Sunday, July 31, 2005

#7-A: On Mountains & Movies - TOUCHING THE VOID & The Traveling Banff Festival 3/3/04 Twenty years ago, deep in a period of biographies & memoirs, I read SPACE BENEATH MY FEET, about Scottish mountain climber Gwen Moffett’s adventures. Most vividly, I recall her description of winter climbing up a cliff through an icy waterfall, the water “sluicing” down her chest. I was not inspired to pursue a similarly frigid experience. Later, I took a personal development course that had me running at the crack of dawn to the ROCKY theme piped onto the trail, & also doing some rappelling. Though proud of the photo I took home of my rappel, I still didn’t take up climbing. Later on, I watched THE MAN WHO SKIED DOWN EVEREST, a documentary about a Japanese skier who – well, climbed up & then skied down Mt. Everest. It was horrifying & wonderful. I saw THE EIGER SANCTION, which combined excellent climbing footage with an adaptation of Trevanian’s excellent novel – still worth renting. Then there’s CLIFFHANGER with Stallone – the only movie I explicitly recall inspiring me to declare I needed a drink afterward. CLIFFHANGER isn’t a very good movie, about mountain climbing or anything else. I have friends who climb, & their disdain for CLIFFHANGER’s technical incompetence is fierce. Then recently I went to see TOUCHING THE VOID at the Westcott Theatre. About ten minutes into it I asked myself, “Why did I come here? This IS going to be really scary.” My previous “Most Scary Movie” designation was held for years by THE SHINING, because of the extreme absence of any human appeal in Jack Nicholson’s eyes once possessed & the sheer loneliness of being at his mercy in the middle of winter so far from anything. Last fall “28 DAYS LATER” briefly held the title, primarily for the scene where the main character dreams he has been left totally alone in the world with the zombies. TOUCHING THE VOID is a combo documentary/re-enactment of a 1985 incident that’s famous among climbers – two young Brits, Joe Simpson & Simon Yates, set out to climb a previously unscaled face of Suila Grande, a peak in Peru. They succeeded but then had trouble on the way down. Joe was injured badly & Simon, in danger of coming off the mountain himself, cut the rope. Saying both men survived miraculously seems puny. TOUCHING THE VOID adapts Joe’s memoir of the same name – now high on the paperback best-seller list - in which he defended Simon’s action. TTV was filmed in the Alps & also has footage of the climbers’ return to Peru - reportedly fairly devastating for both men. Although actors re-recreate the trip, installments alternate with commentary on what happened from Joe, Simon & a third man who stayed in their camp to watch their stuff during the climb. This technique of alternating straight-on interviews of principal players with chunks of story is similar to director Kevin McDonald’s technique in his previous, Oscar-winning documentary on terrorists kidnapping part of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER. By the way, that film is how presenting a balanced view is done, if Mel Gibson wants to know. TOUCHING THE VOID’s cinematography is stunning & frightening, including Joe’s fall into a crevasse & other incidents that I cannot fathom how they filmed, though accounts of this project are out there, in the NYT & other places. I would never have survived what either man endured on that mountain, not even for a little while. In the depths of this winter’s below-zero stretches, I’ve sometimes dwelt on the unnerving picture of – I don’t know why – Siberian prison camps, clear I wouldn’t have lived through that either. Now I have a new nightmare when the winter lingers too long. The very next night, the School of Forestry at Syracuse University hosted a showing of the “World Tour” of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. I hoped these films would be more upbeat & they were. It turns out that Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, hosted its 28th five-day annual mountain film festival in November. The three-hour version of this has just embarked on its trip to over 100 American cities & probably 25 countries. “Mountain culture” & filmmaking is thriving in a large & global community. About twenty such film festivals occur each year in the US, Canada & other countries (primarily Eastern Europe). While Banff movies mostly feature climbing, extreme skiing & snowboarding, whitewater kayaking & acrobatic biking get in too. These movies are always compelling in their subject matter (after all, the world tour features cream-of-the-crop selections), & often equally thrilling in technical virtuosity. And women often appear in these films – as filmmakers, interviewees, & fully equal world-class participants in the sports depicted. There aren’t as many of us as the men, but women showing up occurs with a surprising ease & matter-of-factness that bodes well for women’s future in such sports. That they are women is no big deal, period – an attitude & demographic well-represented in the audience that night too. You have not experienced what “big scale” & “long shot” might really look like until you have watched these little humans swooping around the peaks & cliffs of the Banff movies. But oddly, such attention lavished on these athletes by the camera implies that we’ll all be watching too, & creates a sense of holding them, an expectation of safety & ending well that isn’t there in the moments of extreme loneliness of TOUCHING THE VOID. The terror of Joe Simpson’s fall into the crevasse, he was immediately clear, lay in having no one to tell as he waited to die alone – in his case, not even God. With gratitude that spring is finally here, I’m Nancy Keefe Rhodes & this is Focus on Film for Women’s Voices Radio. (961)