Monday, August 18, 2014

Strayed's Boot (Shoes in Cultural History)

On the cover of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild there is a picture of a well-worn boot. Though not actually Strayed’s but a stock photo, the boot has black rubber soles and are a brown canvas. Their petite quality and the brightness of the red laces emphasize their femininity. It’s a striking image as the boots are a symbol of Strayed’s journey. They convey a durability, adventure and sense of fun. This image beautifully stands in for the best and the worst of everything that she went through during her her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

During the months Strayed hiked the PCT she went through two pairs of boots. The first pair was too small and broke her toenails (she would even loose a boot mid-hike). After learning about the company's great warranty she would get a second pair shipped to her (free of cost) during the hike. One imagines that her actual pair would look a lot worst than the one’s on the cover. Strayed eventually finished her hike and got to the Bridge of God near Portland, Oregon where to celebrate she got herself an ice cream cone (during her trip, having only the tips raised from waitressing for a few months, it was the small pleasures like a Snapple or a burger that helped her get through the trip).

A picture of Strayed’s backpack, which she labeled Monster, would have conjured a whole different set of associations. The backpack symbolized the weight of the personal turmoil that she went through and was dealing with. So by the end, after overcoming these traumas, how she regards Monster from at first a beast she could not even carry then slowly towards affection (she still keeps it in her basement as a souvenir), can be seen as a sign of her coming to terms with her past.

The chosen picture of the boot on the cover might still be a better one, though. Boots have played a significant role in art history and it’s worth conjuring other examples of their representation to better understand what makes Strayed’s work and the cover of Wild so exemplary.

There is the impressionism of Vincent van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes (1886) with its earthy colors and bold brush strokes. Van Gogh’s still life painting of his own shoes emphasizes the harshness of existence through their well-worn quality. This realistic portrayal of shoes, drab yet honorable, of what is typically a disregarded and forgotten object is humanized through van Gogh’s empathy towards them. One can understand why Martin Heidegger would specifically address the painting in terms of concepts like ‘being’ and ‘truth’ in his seminal essay The Origin of the Work of Art.

There is the Surrealist tradition of René Magritte’s The Red Model (1937): an uncanny image of a pair disembodied feet meshing into leather boots. Magritte’s brand of modern art, which incorporates a critique of the illusion of painting within the painting, was brilliantly studied by the post-structuralist and post–modernist. 

For a more pop sensibility there is Elvis Presley’s song Blue Suede Shoes or a more urban equivalent Nelly’s Air Force Ones. But what Strayed does in Wild is retreat to nature as a way to overcome a trauma, which might make her journey closer to the cultural zeitgeist of the run by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, John Karakeuer’s Into the Wild, or maybe more appropriately Terry Fox’s run for cancer.

Strayed's journey is a return to basics - shedding the obligations of a social life to better find inner peace. It is worth bringing up K-Hole’s article Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom (without having to get into its all-caps aphorisms, trend words dialectics, or normcore collages) as some of its ideas are useful to understand the exceptional nature of Strayed's journey. It's a polemic against social expectations and uniqueness for the sake of being idiosyncratic and one of its key concepts include the connection between youth and freedom. For K-Hole ‘Youth Mode’ is for a democracy against a culture created by corporations and marketers,
"Youth [is] the fullness of potential, the ability to be the person you want to be. It’s about the freedom to choose how you relate; the freedom to choose how you understand; the freedom to try new things; the freedom to make mistakes.”
All of the above, from Strayed's journey to K-Hole, goes really well with Jean-Marc Vallée and what he's doing with films as since his last film, Dallas Buyers Clubs, he has had a strong interest in regular people and everyday heroism, though never in a superficial or self-aggrandizing way. Just like Ron Woodroof, the story of an AIDS activist that opened a experimental medical clinic, whose fight for life gave it its meaning, with Wild Vallée highlights Strayed, in his first literary adaptation, and her recovery and walk into the wilderness.  Like Charlie Chaplin’s humanism, Vallée’s cinema is that of the working class, overcoming obstacles, and a welcoming hand to those people in need. (The sections in Wild of the campsites and communal sharing on the PCT between the hikers really reminded me of similar scenes in Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men.)

Vallée chooses sources material and characters with spirits that he admires. After Wild, which will be premiering soon at TIFF, his next project is Demolition, which will star Naomi Watts and Jake Gyllenhaal, and is about an investment banker struggling to deal with the death of his wife as he becomes obsessed with destruction and starts a relationship with a single mom.

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