Saturday, January 3, 2015

Feminist Memoir-Travelogue

"Wild,” directed by John Marc Vallee, 2014

This film is hard to watch.  Even with Reese Witherspoon as ‘eye’ candy for male viewers, the dangers women face are only highlighted by being out in the woods or deserts or mountains alone.  It relates to the film “Into the Wild,” about a young man who camped out alone in the Alaskan semi-wilderness, only to die in a wrecked bus due to several small miscalculations. (Reviewed below. Use blog search box, upper left.)  Yet here we have more vulnerability and the chances of a small miscalculation are greater.  Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a memoir about hiking most of the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, ("PCT") from the Sonora desert near Mexico to a bridge on the Columbia River gorge in Oregon. 

This film is not merely a travelogue of beautiful vistas, quirky characters, cold, heat and grueling trails, full of hunger, thirst, being lost and falling.  Strayed is fucked up due to her recent divorce because of her own behavior, her mother’s death from cancer, abuse concerning her father who she never sees, and her own inability to create a real life in Minneapolis.  Instead sex and heroin fill in the gap.  Between the bad boots, over-filled pack, inadequate preparation, over-determination and naiveté - plowing through mountain meadows of heavy snow with only a compass - this hike was a bold but also potentially suicidal move on her part. 

Yet it is as a woman that this hike resonates.  Strayed (her ironic made-up name) has no protection – no gun, hatchet, not even pepper spray.  No skill in self defense.  She is wary of men on the trail – and while friendly, always suspects something of them.  In one case, she is almost raped by a bow hunter packing a knife, but he is fortunately called away by his buddy.  She also takes advantage of being a ‘poor’ woman on the trail.  Some guys she meet call her the “Queen of the PCT” because many people go out of their way to help her – mostly men.  So it cuts both ways.  Beauty can be a disability - or a help.  She meets only one other woman on the trail, but does not hike with her.  She prefers to do it alone, and quite clearly it is a tremendous achievement to finish the trail, especially as a woman.  Women are many times not taught wood's skills, survival skills, physical toughness or being on their own.  This film proves that to be a form of chauvinist social and class conditioning that can be overcome.

Is Reese Witherspoon a good choice for this part?  Given her past performances as a chirpy, comedic light-weight, I’d have to say no.  To me it was always Reese Witherspoon on that trail, not Cheryl Strayed.  And nothing bad can ever happen to Reese Witherspoon.

Memoirs have been called the ‘neo-liberal’ format of choice, as they revolve around individuals, and usually involve personal addictions or disfunctionality of some kind.   The memoir format is especially pitched to American women by the ‘literary’ schools, I think as a way to short-change their experience and writing skills. This film partially recreates the memoir format, writ large.  Yet because it takes place along a physical trail greater than any individual, it allowed Strayed to extract herself from her own self-misery.  If it had only been a memoir, few would care as much. After all, we all experience death and many of us experience divorce and some experience family abuse.  Loss is essential to the experience of living, intrinsic to understanding reality.  Even addicts can recover.  Most of us go on, no matter what.  But few of us hike the PCT.

Books about survival issues – “Deep Survival,” “Into the Wild,” “All is Lost,” and “Five Stages of Collapse.”  Also recommended, though not reviewed, is the hilarious book, "A Walk in the Woods," by Bill Bryson, about walking the Appalachian Trail.
Red Frog
January 3, 2015

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