For Brian Gillam,
INTO THE FIRE:
allegorical meditations on life and creativity
in the twilit and fiery film art
of Sean Penn
by Gary W. Wright
Like most film artists at work today, Sean Justin Penn has made the fatal helicopter crash that killed actor/director/writer Vic Morrow and illegally hired and used child extras Renee Chen and Myca Le around 2:20 am in the early morning hours of July 23, 1982 on the George Folsey jr. produced John Landis set of the Frank Marshall executive produced, Kathleen Kennedy associate produced, Landis and Steve Spielberg produced, twilit and allegorical and CGI enhanced Landis, Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller film TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), an important theme in his film art. However, unlike most film artists, Penn drew on all of the insights he soaked up as an actor on twilit and allegorical films in his film art, giving his films a seasoned confidence and a depth of insight lacking in the films of other film artists of the dread allegorical Zone Wars. In addition, Penn did not enhance his film art with computer generated imagery (CGI) so as to avoid another fatal film set disaster, preferring a grounded and realistic docufeature style. Penn also started off his film art career with a bang with THE INDIAN RUNNER (1991), a twilit, allegorical and CGI free docufeature film that was inspired by and closely followed the twilit and allegorical Bruce Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman” from NEBRASKA (1982), openly affirming the film’s implicit interest in the twilit and disastrous year of 1982 and that was so good, it easily transcended the dread Zone Wars by being one of the finest and most important allegorical films ever.
“You’re a message.
Significantly, the film began with still, peaceful and beautiful establishing shots of snow covered rural fields of Ohio. These peaceful shots were suddenly and jarringly interrupted by and intercut with shots of a small town deputy sheriff named Joseph “Joe” Roberts-played by David Morse-driving a wailing police car in hot pursuit of a fleeing white car driven by a young and Landis resembling and implicitly linked outlaw-played by Jimmy Intveld-down the lonely and deserted rural road that bisected those peaceful farmer’s fields. The intercutting of still shots with moving shots not only suggested tension between still photography and motion picture, but also recalled the stillness and the muscular beat of the human heart. Soon the outlaw was skidding to a stop, leaping out of his car and turning to blast away at DS Roberts with his gun. This caused Roberts to skid to a stop as well, step cautiously out of his patrol car, aim carefully and shoot the outlaw dead with one shot.
This killing implied that Penn was eager to exorcise and break audiences, film art, film artists and the Temple Theatre free of the rictus twilit grip that Landis and the TZ disaster. Indeed, a shot of the car chase from a swooping helicopter at one point openly linked the fleeing driver to twilit helicopters, and, hence, to Landis. The Ohio license of the patrol car of Roberts also implied as much, as 27 M639 included the fateful numbers 237 which recalled the July 23, 1982 date of the TZ disaster. The film’s many allusions to the eerily and ominously twilit, allegorical and CGI enhanced Sir Ridley Scott film BLADE RUNNER (1982)-including a film long voiceover (VO) by Roberts that evoked the film long VO of Harrison Ford’s implicitly George Lucas linked Rick Deckard in the first release of BLADE RUNNER-reaffirmed the film’s interest in the twilit and disastrous year of 1982.
The implication that Penn was addressing the TZ disaster in THE INDIAN RUNNER was reaffirmed when Frank, the younger “hellraiser” brother of Roberts-played by Viggo Mortensen-showed up in town after surviving a tour of duty in Vietnam in this late Sixties set film. For the name of Frank evoked Marshall, while his status as a Vietnam war vet reminded us that the TZ disaster had occurred during a simulated American helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village during the war. Thus, the implication was that after implicitly and symbolically exorcising Landis at the beginning of the film, Penn would also implicitly and symbolically exorcise Marshall by having DS Roberts gun down his errant kid brother after a minor crime spree that ended with him murdering a barkeep named Caesar-played by Dennis Hopper-at the end of THE INDIAN RUNNER.
Indeed, it initially seemed that that would happen, as the film ended as it began with DS Roberts in his patrol car in hot pursuit of his brother in his battered Buick with the twilit Ohio license of 68275N down the same lonely and deserted road seen at the beginning of the film. This time, however, the rural fields were hidden by darkness and the car chase was intercut with well lit interior scenes of Frank’s beautiful and innocent young blonde wife, Dorothy-played by Patricia Arquette-giving birth to their child. At one point in the nighttime chase, Frank even stopped and got out of his car like the implicitly Landis linked outlaw. However, Roberts did not shoot his fiery rebel brother dead, letting him go again as he had done throughout the film whenever Frank had been caught breaking the law, perhaps to freedom in Canada as at the end of “Highway Patrolman”.
This ending evoked BLADE RUNNER again, reminding us that Deckard and his rebel replicant Dark Side, Roy Batty-played by Rutger Hauer-were also unable to kill or defeat the other at the end of that film. The implication was that Penn was reminding us that it was important not to defeat all of our Dark Side, as a little rebel fire like that which Frank extolled in the film was necessary to prevent countries, cities, towns, society, people, artists and their art from becoming dull, bland, lifeless, robotic and uncreative. Thus, by allowing Frank to escape, never to be seen again, DS Roberts kept enough of his rebel Dark Side fire alive that he remained a vital and creative person, thus ensuring his success as a brother, husband, father and police officer. And ensuring the success of fiery and vital film art, as the successful birth of Frank and Dorothy’s child in the end implied Penn’s hope in the tenth anniversary year of the Last Good Year of film in 1981 that a neo eon of daylit film art would begin in the Nineties. In fact, given the film’s open link to 1982 via “Highway Patrolman”, Penn implied that a little of the wild, explosive and fiery chaos that led to the TZ disaster should be kept alive deep in the still and beating heart of film artists to ensure the fiery vitality of film art. A valid point, given that the quality of film art declined precipitously after the TZ disaster.
Significantly, as the film was filled with allusions to the allegorical David Lynch moving painting THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and to the twilit and allegorical Lynch moving paintings DUNE (1984), BLUE VELVET (1986), and WILD AT HEART (1990), as well as to the equally twilit and allegorical Lynch telemoving painting series TWIN PEAKS (1990-1), Penn also implied that he was sending a message to Lynch-perhaps in the symbolic form of DS Roberts-in THE INDIAN RUNNER, and urging Lynch not to be so intent on killing the Dark Side of film art in general, and of his own film art in particular, for fear of killing the vital creativity and imperfect humanity of film art in his eagerness to exorcise the Temple Theatre of Folsey jr., Kennedy, Landis, Marshall and the TZ disaster. Indeed, the appearance of Hopper as Caesar affirmed the implicit Lynch addressing intent of THE INDIAN RUNNER. For Hopper played another Frank, the implicitly Marshall linked Frank Booth, in BLUE VELVET, who was shot down in the end by intrepid young sleuth, Jeffrey Beaumont-played by Kyle MacLachlan-paving the way for the more thoughtful and forgiving end of THE INDIAN RUNNER. An implicit interest in Lynch and BLADE RUNNER that continued when Penn wisely chose not to top THE INDIAN RUNNER when he collaborated again with Morse, editor Jay Cassidy, producer David S. Hamburger and composer Jack Nitzsche and traded the rural world for the urban world in the gentle, sweet, twilit, allegorical and CGI free docufeature film THE CROSSING GUARD (1995).
“Without tradition, new things die.”
Significantly, the film began with the mournful stillness of a support group for people with family members killed by a drunk driver intercut with the sensual and fiery motion of exotic female dancers on a stage in a strip club. This evoked the rural stillness intercut with wailing car chase that began THE INDIAN RUNNER, linking THE CROSSING GUARD to that film and returning the fire and the stop/start rhythm of a beating heart to the film art of Penn. Soon the film revolved around the implicitly Lynch linked jeweller, Freddy Gale-played by Jack Nicholson-who was so haunted by the death of his daughter, the implicitly Dorothy Gale linked Emily Gale, that he resolved to kill the drunk driver who had run Emily over, the implicitly James Cameron linked John Booth-another rebel son who evoked Frank, and who was ironically played by Morse-when Booth was released from prison, implying that Penn was not happy that Cameron had implicitly roasted Lynch in the twilit, allegorical and CGI enhanced films TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), and TRUE LIES (1994). Indeed, the surname of Booth and the presence of Piper Laurie as John’s mother, Helen, affirmed the film’s implicit interest in Lynch, as Booth evoked Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, and Laurie played the scheming Catherine Martell in TWIN PEAKS. As such, the fact that Gale’s girlfriend was the Katherine Bigelow resembling and implicitly linked exotic dancer, Verna-played by Priscilla Barnes-was a wryly ironic touch from Penn, given that Bigelow had also implicitly roasted Lynch in such twilit and allegorical films as THE LOVELESS (1981)-co-directed with Monty Montgomery-and POINT BREAK (1991).
Intriguingly, however, on his first attempt to kill Booth, Gale was unable to do so, and Booth was also unable to kill Gale in self-defence. The scene evoked Joe’s inability to punish or kill Frank in THE INDIAN RUNNER, implying that Penn felt that despite their differences, Cameron and Lynch were brothers who needed each other. Indeed, the sight of Booth being released from prison at the beginning of the film reminded us that Frank spent some time in prison for assault after coming home from Vietnam. A climatic closing chase through the nighttime streets that evoked Deckard chasing down the renegade replicant, Zhora-played by Joanna Cassidy-in BLADE RUNNER and that ended with Gale unable to shoot Booth again after chasing him to his daughter’s grave at a local cemetery, reaffirmed the implicit brotherhood theme of THE CROSSING GUARD. For not only was Gale unable to kill Booth, both kneeling men reached out to put an arm around the back of the other as they sobbed over the grave of Emily as a new day and new era of film art dawned, in the end. A moving sight that implied that Penn believed that Cameron and Lynch should stop fighting each other and instead support each other, as they were film artist brothers mourning the death of Chen, Le, Morrow and film art itself in the TZ disaster and raging over the lack of jail time and continued success of Folsey, Kennedy, Landis, Marshall and Spielberg since 1982 in their film art, and as such needed each other’s support to successfully channel their artistic fire.
Significantly, distinctive traits first seen in THE INDIAN RUNNER like a grounded and CGI free docufeature style contained within balanced frames whose intuitive harmony was disturbed every now and then by a sudden, unusual and idiosyncratic shaky slow-motion (SSM) shot, all supported and enhanced by folksy and haunting allegorical rock music like “Missing” (1996), the twilit Springsteen original that accompanied the opening credits, all returned in THE CROSSING GUARD. Clearly, these traits were signature characteristics of a Penn film, and all returned along with Cassidy, Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro and Kathy Jensen-who played Miguel and the Pink Lady, respectively, in THE INDIAN RUNNER-and Robin Wright Penn-who played Booth’s love interest, Jojo, under the name Robin Wright in THE CROSSING GUARD-when Penn returned with another quiet film that fused the rural with the urban world, the twilit, allegorical and CGI free docufeature film THE PLEDGE (2001), inspired by the allegorical Friedrich Durrenmatt novel The Pledge: requiem for the detective novel (1958).
‘He was a great cop. Just, it’s…it’s just sad.
He’s become a drunk and a clown.’
Significantly, the film began with retired Reno police detective, Jerry Black-played by Nicholson-in a distraught and dishevelled state talking to himself outside a closed and beat up gas bar, immediately recalling Nicholson’s role as Gale in THE CROSSING GUARD. The relatively still images of the distraught Black were intercut with shots of crows flying in the sky, evoking the still shots intercut with moving shots that began THE INDIAN RUNNER and THE CROSSING GUARD, bringing the pensive stillness and fiery motion of the human heart back to the film art of Penn. The dishevelled Black then faded away, and soon we rediscovered him weeks or months earlier fishing in a hut on a remote and snowswept lake and enjoying a dram of Glenfiddich before driving back to Reno and his retirement party. Significantly, on the drive back to Reno Black drove his Isuzu Trooper SUV through a mountainside tunnel, evoking the sight of Deckard driving his spinner through the 2nd Street tunnel in BLADE RUNNER. This link to Deckard reminded us that Deck was called back into service to hunt down Nexus 6 replicants at the beginning of BLADE RUNNER, setting us up for Black being called back into detective service to track down a serial rapist/murderer of girls before the end of his retirement party.
Of course, the deaths and/or disappearances of a twilit trio of beautiful young blonde girls, particularly one Ginny Larsen-played by Taryn Knowles-reaffirmed the film’s link to THE CROSSING GUARD. However, unlike the accidental death of Emily Gale in THE CROSSING GUARD, the rape/murders of Larsen and the rest of the girls evoked the rape/murder of the equally beautiful, blonde and implicitly Hollywood and Madonna linked Laura Palmer-played by Sheryl Lee-in TWIN PEAKS, implying that Penn was addressing Lynch again in THE PLEDGE. Indeed, the return of Nicholson as Black and the fact that the film’s British Columbia shooting locations evoked the nearby Washington State shooting locations of TWIN PEAKS affirmed the implicit interest in Lynch in THE PLEDGE. The presence of Harry Dean Stanton as gas bar owner Floyd Cage reaffirmed the film’s interest in Lynch, evoking his roles as Johnny Farragut in WILD AT HEART and Lyle Straight in the twilit and allegorical Lynch moving painting THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999). However, the fact that Black favoured plaid long sleeved shirts and jeans like Lucas also implied that Black could actually be linked to Lucas. Indeed, the fact that Black came out of retirement to solve the case affirmed his implicit link to Lucas, reminding us that two years before the release of THE PLEDGE Lucas came out of retirement to release the twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced, Ozian themed and implicitly Cameron and Spielberg roasting film STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).
At any rate, Black not only failed to track down the serial killer-implicitly played by John R. Taylor-of Larsen or the other two girls but also destroyed his reputation and his sanity in the process by using eight year old Chrissy-played by Pauline Roberts-as bait for him without asking for permission from her hard pressed single mother, Lori-played by an unrecognizable Wright Penn-with whom he had struck up a relationship. And so we left Black at the end of the film where we found him at the beginning of the film, distraught, dishevelled and talking to himself outside the closed and beat up gas bar he had purchased from Cage. Thus, the implication was that Penn was so unimpressed with STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE that he was convinced that Lucas was an old and mentally unsound failure and washout who had lost the fire by 2001. A fiery and passionate artistry that Penn released again when he returned with Cassidy to the Temple Theatre with another twilit, allegorical and CGI free docufeature film INTO THE WILD (2007), inspired by the allegorical Jon Krakauer book Into The Wild (1996).
“Beware the Jabbermoose my son,
the jaws that bite, the horns that catch!”
Curiously, the first image of the film was that of a photo of Christopher “Chris” McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp-played by Emile Hirsch-on the nightstand of his mother, Billie-played by Marcia G. Harden. This still image was soon disturbed by the sight of Billie rising up from the bed after being startled out of sleep by the sound of the voice of the then missing Chris, bringing another parent haunted by another missing child back to the film art of Penn. Of course, the contrast between the still photo of McCandless and the movement of Billie also brought the familiar tension between still photography and motion picture and the cold stop/fiery start movement of the human heart back to the film art of Penn. A binary contrast that continued when shots of the missing McCandless hitchhiking into and out of Fairbanks, Alaska were contrasted with still photos of different buildings and streets in Fairbanks.
After this familiar beginning to a Penn film, INTO THE WILD became on the surface another fine, moving and thought provoking film with a fondness for balanced frames and haunting folksy rock-this time an original soundtrack from Eddie Vedder that was interspersed with equally haunting compositions by Michael Brook and Kaki King-that re-enacted the life of McCandless, another rebellious and fiery son like Frank and John. A fiery and rebellious son who decided to leave behind his stultifying “life” and desperately conformist and acquisitive family and the constraints and pollutions of civilized “society” after graduating with honours from college and take off on a personal Grail Quest around the continental United States living off the land and the kindness of strangers and searching for truth and purity, a quest that eventually led to him crossing his own Rubicon and dying alone in the wilds of Alaska. However, underneath this moving story of McCandless another allegorical story moved beneath the surface, one that implicitly addressed fiery and rebellious film artist, Terry Gilliam.
Indeed, in one of the film’s first flashbacks, a fellow student named Vanessa Denise Lowery-played by Alina Smithee-was called up to receive her diploma before McCandless at his college graduation ceremony, a Lowery who evoked Sam Lowry-played by Jonathan Pryce-in the madcap twilit and allegorical Gilliam animaction film BRAZIL (1985). This implicit interest in Gilliam was reaffirmed by the parents of McCandless. For Walt-played by William Hurt-and Billie McCandless looked like King Arthur and his squire, Patsy-played by Graham Chapman and Gilliam, respectively-in the allegorical and implicitly New Hollywood roasting Gilliam and Terry Jones film MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). The film’s implicit interest in Gilliam was also affirmed by five of the helpful strangers that McCandless met on his odyssey through the southern continental states.
For diehard hippy, Rainey-played by Brian Dierker-evoked Jones, while the forested Pacific Northwest locale where McCandless met Rainey evoked the endless Medieval forest of the allegorical and implicitly Spielberg roasting Gilliam animaction film JABBERWOCKY (1977), and of the segment featuring Robin Hood-played by John Cleese-and his Merry Men in the allegorical and implicitly New Hollywood roasting Gilliam animaction film TIME BANDITS (1981). The exuberant Midwest farmer, Wayne Westerberg-played by Vince Vaughan-also evoked Cleese, while the endless prairie sea of South Dakota he farmed in evoked the endless prairie sea seen in the twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced and implicitly Lucas and Spielberg roasting Gilliam animaction film TIDELAND (2005). Westerberg’s friend, Kevin-played by Zach Galifianakis-had a name that evoked Kevin-played by Craig Warnock-the intrepid kid time and space traveller, while his appearance evoked Vermin-played by Tiny Ross-one of Kevin’s madcap companions in TIME BANDITS. Of course, Mads the mad blonde Dane-played by Thure Lindhardt-evoked Chapman again. For their part, pinch nosed Slab City Salvation Mountain creator, Leonard Knight, evoked Eric Idle, and benevolent Salton Sea resident Ron Franz-played by Hal Holbrook-evoked Michael Palin, while the desert landscapes they haunted evoked the Middle Eastern locale of the allegorical and implicitly Lucas roasting Gilliam and Jones film MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) and the Nevada desertscapes of the twilit, allegorical and implicitly Francis Coppola and David Lynch addressing animaction film FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).
The sight of McCandless using the “Magic” Fairbanks Bus 142-an old bus parked surreally in the Alaskan wild which linked McCandless to film art via Douglas Fairbanks-as his winter base camp again evoked TIDELAND, which saw the imaginative and abandoned young girl, Jeliza Rose-played by Jodelle Ferlan-enjoy playing in an equally abandoned school bus in a prairie field. The sight of McCandless taking on, killing and beheading a blockbuster moose also evoked Dennis the cowardly Cooper-played by Palin-inadvertently killing off the blockbuster Jabberwock at the end of JABBERWOCKY. Even the ending of the film, which saw divine light shine out of the clouds as the hallucinating McCandless lay dying of starvation and paralysis in Fairbanks Bus 142 after eating poisonous wild sweet pea was linked to BRAZIL and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Thus, given that McCandless almost but not quite survived his indie winter in Alaska, the implication was that Penn felt that Gilliam had almost but not quite succeeded as an indie film artist.
A dislike of Gilliam and his imaginative and idiosyncratic film art not shared by audiences or by Angelina Jolie, for she implicitly came to the support of Gilliam and roasted Penn in her equally moving twilit and allegorical film UNBROKEN (2014). An implicit support for Gilliam that perhaps inspired Penn when he returned to the Temple Theatre with Cassidy, Vedder and Hans Zimmer-co-composer of the soundtrack for THE PLEDGE-with the twilit, allegorical and CGI free docufeature film THE LAST FACE (2016).
“Why do you have to entertain them
to get them to listen?”
Significantly, the film began in a concert hall in Cape Town with fluid shots of a sand painter creating images related to a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Medecins du Monde in a lit sandbox whose images were projected onto a screen like a film amidst a symphony orchestra in full sonic swing, fluid shots that alternated with still shots of a beautiful, blonde and Jolie resembling and implicitly linked woman-who turned out to be Doctor Wren Petersen, played by Charlize Theron-silently watching and listening, immediately returning the warm pump and cold stop of a beating and lonely human heart to the film art of Penn. Then the film explored the tumultuous life of Dr. Petersen and her romance with a fellow MDM doctor named Leon-played by Javier Bardem-an exploration whose implicit allegorical intent remained unclear. What was clear was that THE LAST FACE was another fine, moving and thought provoking docufeature film haunted by the death of a child and its innocence that had a fondness for balanced frames and haunting folksy rock-which this time included haunting African folksy rock like the allegorical Geoffrey Oryema tune “Exile” (1990)-and a lack of interest in CGI enhancement from a Master of twilit and allegorical film art. A film that also ably proved that the daylit Penn was mightier than the twilit and rotoring sword, and that Penn was always eager to take audiences on a rebellious and life affirming journey somewhere between the frozen stillness and the fiery beat of a heart, an insightful and transformative odyssey that led deep into the fire.
Krakauer, Jon. Into The Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.
Penn, Sean. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. New York:
Atria Books, 2018.