How to save nature without running away from society: lessons from three movies

    31 Oct 2021

    Today we will devote our review to three movies with a common theme – how far is a person protesting against a consumer society ready to go?

    This topic has been exciting the minds for many years, and one of its most striking manifestos is the book “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau. This American writer, philosopher, and activist of the abolitionist movement (for the abolition of slavery), retired to the woods for two years. He settled on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts, in a hut he built on the banks of Walden Pond. However, the 27-year-old author did not lose his connection with civilization.

    In a house in the forest, Thoreau wrote a treatise on the futility of human civilization that amazed the minds of his contemporaries. With his experiment, Thoreau strove to make it clear to his compatriots with their cult of material prosperity that it is possible to live well and happily outside of society, satisfying all natural needs with his labor. He contrasted the industrial revolution and the emerging consumer society with freedom from material worries, solitude, self-sufficiency, contemplation, and closeness to nature.

    As it turned out, Thoreau’s text has an impact on current generations as well. A striking example of this is the cult among some environmentalists “Into the wild” movie, a manifesto of people who hate and deny the consumer society. Let’s consider it first.




    Fire inside, pushing into savagery

    Sean Penn’s 2007 film focuses on a 23-year-old boy who breaks up with wealthy parents, donates his entire $24,000 savings to Oxfam charity NGO, burns the rest of his cash, and travels. His goal is to reach Alaska and live there in the wilderness.

    Curiously, the story is based on the real diary of a young American who lived in an abandoned trailer in the middle of Denali National Park and Preserve. The film tells the real story of Christopher McCandless, who rejected the material values ​​of modern society and wandered from 1990 to 1992.



    The film is imbued with a kind of romantic mood and evokes warm feelings rather than anxiety for the young radical. On his way, he falls in love with a hippie girl, but instead of having sex, he learns songs with her; tries rural and blue-collar occupations such as harvesting. He has many chances to settle and stay in a particular place – he is offered, for example, to become a part of a hippie hangout and sell books with travelers. Moreover, hippie characters aged well over 50 are a prime example that such a lifestyle is possible.

    But the young man is pushed forward and farther by the fire inside, the hatred of the consumer society, the memory of the “too rich” parents. So, with sheer perseverance, the guy comes to the riverbank in the north of the continent. Further, let’s say without spoilers, the film came out far from being a manifesto of “constructive” environmentalism. Instead, this is a warning: too intractable people find themselves outside of society, and people still need social interactions.

    “Into the wild” is an anti-civilization and anti-Western movie. However, the first impulse after watching it is life-affirming: you want to confess your love to someone spontaneously. A similar impression, by the way, is connected with the cult film “Donnie Darko”  (2001) by Richard Kelly. Its 16-year-old protagonist is quite similar in mood to the wanderer from “Into the wild.” But “Donnie…” is worth a separate review. Let’s mention only that its extremely honest and rebellious against hypocrisy characters are fully inscribed in American urban society.




    Complete immersion in “asocial”: French art cinema

    And here we come to the second significant movie, which preceded “Into the wild” chronologically and geographically. This is a 1985 French film by Agnes Varda “Vagabond” (French: “Sans toit ni loi,” “with neither shelter nor law”).

    The original French title is a play on a common French idiom, “Sans foi ni loi,” meaning “With neither faith nor law.” It also puns on sans toi (“without you”).

    The movie did not gain a cult status, as the above-described Hollywood example, and is now known only to film critics. But after watching, the film gives the impression of a masterpiece of cinematography that is quite accessible to a broad audience. Its message is crystal clear, and it also focuses on the topics of consumerism and modesty, like that of its American counterparts,  about a person who is ready to withdraw himself from society.



    At the center of the action is a girl wandering along the French seaside in the winter, off-season. One fine day, Mona emerges from the cold sea like a Greek goddess, dresses, and begins her journey. The film shows selected episodes of her stops along the way: a two-day romance with a hippie boy; trying to settle on a farm and plant potatoes; friendship with a woman professor of biology; work in the vineyards with a peasant from Tunisia.

    The girl’s sharpness, rudeness, and social aloofness are striking (according to the plot, she is very young, up to 20 years old). Mona willingly accepts gifts and consumes them but gives nothing in return; begs and steals; often lives at the expense of others but does not show the slightest desire to join their community. Even communication with a bright character, Master of Philosophy, who has chosen the profession of a goat herder, does not change the extreme traveler. It only leads to conflict: “I don’t need another boss! I didn’t run away from my secretary position to find him in the village!” the girl exclaims.

    Like the Master of Philosophy, walking in rags, warned, such people will not stay healthy and without addictions for a long time on the road. Mona forgets herself in smoking marijuana, and then in unrestrained drunkenness, almost falls into the clutches of the porn industry. And then the traveler naturally dies (this is not a spoiler since the film begins with her dead body).

    We don’t know who she is and where she is from, what her background and parents are, and it doesn’t matter. The essence is essential – with all these adventures, the author, Agnes Varda, conveys the hypocrisy and rottenness of contemporary French society. Even choosing the path of “doing nothing,” Simona without a surname exposes part of the internal contradictions of society, about which it is customary to keep silent.

    While Mona just spits in community, at the same time the young nephew sends his aunt to a nursing home; migrants from Morocco and Tunisia flee to wealthy France to cut grapes there; a drunkard and a thief lives off his girlfriend; the owner of the car service gives Mona a place to live in exchange for sex; a truck driver offers a bed for sex too; the rapist rapes the unprotected Mona.

    And when asked to live “by the sweat of your brow,” Mona answers the philosopher with a pretty reasonable question: “You live in the same filth as I do, but you also constantly work. So isn’t it better not to do anything?”

    The film turned out to be not radical arthouse, but generally accessible since its message and idea are in full view. The difference from “Into the wild” is that the French version of the history of “itinerant protesters” is not tied to anti-consumerism ideology. The director knows about it and means it. However, the author and the girl Mona, an invention of her fantasy, only pose a silent question, but they do not receive an answer in the movie.




    How to live “off-the-grid,” hike and look after cats

    The third film you may watch in a row with the two described is “The World Before Your Feet” directed by Jeremy Workman. The 2018 feed has received reviews in the NY Times and other significant media. The film describes the mission of a lone American: to traverse every street in New York City with a length of more than 12,800 km.



    There are almost no traces of radicalism and a desperate break with society. Just a man is wandering on foot through the metropolis. Without a home, but with occasional work as a “catsitter” and a blog that makes him famous. This is a stylish, fashionable, and youthful protest that simply turns into a lifestyle. And this time, the genre is documentary: the director follows the main character in any weather and time of the year, captures his dialogues and monologues.

    We have before us a relatively prosperous New York between the 2008 crisis and the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a city that can be measured in steps for years. And the main character devoted his life to this “dimension.”

    We can see a young man, 37 years old, named Matt Green. He has been walking around New York since the age of 31, marking district by district on a map. He set the goal to start first with this city and then with other notable places in the States.

    The journey is not the first for him. In 2010, Matt walked across the States from Rockaway Beach, New York, to Rockaway Beach, Oregon. But that journey from coast to coast took only five months.

    To develop his project, Matt quit his job, gave up his apartment, and lives on average $15 a day at the time of filming.

    Nowadays, his “job” is casual part-time jobs like “look after the cat while the owners are away.” Word of mouth advertises him. And the blog that he keeps, and the publication about him in the New York Times, further spur the popularity of the traveler.

    Green prefers to live in the homes of people he knows or has contacted him based on rumors of his hiking trip through the States. The wanderer has devised a system based on the kindness of strangers. He eats little and uses the money he saved over his engineering career when necessary.

    Matt walks through hundreds of city areas. The protagonist explores countless curiosities that catch the eye: from a national landmark to a modest utility hole cover. Although he devoted years of his life to this cause, Matt does not explain to the audience why he’s doing it. He just feels obligated to go and seek moments of understanding of his world and the people who live in it.

    Director Workman and executive producer Jesse Eisenberg compiled the film from more than 500 hours filmed in three years of material. It is a story of discovery, humanity, and miracles that follows. As a first glance at a separate city and its inhabitants, “The World Before Your Feet” turns into a reflection of the big world and its limitless possibilities.

    In the movie, we can see five districts spanning from the Bronx barbershops to the forests of Staten Island, from the Statue of Liberty to Times Square, where Matt gathered details about the history of New York and the people along the way.

    Matt admires the life path of the American eco-philosopher Henry David Thoreau. He does not quite understand why he is traveling, knowing only that there is no other pastime that would be interesting to him.

    Oscar-nominated executive producer Jesse Eisenberg explains on the film’s website that “The World Before Your Feet” is a tribute to the infinitely charming city and freedom that can be found everywhere, just walking.

    The director explains: “I’ve been close friends with Matt Green for nearly a decade and first started hearing about his walking adventures in the mid-2000’s. I often was struck by the tone of Matt’s walking tales. His walks didn’t seem to be about completing any set goal. It was more about discovering the world and learning about his community in a wholly personal way”.

    In 2012, Matt began his New York City stroll, and the filmmaker followed his blog closely. At regular dinners, Matt talked about the wonders of New York in a way Workman had never heard.

    Matt spoke of the city as if it were a distant land of adventure and discovery. He spoke of the locals very sympathetically and personally. Even from his walk, it became clear that Matt had become closer to people of all strata.

    The director persuaded Matt to shoot on the condition of “no team” – just Workman himself and a camera.

    This marked the beginning of a three-year journey, which became the most important professional event for the author. Workman attached a wireless microphone to Matt and followed him everywhere.

    The director says: “Within hours, I began to immediately see a whole new city, even a whole new world. By walking with Matt, you’re forced to take note of everything around you. Matt stops and notices things that I’d routinely miss: historical details, street signs, animal life, plant life, the fabric of the city. I almost felt like I had blinders removed from my eyes. We fell into rhythm fairly quickly. I often filmed him weekly wherever he was walking. We’d cover many miles each day (with me also having to lug heavy equipment). Sometimes we’d knock out 15 miles by noon.”

    In the first few months, the author filmed over 100 hours. By the end of filming, the footage had already taken about 500 hours. Workman filmed for over a hundred days in dozens of metropolitan areas.

    “It’s never a furious goal-driven race to a finish line. It’s something much deeper. It’s about slowing down and experiencing life in a way that we seldom get to. Ultimately, that became how I saw the film and the story that I am trying to tell” – sums up Workman.



    And no wonder – this documentary meticulously reproduced several months of the life of a man praising the beauty of the Big Apple and its inhabitants. It is also about the openness of people to a stranger. And, of course, this picture reveals the details of the life of a “person outside the system” who does not pay for communal services and does not have permanent housing. At the same time, he is not a homeless person, not a nomad from Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning film “Nomadland,” not a hippie and not a punk. He’s just an American engineer who fanatically devoted himself to traveling the world.

    As the project progressed, Green’s idea evolved into a research blog with historical facts about New York. “Every street is a fossil,” says the main character. The film shows Green’s desire to fully experience New York, a geography that has changed over more than four centuries.

    It’s amazing how much open, abandoned, and simply little-known space exists even in the most populous (8.5 million people) city in the United States. Matt, for example, discovers a roughly 400-year-old tree, the oldest in the region, that was “born” before the first Dutch settlers claimed rights to what would later become New York.

    The best scenes in the film are Green’s communication with the people he meets along the way. They are friendly, inquisitive passers-by and pedestrians who want to join the trip for a day. One such walker, a Jamaican man named Garnette Cadogan, is an immigrant from New York, as is Virginia-born Matt. Using Cadogan as an example, the author of the film does not smooth out some of the sharp edges of the plot. The traveler talks about his “pantomime,” that is, about how he behaves so as not to appear threatening to people because he is black. He wears a book, glasses and avoids sweatshirts and other ghetto subculture clothing.

     “The point of it all … Well, I don’t really know what the point is,” says Matt. Like the 2018 documentary “Free Solo” by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, “The World Before Your Feet” is about a character whose dedication leaves very little room for anything or anyone else. Matt’s polite but frustrated ex-girlfriends confirm this in interviews. The journey cost the hero the bride.

    Green is definitely the type of person for whom life is “a journey, not a destination.” His path highlights how much of our immediate “world” we take for granted.


    All three above-described movies are united by one leitmotif: it is still necessary for a person to live in society, no matter how it rejects this society. To all the questions about environmentalism and human life, which were asked by Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldo Leopold, Dave Foreman, and other philosophers, the answer comes only in the form of reformism. But not self-destruction and rejection, which practice the protagonist of “Into the wild” and especially Mona in “Vagabond.”

    Outwardly, all three stories are similar to the description of the life path of the nomads from the movie “Nomadland,” a review of which you can find here. But there is also a significant difference in the plots: the nomads in the USA of 2020 are ideally inscribed in American society. They simply do not have the money for the level of consumption that it implies. Many Americans don’t even want to be consumerists – a vivid example of this is the protagonist of “Nomadland.” And these “outcasts” of the modern era found the answer in unity and the creation of a community, where solidarity and sympathy rule and not an extreme desire to reject society.

    The creation of communities, solidarity, and love, the sense of community rather than individualism, is crucial to recover from the ecological collapse into which humanity has driven the planet.


    Speaking about Western cinema art, let’s call to memory Philip Dick’s legacy. This author asked the readers of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” novel: will you have compassion for the last animals on Earth?

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