Into The Wild - Leanne Coombes          

Into The Wild Essay

Rhetoric in Into The Wild

Into the Wild directed by Sean Penn, is an adaption of the novel by Jon Krakauer. Based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a high achieving University student, who, after graduating in 1990, sells his possessions, donates his savings to charity, abandons his car and hitchhikes his way to Alaska in search of a more fulfilled life and a way ‘out of this sick society.’ I shall be discussing the rhetoric devices employed in the film to create audience identification and to convey Chris’ message as one that is heroic and inspirational and not one of idealistic, romantic naivety. It is a film intended for adults, but specifically young adults, a similar age to Chris. This is important when considering rhetoric as the protagonist appeals to his peers. My main reason for approaching this film in this way is, despite the central idea of rejecting modern society and embracing nature, it is about a young man who, through realising his own dream, destroys his family’s lives. However, we rarely feel sympathetic towards the family, and the parents even less, because we feel Chris’ lack of communication is somehow justified or part of the adventure. Bordwell and Thompson state ‘the goal of the film is to persuade the audience to adopt an opinion’ , which is, in this case, Chris’. I will argue Into the Wild largely achieves this through the rhetorical techniques adopted.
Rhetorical modes used in the film are argument and narration. Argument comes from Chris’ core belief in the rejection of a ‘sick society’ in favour of a simpler life in the wild. This is not presented as an ‘argument’ but through simple audience observations. As stated by Bordwell and Thompson ‘the filmmaker will try to make the position seem the most plausible by presenting different types of arguments and evidence.’ This is done through the audience’s exposure to individuals whose beliefs differ from Chris’. For example, the materialistic greed of his parents is portrayed alongside their unhappy marriage, suggesting an unfulfilled existence concealed by a mutual desire for material gain. We see these beliefs, and others, alongside Chris’ and see his as the more real and the opposing as contaminated by a consumerist society. We are also persuaded to Chris’ beliefs through enthymemes. For example, Chris is fed up with modern society so goes ‘back’ to nature, the inherent ‘good.’ However, the film neglects any other considerations, if there were any, and the audience assumes what he is doing is his natural path, and not one that took any planning or careful thought. This makes the audience trust in Chris as he is portrayed as confident, self-aware and happy with his choices even when they result in his death. Narration in the film works in two prominent ways, firstly to directly address and include the audience provoking audience identification.

‘It is important in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong [...] and to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions [….] nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.’

And to express the bond between Chris and his sister, the only person who appears to understand him.

‘[Chris] had spent four years fulfilling the absurd and tedious duty of graduating from college and now he was emancipated from that world of abstraction, false security, parents and material excess, the things that cut Chris off from the truth of his existence.’

Carine provides a distanced perspective and often excuses Chris’ lack of contact, ‘I trust that everything he is doing has to be done. This is our life’. By excusing him the audience feel they, as outsiders, can too. Both Chris and Carine’s voices are strong, clear and carry conviction; making it likelier the audience will ‘take the speaker as a reliable source of information.’ However, both characters have the same biased narrations that support Chris’ choices. This, again, means the audience feels less judgmental toward Chris as no such perspectives are provided and we are more likely to support the given narrated views.

The three artistic proofs are adopted in the film, logos, pathos and ethos. Logos appeals to the logical. This is shown through Chris highlighting the negative in modern society and ‘people’. Cities are shown as unnatural places through visual rhetoric, including slow motion and blurriness, and through Chris’ perception. He sees huge buildings towering over dozens of homeless people and we question how there is so much space yet so many going without. As he wanders, dazed, he envisages himself in a suit, an authority, and leaves rejecting city life. Compared to Chris people of authority appear ridiculous, such as the ranger who informs him he needs a permit to canoe down a river and that there is a twelve-year waiting list. Further examples include border patrol telling Chris he ‘can’t just be crossing borders without any identification’ and the train guard who assaults Chris for ‘freeloading.’ These confrontations provoke the question of why in the audience as the requests, actions and belief systems of the authorities appear illogical next to Chris’. He states, ‘I don't understand why people, why every person is so bad to each other so often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgment. Control. All that, the whole spectrum.’

The figures of authority fit this description of ‘people.’ As Corbett and Connors state ‘people today are not as disposed to accept authority as their grandparents were.’ By questioning and rebelling against authority Chris further establishes his driven individuality, and relates to the young adult audience.

Pathos is the emotional response the film evokes. Bordwell and Thompson state ‘if the conclusion cannot be proved beyond question the filmmaker often appeals to our emotions’ and this is done in several scenes. For example when the moose becomes infested with flies and inedible. The emotion is heightened as previously we see him write down advice on how to preserve meat and yet he fails. We feel a response towards other characters including Jan missing her son Reno and Ron whose family died in a car crash. Chris, further adding to his ethos, soothes these characters. The only time we are encouraged to feel sympathetic toward his parents is when their emotions are bleakest and they appear changed. Carine narrates they are ‘not the parents he grew up with…but people softened by loss’. Further pathos is achieved at the close to ensure greater audience involvement and to strongly deliver the films’ message; a picture of the real Chris is shown, sitting happily by the bus. Chris’s accomplishments are concreted in reality through this image. These scenes of pathos work to make the audience feel emotionally involved, and thus more likely to be affected, or ‘moved’, by the film’s message.

Ethos refers to the personal credibility and how this is established. I believe this is the film’s most powerfully adopted artistic proof. This can be seen in the importance placed on Chris’ intelligence and how inspired he is by his literary heroes, who he frequently quotes, ‘rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness... give me truth.’ He consistently appears knowledgeable even when faced with challenges in which he has no experience. He is portrayed as determined, for example he overcomes his fear of water resulting in him swimming and canoeing. He is aspirational, he wants to live outside the norms of Western society and does so, and mentions a plan to write a book. We witness his compassionate interaction with others and are told by his sister that he ‘measured himself and those around him by a rigorous moral code.’ He is inspirational, telling Tracey ‘When you want something in life, you just gotta reach out and grab it.’ We hear many character ‘testimonies’ including Rainey asking ‘You’re not Jesus, are you?’ and Ron’s wish to adopt him. All of these carefully exposed traits, and more, lead the audience to think that he is clever and thoughtful and thus did not take the decision to venture into the wild lightly. Also, as ethos is well established we are happy to be led, and ultimately influenced, by this trustworthy, kind and educated man.

Through much of the film’s spoken and written language we get a sense of Chris’ moral character and his thoughts on materialistic and consumerist society, this works to further persuade the audience of his logic, for our society is materialistic and consumerist, and personal credibility. As he goes ‘into the wild’ the driver calls after him, ‘You left all your shit on my dash’, Chris responds ‘Keep it.’ These are Chris’ first words making the audience instantly aware of his wishes to be separated from modern comforts and conveniences. Chris writes to Wayne to share his excitement for rejecting these comforts, ‘My days were more exciting when I was penniless. I've decided I'm going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty is just too good to pass up...’,

Chris openly rejects money here, through his charity donation and in a scene where he burns bank notes. Chris also rejects other socially constructed norms such as careers, ‘…careers are a 20th century invention and I don't want one’ and objects of our civilization ‘…no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes...’ By rejecting ideas and objects often deemed necessary for life in modern society Chris shows that there is another way of living. He is not afraid to stand alone, again making him and his message more influential as he is not a follower. He stands apart even from his parents. Both he and Carine are disjointed with their materialistic parents; this is shown through their verbal interaction. As a graduation present they offer to buy him a car, he responds ‘I don't need a new car. I don't want a new car. I don't want anything… These things, things, things, things.’. The lack of family bond is highlighted through Chris’ easy connection with those he meets on his travels, with whom he is able to talk uninhibited about the type of life he desires. The audience is persuaded to Chris’ way of thinking as his parents are exposed as liars, whereas the characters he meets on his journey appear honest. Therefore Chris, discovering his childhood has been a lie, appears more justified in his deliberate detachment. Chris also shows his belief that the core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences. He sees great importance in nature, ‘…You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God's place is all around us; it is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.’

This connection Chris shares with nature is important for persuading the audience. Nature is a core part of humanity and often holds positive experiences in our minds. Chris’ closeness with nature is enviable and probably deemed unachievable by many people in the modern industralised world, concreting him as aspirational.

Plato refers to rhetoric as ‘the art of winning the soul by discourse.’ However, in today’s multimedia world visual elements also work to ‘win the soul.’ Visual rhetoric, by the very nature of film, is continually apparent. ‘The wild’ is shown through wide shots of beautiful landscape, showing it as an idyllic place. Penn uses certain cuts to show Chris’ happiness in the wild, for example the camera focuses on wild moose then cuts to Chris looking in awe. By doing this Penn attempts to capture the wonder experienced when faced with nature. This is a theme throughout that links to the opening Lord Byron poem.

‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods; There is a rapture on the lonely shore; There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not man the less, but Nature more...’

The colours are tinged brown, yellow, blue or green creating a dreamy and idealistic feel. Zoomed shots force the viewer to a focus point and convey the significance of the message that image contains. Nelmes states ‘shots that direct the spectators attention increase engagement with the emotions of characters.’ For example, one scene focuses on a close up of Chris’ burning money, before shifting the focus to Chris walking away. This highlights the importance of this image to the film and suggests Chris is walking away from not only money but also his old life. These techniques work to deliver Chris’ message visually and to subconsciously persuade the audience.

Music in Into the Wild is largely written and performed by Eddie Vedder. Vedder describes the music as providing ‘the interior voice of character […] and another way of telling the story.’ Lyrics are aspirational and relate directly to the unfolding journey. For example when Chris is alone in Alaska the lyrics are ‘this love has got no ceiling’. The music works to further establish Chris’ messages both through the lyrics and as an outside source that delivers his same argument.

All these elements, and more, build into the rhetoric aspects of the film, which I have shown to be abundant. As a film I believe it delivers three of the six social functions reached through rhetoric. It tests ideas by questioning the leading forces of our world including authority, civilized society and consumerism. It distributes power, showing how easy it is to adopt a similar lifestyle largely free from dominant Western culture, ‘just reach out and grab it.’ It debatably builds community through fan sites that show many people have experienced shared feelings and found common beliefs within the film and figure of Chris. Additionally, the film successfully delivers Chris’ perceived message of the importance of independent thought. Furthermore, it persuades the viewer that Chris’ journey was one of courage and not foolishness. However, for the benefit of the films rhetoric effect, key details were adjusted. For example, in reality Chris starved to death, a fate that could arguably make him appear weaker, so Penn changed this. This example shows the careful considerations of the film’s persuasive element, placing ‘ethos’, through strength, above truth. Proof of the rhetoric success of the film is that Christopher McCandless has become a hugely inspirational figure. The film was a cult hit, his story is still a fascination over two decades on and the abandoned bus in Alaska has become a form of shrine.


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