Representation of People and Landscapes in The Art of Travel and Wild
Representations of authors’ experiences of particular landscapes hold great significance for their audiences, as they portray the multifaceted relationships between people and landscapes, such as how interactions with landscape shape awareness of identity. This is potently represented in Alain De Botton’s postmodern collection of essays ‘The Art of Travel’ (Penguin, 2002) and Jean-Marc Vallée’s biographical film ‘Wild’ (River Road Entertainment, 2014). De Botton explores how real landscapes can offer relief from the monotonous nature of life and how they can enlighten individuals on the limitations of their humanity, whilst Vallée examines how real landscapes can allow individuals to heal from traumatic experiences and how imagined landscapes can provide hope for an individual in difficult circumstances.
De Botton clearly examines how transitional places can provide an escape from the mundane and provoke introspective reflection through his poignant representation of real landscapes in his essay ‘On Travelling Places’, didactically enlightening us on the complex nature of communal identity, specifically on how individuals can be paradoxically comforted by communal loneliness. De Botton parodies the typical travel guide by investigating the “power of the liminal travelling place”, how our anticipation of landscapes shapes our perception of them. De Botton’s use of intertextuality from Baudelaire’s poem “Anywhere! So long as it is out of the world!” illustrates De Botton’s premise that the promise of something other than the mundane is transpired in the journey through landscapes; that “the destination was not really the point. The paradoxical perspective that Hopper’s paintings ‘Compartment C’ and ‘Automat’ convey is that lonely public places “dilute a feeling of isolation”, expressing how undesirable landscapes may offer solace in the realisation of collective solitude, thus journeys become the metaphoric ‘midwives of thought’ and catalysts for contemplation. Essentially, De Botton highlights how landscapes can shape identity, especially in transitional places where individuals are connected emotionally however possess no substantial relationships.
Additionally, Vallée’s eloquent illustration of landscapes in his biographical film ‘Wild’ presents the notion that the promise real landscapes can bring can cause one to imagine the journey ahead of them, Vallée provoking contemplation on the power of landscapes to influence the self, especially how landscapes can provide sustenance and hope in difficult circumstances, through Cheryl, who fails to cope with her mother’s death. The still shot of Cheryl watching her dishevelled reflection in the window accompanied by non-diegetic slow music emphasises her disconnection from her disturbing, external reality, the raindrops paralleling to her inner turmoil and the sharp cuts which follow conveying her fragility and the fragmentation of her life. Vallée’s use of camera cuts back and forth between Cheryl and the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) on a book signify Cheryl’s eagerness to explore it, similar to De Botton’s ‘On Travelling Places’ on the anticipation of journeys. A rapid montage of Cheryl buying the book to her hiking the PCT, synthesised with her meta-reflexive voiceover of her high modal declarative statement, “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,” evidently conveys how the thought of the journey through landscapes can provide strength to escape one’s turmoil.
Furthermore, through his powerful portrayal of landscapes in his essay ‘On the Sublime’, De Botton didactically explores how real natural landscapes can enlighten individuals on the limitations of their humanity and enable them to gain insight into their place in the world. Through the socratic method of philosophical inquiry, De Botton rhetorically questions “What do such barren, overwhelming spaces bring us?”. An extreme long shot of Loutherbourg’s painting ‘An Avalanche in the Alps’ contrasts the miniscule humans with the threatening landscape, portraying human frailty in sublime environments and how landscapes can evoke the paradoxical human pleasure of feeling powerless, therefore evocative of existential understanding. De Botton utilises intertextuality to add weight to his premise through the ‘guide’ Burke’s analogy of oxen as powerful but passive landscapes and bulls as landscapes that are “very destructive … therefore great”, enlightening us on the human tendency to be in awe of things more powerful than ourselves through the bull-like Sinai. Biblical allusions to Job’s sufferings parallel sublime landscapes with a divine power beyond human understanding, where God makes Job realise his seemingly insignificant place in the ‘grand scheme of things’, suggesting that despite existential questions that an overwhelming landscape may provoke, one becomes aware that they “cannot fathom the logic of the universe”.
In addition, Vallée’s biographical film ‘Wild’ enriches us through its evocative manifestation of landscapes as it he stimulates thought on how travelling through real natural landscapes can provide a hiatus from the chaotic nature of everyday life, allowing individuals to become more aware of themselves and enable them to meditate and heal from traumatic experiences. Following the death of her mother, Cheryl hikes over 100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, a physical journey which parallels her emotional growth as she finds emotional healing in the communion with nature, evident at the conclusion of the hike. The challenging landscape she travels through is symbolic of her grief, which she “found [her] own way out of”, provided by meta-reflexive voiceover as she reaches the “Bridge of the gods”. Similarities are made to De Botton’s ‘On The Sublime’ of the power of sublime landscapes to stimulate self-awareness. An extreme long shot of the bridge framing Cheryl, the diegetic natural sounds and the vector road lines symbolise the gateway to a new chapter in her life, possible through the landscape’s rejuvenating qualities. Vallée’s utilisation of slow motion and panning of wide shots as Cheryl walks along the bridge and views the landscape displays her innate connection with the landscape, Vallée expressing the ability of landscapes to ‘redeem’ one after tragedy.
The representations of real and imagined landscapes in De Botton’s collection of essays ‘The Art of Travel’ and Vallée’s film ‘Wild’ sharply explore how interactions with landscape shape awareness of identity. They portray the multidimensional relationships between people and landscapes through examining how real landscapes can provide an escape from the mundane, remind humans of their limitations and help them heal emotionally whilst imagined landscapes can provide strength and hope in difficult times.
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