Friday, November 05, 2004

Touching the limits of film

When Kevin MacDonald's film version of the tale of Joe Simpson, the British climber who barely survived an accident on the summit of Siula Grande, appeared I clearly went to see it at once. Unfortunately, Blogger fell down in a pool of its own credibility when I posted a monster review of the flick, and I never recovered the text. That was in January, 2004. Tonight Channel 4 re-screened it, so here goes.

In 1985, two British climbers set out for that Andean peak, in a corner of Peru two days' march from the nearest road. They had made a specialisation of climbing alpine style, that is with a minimum of support and kit. On this occasion, perhaps, they took this style a little far. Climbers consider these distinctions to be ideologically, vitally crucial. But in this case it could have been too much. They put their base camp into the hands of a random backpacker, "Richard", who they happened to meet. He had no knowledge of mountains or of any kind of emergency, and is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole story. Although they successfully reached the summit, the weather worsened fast on the way, and they ran out of cooking fuel and therefore water. The margin of safety was in fact almost gone by the time they arrived - in Simpson's words, because they were young and wanted to climb the world.

It was on the descent that the crisis gripped. Simpson fell and wrecked a leg. His comrade, though, began to lower him on a rope down the mountain. Later that night, Simpson slid over a cliff. His weight gradually dragged his comrade downhill. He struggled to prusik back up the rope, but finally dropped one of his cords and was forced to stop. Unable to hear his cries for help, his comrade struggled on the dark and freezelashed rockside with his conscience. And then he cut the rope. Simpson plummeted, and then burst through a snow roof into even more depth, before crashing onto a ledge in a monster crevasse. At the bottom of the crevasse, though, Simpson discovered a way out. He struggled over an insect immensity of glacier crevasses and razor rocks towards the hoped-for camp. Meanwhile his partner returned, exhausted and bathing in a stream, compulsively, as rape victims are said to. Richard says, smiling oddly, that he spent the intervening time wondering which of them he hoped was dead.

But he wasn't. Fighting geography, cold, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, injury, loss of blood and looming madness, Simpson was still moving towards them. Finally he staggered into the camp latrine, yelling. Simon plunged out into the snowstorm to help. Richard watched. They had both survived. Whatever the horrific moral dilemma, he had been right to cut the rope before the only real test. Being right doesn't help much, though. The community of mountaineers in Britain was torn apart as some wanted to offer them a heroes' welcome and some considered Simona moral traitor. When Joe wrote an account of the accident, Touching the Void, the bloodletting only worsened.

Touching The Void is a blinding epochal masterpiece of film. Kevin MacDonald chose to reconstruct the climbing in the Alps with experts, whilst taking the lower level shots in Peru with the real men back on the spot for the first time. It is a technical tour de force. The rest is in the form of interviews, mugshot without background, with the men. It is austere within technical riches, like an Adolf Loos building. Getting away from form, though, a moral question presents itself. Yes, it was the right decision, but was it right? This is extreme cinema representing an extreme situation - the screaming white of the snow is so white that the 24 frames/second flicker is visible, breaking the technical limits of film - and the morality is equally strained. There was in 20s and 30s Germany a genre known as Bergfilm, that placed heroic dramas in a mountaineering theme. There is something vaguely fascist in that utter blankness and justification by heroism. When you go right out to the limits of reason, that danger exists.

Richard is interesting for that reason. He seems to represent the deadly normality that lets them win. I don't say that the people involved are or were fascists. I am only fearful of a certain aesthetic and mindset that justifies all by heroism.

Finally, there is a film that needs making that will be at least as interesting if not more. It is about what happened on their return, the politics of the furore aong climbers and the relations between survivors. It will be very different in location - pubs in Sheffield and interviews - but only one man can do it. Kevin MacDonald.

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