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Darker shades of green

Times Staff Writer

Eden is burning. The third rock from the sun is heating up, and the garden of the American imagination is on fire with scorched-earth imagery, four-alarm prophesies of doom and the growing cult of “sustainable” consumerism.

Frito-Lay boasts about making “carbon-neutral” potato chips. Bookstore shelves sag with titles such as “The Virtuous Consumer” and -- groan -- “Sustainable Living for Dummies.”

Think all this started with Al Gore and his inconvenient Nobel Peace Prize? Think again.

The planetary and human costs of overconsumption reemerged as a major cultural theme this year, but it’s an idea with deep roots in the national psyche, as evidenced by two of the year’s best films: Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.”

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Neither of these thoughtful, passionately crafted movies imparts any sort of crude “eco-friendly” message. Yet both explore the notion of America (and, by extension, Earth) as a former paradise under siege.

That idea is as venerable and loamy as the banks of Walden Pond, and it raises the same question for us that it did for Henry David Thoreau when he took up roost in his handmade cabin in the Massachusetts woods in 1845.

Is it desirable, or possible, to turn our backs on modern life and retreat into blissful Transcendentalist solitude, communing with flora and fauna? Should our goal be to banish humanity and return “the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden,” as the radical Voluntary Human Extinction Movement proposes? Or should we admit that the utopian garden is long gone, and that in order to reconnect with nature (let alone save it) we must confront the destructive forces within ourselves?

“Into the Wild” and “There Will Be Blood” probe deeply into these themes and are serendipitous companion pieces. “Into the Wild” is a lyrical psychological portrait of an idealistic young man, Christopher Johnson McCandless, who tried to turn himself into a modern-day American Adam by dropping off the consumer-conformist treadmill but paid a fatal price for underestimating Mother Nature’s mean streak.

“There Will Be Blood” presents a bleaker, more disturbing profile of the fictional Daniel Plainview, an oil driller ferociously played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a classic American, rugged individualist whose fanatical pursuit of wealth and power leaves a black stain on everything he touches. Although “Into the Wild” reflects our preferred national self-image as earnest, well-meaning Thoreau-ians, American economic history is also personified by the single-minded Plainview.

Spiritual journey

Adapted by Penn and Jon Krakauer from Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller, “Into the Wild” recounts the true story of McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, a quixotic college grad from a well-off family who in the early 1990s disappeared into the Alaskan outback.

The movie celebrates the uncompromising integrity and Emersonian self-reliance of its hero, compellingly portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch. But it also questions whether McCandless’ tragic end -- dying of starvation, alone and hallucinating -- is necessarily the best way to serve mankind or attain harmony with Mother Earth.

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Though raised in affluent D.C. suburbia, McCandless could have stepped out of a 19th century German bildungsroman, a high-minded wanderer in the wilderness of his own tortured conscience. Disillusioned with what he saw as a soul-dead, consumerist society, McCandless turned to nature in search of spiritual transcendence.

This idea of retreating to wide open spaces in order to purge yourself of civilization and its discontented (and in McCandless’ case, to escape your bickering parents as well) echoes through American culture (Walt Whitman, Huck Finn, Jack London, “On the Road”) and reflects a very American belief that virtuous living is akin to self-realization. As the wife says to her husband in a recent New Yorker cartoon, “Yoga made you cranky, meditation made you anxious, but driving the hybrid you have found yourself, Walter.”

But “Into the Wild” also serves as a cautionary tale about the folly of saving your soul by turning your back on mankind (and common sense). McCandless’ tendency to treat life as if it were an extreme sport is contrasted with the lives of other characters in the film who seem to have found more temperate, manageable approaches to surviving off the grid.

Thoreau was one of McCandless’ idols, but as Rebecca Solnit points out in her just-published essay collection, “Storming the Gates of Paradise -- Landscapes for Politics,” Thoreau wasn’t urging his fellow Americans simply to drop out of the human race and go pick berries. The author of “Walden” was also the author of “Civil Disobedience,” a supporter of abolitionism who went to jail rather than pay taxes to support what he believed was an immoral war with Mexico.

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Unlike McCandless, Thoreau was no babe in the forest. “To be in the woods,” Solnit writes of Thoreau’s philosophy, “was not to be out of society or politics.”

Capitalist quandary

“Into the Wild” belongs to a cinematic genre of Eco-Conscious Social Misfit movies that includes “Never Cry Wolf,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Cast Away.” “There Will Be Blood” fits in a separate but parallel line of literary and cinematic narratives (“Moby Dick,” “Citizen Kane,” “Chinatown”) about the rapacity of capitalism run amok and ruthless, brilliant men (Capt. Ahab, Charles Foster Kane, Noah Cross) hell-bent on remaking the world in their own image, whatever the cost in natural resources or lives.

Just as the landscapes of “Into the Wild” mirror McCandless’ mental states -- rapturous and Elysian, though filled with hazard -- the cheerless, unforgiving Western landscapes of “Blood” reflect the harsh, utilitarian personality of the aptly named Plainview.

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The most radical aspect of “There Will Be Blood” is the way it depicts the twin U.S. belief systems of material progress and spiritual salvation as smoke screens for hucksterism and exploitation. The two slippery, intertwined personalities at the film’s center -- the brutal oilman and his rival, grasping, egotistical minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) -- are presented as dark, dueling alter egos.

Outwardly charming and smooth-talking, Plainview (who was modeled after L.A. oil tycoon Edward Doheny) purports to offer financial deliverance to the dirt-farming rubes whose scrubland he cons them into selling at rock-bottom prices. Sunday claims the power to save souls by driving out the devil from his gullible parishioners. Yet he makes his own deal with the devil by cooperating with Plainview in hopes that the oilman will use some of his ill-gotten gains to build a new church.

Neither nature nor human nature, as Plainview and the preacher regard them, are at all idyllic. Rather, both men see these twin “natures” as out-of-control, ungodly. Only through sweat, sacrifice and ingenuity, the men preach in their different ways, can these primitive forces be tamed. But in the end both men, and by analogy America, are corrupted by the drive for profit, delivering destruction instead of redemption.

“There Will Be Blood” was loosely inspired by the 1927 novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author, Socialist and failed candidate for California governor in 1934, and bears traces of his worldview. Given current events in Iraq, Venezuela and elsewhere, the movie’s skepticism toward petrol-based populism certainly doesn’t have to strain for relevance.

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But you have to dig below Anderson’s mesmerizing visuals -- a towering oil well gushing like some great, evil god; blood pooling in a bowling alley -- to grasp the thematic audacity of “Blood.”

When the Puritans landed in the New World, their Calvinist souls recoiled from the vast wilderness surrounding them, which they equated with the devil and the heathen Indian “savages.” (See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” for details.) So they set out to subdue and, if necessary, destroy nature in the name of building civilization.

Those tendencies have provoked a cultural reaction encompassing everything from the 19th century Hudson River School of painting and the Earth Art movement of the 1970s to “Silent Spring” and Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” to the hippie-orgiastic-communitarian “happening” of Woodstock. There always has been a spiritual, even religious dimension to America’s green movement, fused with images of a lost Eden. As Joni Mitchell wrote in her musical homage to that rock ‘n’ roll hoedown on Max Yasgur’s farm, “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

But this idealized picture of a bucolic past may prevent us from dealing with the complex present reality of acid rain, drowning polar bears, Chinese coal-burning plants and record droughts in Arizona and the Amazon. In the 19th century, artists such as Frederick Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt painted romanticized American landscapes aglow with divine light, airbrushing out the railroads and deforestation that already were ransacking the country.

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As the contemporary landscapes of photographer Richard Misrach show us, even a tainted nature, strewn with smokestacks and test-bombing ranges, can be majestic, mysterious, fertile with meaning.

Journalist Alan Weisman captures this bittersweet paradox near the end of his book “The World Without Us,” which imagines how long it would take for the Earth to heal itself if human beings suddenly disappeared. Though cleverly disguised as a sci-fi/disaster scenario, the book is really a passionate moral cry not to give into the false comfort of imagining that we can recover an ecological Age of Innocence.

“The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive,” Weisman writes. “Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder that humans have wrought amid our harm and excess.”

“There Will Be Blood” powerfully instructs us about how the American Eden got sub-parceled and sold off in the first place. “Into the Wild” poignantly asks if it’s possible to get off the grid and live on the edge, without falling into the abyss. In the decades ahead, as another bard of the deep American interior, Robert Frost, once observed, the road we choose to take will make all the difference.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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