Saturday, July 19, 2014

Alone in the Wilderness | The ALASKAthon

The wish to just pack up our dearest belongings and burn or leave the rest, to wander off into the wilderness and start a new life without the complications of modern society - I think most of us have felt that wish one or several times in our lives. It's something that I've always associated Alaska with - the goodbye to society, that crazy breed as Eddie Vedder calls it in one of his songs. In the course of history, there have been a number of women and men who succumbed to this wish, which I do not doubt burnt much harder in them than it does in most of us who have not succumbed to it.

One of those people was Dick Proenneke, who left his home in the late 1960s and built himself a cabin somewhere in Alaska. He would stay there for 35 years, until he felt too old to endure the harshness of living in nature. During this time, he filmed and wrote about much of his adventure of building his home and exploring the wilderness around him. The TV film Alone in the Wilderness assembles some of Dick's early footage and underlines this by excerpts from his journals. The result is a simple yet fascinating documentary on an astonishing man who made an astonishing choice.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to watch the cinematic adaptation of Tracks, a non-fiction book on a woman who traveled the Australian outback by camel. I was intrigued by her story and her strong will that in the end got her what she wanted - not without losses though. At the end of the story, I wondered what would become of her, going back to "normal" life, perhaps in a big city. There is no wondering at the end of Alone in the Wilderness, for as a voice from the off explains, Dick continued to live in his cabin for 35 years - a surprise for me, who didn't know his story and had expected that he would only live there for a year or so. It's that choice that fascinates me most about this film. We never wonder about Dick's life after wilderness - surely it was spent either with friends and family or in a home for the elderly - but his before, his past.

What could make a man choose solitude for the rest of his life? What harm had civilisation done to him? Had he experienced something horrible? Or was he just someone who liked to be on his own, undisturbed, had always been like that? There may be answers to these questions, but to be honest, I don't really want to know. It's the riddle that made me enjoy this film so much - and of course awe at someone who can build a cabin like that on his own.

Alone in the Wilderness is a quiet documentary, easy to watch and digest, yet lingering on the viewer's mind for a while after the credits roll. Its amateurishness is rather intimidating when one understands the beauty that lies in many of the Super 8 (?) shots of Dick working on his little projects or of the nature surrounding him. It's like Into the Wild but without the people and the tragedy.


How capturing/ engaging/ interesting is the film? (out of 5 northern lights)

How gorgeous does the film - or the Alaska in it - look? (out of 5x Timothy Treadwell's hair)

How much does the film itself make you want to go to Alaska? (out of 5 sledges)

2004 • USA • English

by Bob Swerer Productions
writers Sam Keith, Dick Proenneke


  1. Interesting! I've never heard of this one before. Great review!

    1. I know, right? I only found it when researching films set in Alaska, especially docs because I wanted some variety in the movies I chose for the blogathon. Glad you enjoyed the review!

  2. I didn't care much for the autobiography Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau(a classic of American lit, I skimmed through it a few years ago), but that doc you reviewed has a very similar theme, the introspective, reclusive life in peaceful surroundings. Perhaps Dick Proenneke was inspired by Walden, who knows.

    1. I was going to mention Walden but then didn't, because I haven't actually read it yet. It seems similar, but I don't think they're necessarily connected.

  3. I wonder if being alone is a common theme in Alaska -- Wendy and Lucy had that too, right? Great review, Mette, glad it enhanced your Alaska-enthusiasm even further!

    1. It seems to be, I've noticed it too. Even in Insomnia, the two main characters are somewhat isolated - and in Grizzly Man, of course. The only "social" film I've seen until now is Mystery, Alaska and The Gold Rush seems to be on the unsocial route from what I know. However, I think my last film - Into the Wild - offers an interesting perspective on being alone and how the people we meet matter.


Let the discussion begin!