Words Amy Mansfield
Well, let’s just cut to the chase: Go see this movie. Whether you’re feeling up or down or roundabout, you’ll only feel high after seeing it.
What makes it?
It’s the poetry of it: in words and cinematography and music.
Words first (call me biased; I know it’s an unexpected start). Willem Dafoe does a damn fine job of narrating Robert Macfarlane and Jennifer Peedom’s script, with just the right lilt and croak in his voice. Not the voice of authority, but of simple truth, older than even the mountains.
These mountains are pretty damn old, and if you are worried you might feel just a wee bit insignificant in the face of them, watching others quite literally, quite precariously on the face of them, you should do. But that is part of the high. Willem will tell you all about it.
The cinematography is extraordinary. It’s hard even to imagine how many hours of footage and love have gone into this aspect of the film. It is close up, it is far away, it is time-lapse, it is space-lapse (I made that up but believe it!). It takes you through seasons and storms at speed, on speed, in slow-mo, fast-mo and all the other mo’s. There are moments of quiet and many of drama. There are changes of tempi and crescendi in what we see, in the boil of lava from and the bubble of clouds around them, them mountains.
And the music. A big fat tick to the Australian Chamber Orchestra and musical director/composer Richard Tognetti. They nail it. There’s quite a bit of Baroque in there, with Vivaldi and his glorioiusly relentless Four Seasons getting the lion’s share. It is, after all, an undeniable piece of music. But we get some serene contemporary piano too as a person walks across a tightrope spanning a mere canyon, and some full orchestral action once the strings have been thoroughly and deftly milked. It’s compelling. It’s “the symphony of the earth”. It’s available on Spotify.
It’s edited like a boss. Seriously. You can’t not get caught up in its rhythms.
There are moments of pathos. Let’s face it, people die climbing these things. Tourism and its garish ski-wear are detracting from the beauty and solitude of them. Willem calls such devotees part of “the modern industry of ascent”. My mum, my companion for the screening, called them “nutters”. These are not the focus of the film but are not entirely ignored in the narrative.
But the narrative is mainly about the awe and the quest. Maybe (probably) this is a Western kind of look at mountains. Imperialism does get a passing mention: the cartographers and their will to “grid, girdle and name the upper world”. The footage takes in the mountains and nations of the world, but the narrative is universalist. We see locals performing rituals but don’t hear a lot of how cultures intimate with the mountains imagine them. If I’m not mistaken the flag raised at the top of Everest when the topic of the first “conquering” of it is discussed is a British one. Somewhat jarring to a kiwi eye accustomed to the currency of Sir Ed having summited “the bastard”. Are some facts quietened in the name of this film’s particular poetry? I daresay.
I guess documentary-makers take large dollops of poetic licence along with their facts. We forgive them this.
Still, the arguably not-all-that-Western idea of a relationship is touched upon, of the mountain having a persona, perhaps one indifferent to humans. Understandable. They are immense while we are but specks. They are in the business of moving the earth – hell, they are the earth moving. We’ll be gone tomorrow, you and I. Before you go, though, see this.