the wrong way, but I’m not one of those people.
Rocco DiSpirito, on the other hand, is considered by some to be the greatest casualty of the celebrity chef explosion, an extravagantly talented cook who sold his soul for a reality show called The Restaurant, in which his noxious personality served to tarnish his credibility in the eyes of his peers. DiSpirito appeared as a judge on a Top Chef episode in which he presided over a Bertolli-inspired challenge that asked contestants to make Mediterranean pasta dishes that could be frozen and then reheated in less than 10 minutes the next day. Despite the annoying sponsor fellatio that’s been ever-present this season (which The Hater dissected well here), I found the challenge interesting because it presented technical problems in addition to the usual taste and presentation issues. Bourdain, on the other hand, was horrified by it (he would have been “proud to lose”) and took DiSpirito to task for again throwing away his talents in the service of his corporate masters.
The next week, DiSpirito guest-blogged for Padma Lakshmi, and brought up the Bourdain swipe. His response was “classy”: He complimented Bourdain for being funny, defended himself a little, and mostly took the high road by not striking back. It was the sort of post that would shame most writers into backing off their original statements, but I loved Bourdain’s response, which acknowledged DiSpirito’s graciousness while continuing to hold his feet to the fire. It’s a really entertaining exchange, whether you’re a fan of the show or not.