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Movies and Mind: Into the Wild

On Friday, March 6, 2009, CMC presented a screening of Into the Wild as part of Movies and Mind, where films are viewed and discussed from a Buddhist perspective. After the movie, a discussion was led by Lindley Hanlon, professor of Film Studies at Brooklyn College.

Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn, is based on a true story about a young man who seems to have everything going for him—a middle-class background, a bright future at Harvard Law, and renounces all this to live an ascetic life in the wilderness of Alaska.

As the movie unfolds, we learn that main character's romanticism and escape from society may be because of his inability to confront, handle and accept his family problems and his sense of the meaninglessness of material success. He represses his emotional pain, which surfaces only at the end, during his suffering.

During the discussion after the movie, it was suggested that there may be parallels between the journey of the young man and the Buddhist retreatant. Both enter a solitary place away from society in an effort to find meaning. But the main character’s seclusion is a dangerous one, without the proper guidance of a teacher or adequate knowledge. During his travels, he meets a couple of potential mentors who may have been able to help him, if only he had accepted their help.

His reasons and actions may be seen as a reflection of American culture and mythology— extremism, ideas of nature and the individual, American frontierism, expansionism and the idea of manifest destiny, and the Transcendentalist movement. In modern American culture, escape from reality is manifested in the forms of addictions, alcoholism, the pursuit of wealth, and wanderlust. Even in Buddhist practice, the pleasures of meditation and samadhi are sometimes used as escape from the problems of daily life. We may even try to change the environment to be happy.

Perhaps the film's deepest lesson is that true happiness can exist only through listening, sharing, forgiveness, understanding, and knowing what creates peace.

(BY Chang Jie)

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