December 10, 2014 10:18:48 AM
As "Wild" goes into wide release, a sacred Hollywood idea will be put to the test -- and, hopefully, it will flunk.
It's a truth universally known that the average male moviegoer -- even the above average male -- won't buy tickets to movies that focus only on women, "Thelma and Louise" being the exception to the rule. That's why we see few movies that speak clearly of women's experience.
"Wild" is the best-selling autobiographical book by Cheryl Strayed. And "Wild" is now a major motion picture, starring Reese Witherspoon in the most important female role to come along for years. Will it hit the Zeitgeist right?
On a mountainous journey, a young woman has nothing but the pack on her back, the clothes on her skin and the boots on her feet. She parts with one of those things, a loss she somehow makes into a win. Bruises and bandages are constants of her long summer trek. She has lost those she loved most and she feels, well, broken and lost.
Publishing a book based on her precious journal, the author takes readers with her every step of the way. The Pacific Crest Trail winds hundreds of miles to the California-Oregon border and Strayed needs to focus on the simple things: how to get there from here on her own two feet, day by day. Self-reliance is a great American trait, after all, which is one of her lessons. She will find a way to overcome adversity.
OK, here's a chance to prove experts wrong. I urge men to get thee to the box office for a true blue one-woman odyssey. Then we can have that talk about how "Wild" has a place in American literature going back to Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau loved retreating to the wilderness for spiritual uplift and Emerson praised self-reliance in a famous essay.
Believe me when I tell you that Strayed created a great yarn with a narrative that even old Benjamin Franklin might recognize -- gasp, why? Because he started the American tradition of self-improvement with all his almanac rhymes and reasons. Strayed's story is a seeker's tale toward reclaiming and reinventing herself. The only difference is that it is in a different voice -- a bright woman's voice.
Dr. Franklin did not always follow his own advice (he often slept late) but I daresay he would be absolutely fascinated by this rare female declaration of, um, independence.
There is very little left in the heroine Cheryl's life. She is counting -- or carrying -- her losses alone. The open wound is the slow death of her lovely mother from cancer. It is also a rant and a rage. I'm not saying it's Shakespeare, but this gives the story an echo of Homer's Telemachus in search of his lost father.
Her struggles on the ground are relived. Strayed (her chosen name) has also just gone through a divorce, letting go of the social security of marriage to a man she still cares for. She is shaking a weakness for getting high -- on heroin -- when the chance arises. She saves modest sums she earns as a waitress, buck by back, shift by shift. That is her salvation.
In packages addressed to post offices along the Trail, Strayed sends money and supplies to herself before an ambitious quest she's barely trained for. Unlike the other hikers on the trail, mostly men who are kind and friendly, she's no expert mountaineer.
One father-son team offers to repack her backpack and get rid of extra weight. The part when they find condoms in her things is one of several funny moments. In fact, Cheryl's frankness about desire only makes her more real. She does not apologize for what she says, what she does, for her appetites.
One non-negotiable book for Cheryl on the long mountain walk: "The Dream of a Common Language," a book of deep poems by Adrienne Rich. " I choose to be a figure in that light/ ... /a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle."
And does Strayed come out whole in the end, reaching light? Hey, see you guys at the movies.
Jamie Stiehm is a syndicated columnist.
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