Monthly Archives: December 2014


December 21st, 2014 2 Comments

wild-reese-witherspoonRon Woodruff is a scumbag.


The protagonist of Jean Marc-Vallée’s brilliant The Dallas Buyer’s Club, Woodruff is a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker, a cocaine abuser, an Alpha male homophobe who uses and discards women like toilet paper.


Cheryl Strayed is Woodruff’s female counterpart.


The protagonist of Vallée’s most recent film Wild, she uses her mother’s death as an excuse to engage in three or four years of self-indulgence, self-pity and self-destruction, betraying her supportive husband, engaging in one meaningless affair after another, ending up with a heroin addict and becoming a user herself.


Ron Woodruff, diagnosed with AIDS, redeems himself.


We watch, reluctantly at first, as he overcomes his homophobia, befriending a tortured transsexual who becomes his partner in his heroic attempt to override FDA regulations and bring the life-saving drug AZT to AIDS sufferers in America.


Cheryl Strayed, bottoming out, redeems herself as well.


She hits the Pacific Crest Trail, and by the end of her journey, she has overcome her grief and learned to care about other people.


Or so Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornsby tell us.


Woodruff earns his redemption in The Dallas Buyers Club. Vallee shows us the process, step by painful step, through Woodruff’s actions and interactions with other people.


Strayed simply asserts her redemption in the voice-over narrative that concludes the film.


What, you ask, about that extraordinary moment near the end when she encounters the old woman and the little boy named Kyle?


To those of you who haven’t yet seen the film, let me suggest you skip the next few sentences.


The moment in question is Cheryl’s meeting with Vera and five year-old Kyle.


The boy has been living with his mother on the streets of Portland, and Vera—a mere acquaintance—has, at his mother’s request, taken Kyle on a hike while she tries to get her life back on track.


Kyle is very upset with Vera for revealing his problems to a stranger, but he relaxes when Cheryl generously reveals that she too has had problems, and in response, he sings a song for her, a song his mother taught him. It’s “Red River Valley” rendered in a voice so pure and sweet it tears your heart apart.


It tears Cheryl’s apart as well and is the moment that makes the rest of the film worth sitting through, the moment when she actually sheds her self-pity, succeeds in seeing beyond her own problems, and shows sympathy for someone besides herself.


The problem is that nothing we’ve seen happen to Cheryl on the trail seems to have much connection to this moment.


It seems to come out of nowhere.


Oh, she’s been the beneficiary of the kindness of many others, but she’s been impervious to their example until now…just as she has been impervious to the shining example of her loving mother who knew that life is hard but also beautiful, who in spite of everything she’d gone through, greeted each day with gratitude and wonder.


It’s easy to see why Vallée wanted to make this movie. He’s clearly drawn to unlikeable characters who rise above themselves, and he does succeed in making Cheryl more accessible than the author herself did in her book.


Part of this is due to the remarkable work of Reese Witherspoon, who may well walk away with an Academy Award this spring.


Part of it is due to the bravura performance of Laura Dern—there are simply no words to describe what she does with the role of Cheryl’s mother.


And then there’s the amazing Evan O’Toole, who plays Kyle.


I ended up a reluctant admirer of much that this film has to offer even though its obsessive flashback structure rendered it uninvolving for me until the very end, even though I never managed to get past my distaste for Cheryl’s serial irresponsibility, even though I’m convinced she never earns her redemption.


My recommendation?


See it for its performances.


See it for its direction and extraordinary editing.


And keep your eyes open for Vallée’s next project.

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December 14th, 2014 5 Comments



I was a Cub Scout.


Unlike some of the less committed members of my den, I believed.


I believed in citizenship, compassion, cooperation and courage.


In faith, health, fitness and honesty.


Perserverance and a positive attitude.


Resourcefulness, respect and responsibility.


All of the core values of scouting.


I took them so seriously that I, like a latter-day Benjamin Franklin, kept a record of my successes and failures in my pursuit of these virtues…until it became apparent that my failures vastly outnumbered my successes and I wisely abandoned the effort.


My major accomplishments were in the smaller things—like learning to tie my shoes or mastering the complexities of manipulating a necktie into a perfect knot.


In spite of my moral shortcomings and my limited skills, I looked forward to the moment when I would become that most admirable of human beings, the full-fledged Boy Scout!


It never happened.




My mother—full of fear, convinced that I would die of an asthma attack or suffer a fatal fall from a cliff or be devoured by a rampaging bear—refused to let me join the hallowed ranks of Scoutdom.


I’ve spent much of the rest of my life overcoming my mother’s fears and much of the last decade backpacking the Sierras, the difficult, sometimes dangerous backcountry where I’ve always remembered and attempted to practice the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”




If you’re not, you put yourself and others at risk.




Good words to live by.


In many ways, a summary of all ten of the core values of Scouting—especially the last and most important: responsibility.


It was, I supposed, the failed Boy Scout in me that responded to the publication of a book about a young woman who, devastated by the untimely death of her mother, healed herself in her attempt to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. The book was called Wild, and its author was Cheryl Strayed.


As someone with an insatiable appetite for accounts of adventures (and misadventures) in the Sierras, I couldn’t wait to read Strayed’s memoir.


I read it…


…and I hated it.


What, you ask, is not to like?


Well, let’s see.


Cheryl loves her mother.




Her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, becomes desperately ill, and dies.


Cheryl, torn apart by her mother’s agony, is supported throughout this dreadful ordeal by her husband Paul, a “kind, tender man” who shows sensitivity, compassion, love in his effort to keep her afloat emotionally.


And how does she repay him once her mother passes?


By having one mindless, meaningless affair after another, eventually ending up with a heroin addict and becoming a user herself.


Poor thing, you say.


After all, she lost her mother.


And what, I ask, about Paul?


Do we simply dismiss him as collateral damage in the self-indulgent, self-pitying disaster she makes of both his life and hers?


Cheryl does.


After all, it’s all about her.


Her loss.


Her pain.


Paul’s doesn’t seem to matter.


Ah, you say, but this is a story of redemption: it’s not about who Cheryl was before her journey into the Sierras. It’s about who she is after she finishes it.


You know.


Like the words from that wonderful hymn: “I once was lost and now am found.”


Oh, I see.


She emerges from her trip a sensitive, giving, responsible human being.


And she does this how?


By hitting the trail completely unprepared for the journey she’s undertaking, without a clue about the kinds of things she will need out there or the kind of dangers she may encounter.


By carrying a ridiculously heavy pack, wearing shoes that invite bloody blisters and lost toenails, failing to research water sources and their locations along the trail, and neglecting to check weather forecasts.


By demonstrating the same sort of irresponsibility she showed in her personal life.


By indulging in the same sort of self-destructive behavior that characterized her marriage.


And, of course, by ignoring the possible consequences of her actions on those around her.


It’s a near miracle that she did not require the intervention of a search and rescue team, whose members put their lives on the line every time they’re called out.


This, of course, never occurred to Cheryl.


Her adventure was, like her mother’s death, all about her.


The former Cub Scout in me, the would-be Boy Scout, read her story in disgust.


BE PREPARED, I wanted to shout.




My cries, of course, went unheard.


But her book did not.


It became a runaway best-seller, thanks to Cheryl’s undeniable gifts as a writer and to Oprah Winfrey’s decision to promote her work.


And now it’s “a major motion picture.”


Everyone loves Cheryl.


Everyone but me.


Could it be that I swim out of the mainstream?


Could it be that “they” are right, and I am wrong?




But I must admit I’m curious, given the film’s 93% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.


Curious enough to see the movie and give Cheryl a second chance.


After all, I admire the film’s director Jean-Marc Vallée, who did an astonishing job on The Dallas Buyer’s Club.


I’m a long-time fan of Reese Witherspoon, who is not only a major talent but who so believed in this project that she broke a cardinal Hollywood rule and put her own money into it.


And I’m desperate for a good movie in this slim season of Oscar worthy films.






…for next week’s report on this Scout’s reaction to the cinematic version of Cheryl and her adventures in the Sierra Nevada.



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