Alone in the Wilderness is the movie of our time. Even though it was filmed and largely written in 1968, and edited in 2003, it speaks to the isolation of the coronavirus era. I want nothing more than to get the fuck out of my town, where merely walking down the sidewalk puts me in danger from unmasked assholes. I’m leaving soon, but not soon enough.
Dick Proenneke was able to leave. He retired, packed what he needed, and built a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. The only things he had to look out for were wolves, porcupines, and the like, which are not as cunning or cruel as humans.
Alone in the Wilderness is awesome and awe inspiring and leaves you wanting much more. His character comes into stunning relief, hearing his diaries and seeing what he saw 50 years ago. The amateur cinematography and amateurish production prevents it from achieving the heights that I know the raw footage is capable of. Based on how Proenneke documented his life, and the length of his cabin stay, there should be more than an hour of material. A few other films have been edited and culled from Dick’s life, but this one is about his first year in the wilderness, where he builds and improves his cabin. He gets into a rhythm, learns the best ways to use his environment, and then it’s over.
The movie splits the difference between fantasy and reality and satisfies neither camp. The title itself is a fantasy; Dick got supplies delivered by plane every other month, while the weather was good. Still, he was remarkably resourceful and wise. He didn’t pack bulky handles because he could carve them out of wood procured on-site. I was struck by the improvisation required to see an unused carcass on the ground and decide to take it back and cook it rather than let it waste. What plan got scuttled to do that?
I say I want a gritty, realistic, survival tale, and by that I mean: I want a fantasy that appears to be a gritty, realistic survival tale. We see Dick catch a fish and watch it gasp for breath, but do not see Dick gut it. I believe Dick filmed it and it was edited from this documentary. If we’re in the wilderness, we should be submerged in it, with as few pleasantries as possible. It takes months to build a cabin, and all the building zooms by too fast. Montages are minimal and short. Reinforcing the work required would have been wise. Dick casually mentions that it’s minus 22 and then talks about the five mile mountain trek he’s embarking on. What the fuck is he wearing to accomplish the task? We never know.
I don’t usually comment on technical quality, because so many factors influence it and it’s not always in the director’s control or budget. In this case, it’s notable that the film is unrestored. Produced probably on a low budget for PBS in 2003, scratches and lines adorn the faded print. Which makes Dick’s achievement all the more remarkable. Hiding within the purple-hued 8 millimeter print are some stunning vistas and beautiful animals. Some shots look like absolutely fake soundstages, owing perhaps to how the focus was configured so the background collides with the foreground. A cinematographer probably wouldn’t have set their shots this way, but Dick is not a cinematographer, making this outsider art even more special. Luckily, most of the films are colored reasonably well and you see some semblance of what Dick saw in the pristine Alaskan brush.
The reality of Alone in the Wilderness’s production kills me on one final level - the lack of ambient sound. Everything you hear in the movie is dubbed because no such recordings exist. Dick made public appearances, but he never read his journals out loud or even saw this film in which he is featured, so we are always a bit removed from everything. To me there is a world of difference between a true field recording and one concocted in a studio.
All this is irrelevant because Alone in the Wilderness is irreplaceable. Dick did what no one had done before, not to his level, and what is probably impossible to do now. Satellites and cell phones have collapsed the world in on itself; it’s hard to be anywhere in the United States and be “Alone in the Wilderness”. The park itself has vastly changed due to global warming. Dick’s cabin still stands in what is now Lake Clark National Park, but because it’s a National Park you can’t build your own cabin.
It’s nice to have excuses.