For Brian Gillam,
INTO THE FIRE:
allegorical meditations on life and creativity
in the fiery and twilit film art of Sean Penn
by Gary W. Wright
Like most film artists since at work today, Sean Justin Penn has made the fatal helicopter crash that killed actor/director/writer Vic Morrow and child extras Renee Chen and Myca 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 and twilit and allegorical 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 graphic 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 and allegorical film so good, it easily transcended the dread Zone Wars by being one of the finest and most important allegorical films ever. The film was partly inspired by and closely followed the allegorical Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Highway Patrolman’, from NEBRASKA (1982), openly affirming the film’s implicit interest in the twilit and disastrous year of 1982.
‘A lesson learned.’
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-in a wailing police car in hot pursuit of a fleeing white car driven by a young and Landis resembling 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 the Temple Theatre free of the rictus twilit grip that Landis and the TZ disaster had had on it since July 23, 1982. 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. The film’s many allusions to the eerily and ominously twilit and allegorical 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 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 back 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 society, people 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 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 such allegorical David Lynch moving paintings as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), DUNE (1984), BLUE VELVET (1986) and WILD AT HEART (1990), as well as the equally allegorical Lynch telefilm 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 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 and allegorical 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-haunted by the death of his daughter, the implicitly Dorothy Gale linked Emily Gale, resolve 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. The implicit intent of THE CROSSING GUARD suggested Penn was not happy that Cameron had implicitly roasted Lynch in the allegorical films, T2: 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 allegorical films as THE LOVELESS (1982)-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 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 just before the film ended. A moving sight that implied that Penn believed that Cameron and Lynch should stop fighting each other and support each other, as they were brothers in arms 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, and needed each other’s support to successfully channel their artistic fire.
Significantly, the 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 rock music like ‘Missing’, the Springsteen original that accompanied the opening credits, that were seen and heard in THE INDIAN RUNNER all returned in THE CROSSING GUARD. Clearly, they 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 and allegorical 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 the 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 Hollywood 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 film, 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 reaffirmed that he could be linked to Lucas, reminding us that two years before the release of THE PLEDGE Lucas came out of retirement to release the allegorical 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 and 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 who 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, or with such twilit and allegorical Lynch fare as THE STRAIGHT STORY, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) and LOST HIGHWAY (1997), that he was convinced that either Lucas or Lynch was also an old and mentally unsound failure and washout who had lost the fire by 2001. No doubt explaining why Penn implicitly left Lynch behind for the first time when he and Cassidy returned to the Temple Theatre with another twilit and allegorical 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!’
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, thought provoking and CGI free allegorical docufeature 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 travel 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 was called up to receive her diploma before McCandless at his college graduation ceremony. Lowery evoked Sam Lowry-played by Jonathan Pryce-in the twilit and allegorical Gilliam film, BRAZIL (1985). This implicit interest in Gilliam was affirmed 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 reaffirmed by five of the helpful strangers that McCandless met on his odyssey and 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 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 film, TIME BANDITS (1981). The exuberant Midwest farmer, Wayne Westerberg-played by Vince Vaughan-evoked Cleese, while the endless prairie sea of South Dakota he farmed in evoked the endless praire sea seen in the allegorical and implicitly Lucas and Spielberg roasting allegorical 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. 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 addressing 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 McCandless hallucinated as he 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 winter in Alaska, the implication was that Penn felt that Gilliam had almost but not quite succeeded as a 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 allegorical film, UNBROKEN (2014). An implication 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 allegorical film, THE LAST FACE (2017).
‘Why do you have to entertain them to get them to listen?’
Significantly, THE LAST FACE was an intriguing allegorical conundrum, and the first Penn film set outside the continental U.S. in the fiery crucible of Africa. However, the implicit allegorical intent of the piece-perhaps a reply to the twilit and allegorical Miller film, MAD MAX FURY ROAD (2015)-was unclear, thus necessitating more viewings to allow the film to finally speak to the viewer. What was clear was that it was another fine, moving and thought provoking docufeature film haunted by the death of a child and its innocence with a fondness for balanced frames and another haunting folksy rock soundtrack-which this time included haunting African folksy rock like the Geoffrey Oryema tune, ‘Exile’-and a lack of interest in CGI enhancement from a Master of 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 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.