February 21, 2004

Touching The Void

Very Cold Mountain

Touching The Void posterTouching The Void
starring: Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron; with narration by Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, and Richard Hawking. Directed by Kevin Macdonald; Produced by John Smithson. Director Of Photography: Mike Eley; Photography by Keith Partridge, Simon Wagen, Dan Shoring. Based on the book Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.
running time: 106 minutes
MPAA says: This film is not rated. There's a bit of profanity, which is only to be expected, given the circumstances.
Release date: February 20, 2004 (Austin, TX).
Seen at: Regal Arbor Cinema at Great Hills. Nice clean screens, if not large, and the theatre could almost pass for an "art house," with a good selection of non-blockbuster films. The restrooms have gigantic glass pumpkins full of liquid handsoap (apparently the staff doesn't want to have to change the soap... ever). The seats are plush red velvet, high backed, with armrests that can be raised and lowered and make very good foot rests, provided no one is sitting in front of you. Unfortunately, the pretty seats don't tilt, and after watching a movie from the third row, my neck was in knots.

I miss snow. But not this much.

Siula GrandeTouching the Void begins with an extreme closeup of a pickaxe and climbing apparatus being driven into an ice wall, focussed on the compression and cracking of the hazy ice. It echoes the moment, later in the film, when Joe Simpson, one of the narrators, strikes his axe against a wall and determines that it somehow doesn't sound quite right, just before he loses his grip on the face of a mountain and tumbles to the end of the rope tied to his climbing partner, Simon Yates, and shatters his right leg. The rest of the film is the story of Simon's brute-force effort to lower Joe, 300 feet at a time (the length of their combined ropes) down a 21,000-foot peak; Simon's eventual excruciating decision to cut Joe loose to save his own life; and the bizarre circumstances of Joe surviving a plummet into a crevasse and a long, slow crawl through a glaciated maze, through the tumble of fragmented tumuli beyond it, and his attempt to reach base camp before his companions leave.

Joe and Simon, fairly novice climbers, set out to wrestle the previously unclimbed west face of Siula Grande in the Andes, 21,000-feet in height, where the snow behaves in grostesquely un-Alpine fashion. It clings to sheer rock faces, ice walls, and razor-edged precipes in "meringues, mushrooms, and cornices." The narrator might be saying "moraines." But the froths of snow in Carvel-softcone swirls look like meringues, immense but fragile, as the high winds whip billowing patterns of snow into the air like smoky clouds.

Joe SimpsonWe know Joe survives his ordeal because the real-life Joe is present to narrate the story of the expedition. This is a documentary intercut with dramatic reenactments. Eventually the story drags the audience into the events, each moment informed by the narrator—a man self-aware of his foolishness, but also proud of his strength and determination.

Joe Simpson's great sense of understanding and forgiveness regarding Simon—what drew me to this film when I heard him in an interview on National Public Radio—do not come across as clearly in the film. There is also less of the sense that (again, from the interview) much of what drove Joe to drag himself for days without food or water across a barren mountainside, eventually losing a third his body weight through exertion and dehydration, was that he wanted to die with someone. Not survive—just not be alone in his final moments. The documentary makes it more the story of an alpha male driving himself toward survival, and therefore is less poignant. But it is a harrowing and fascinating story nonetheless, punctuated by dry humour and unpolished human perspective, without the hyper-dramatisation and emotional manipulation of a big-budget drama. And the scenery, of course, is breathtaking. As impressive as Joe's survival, is that the documentary filmmakers and the climbers (including Joe Simpson and Simon Yates occasionally portraying themselves) scaled mountains and crevasses and glaciers to present a sense of Siula Grande to the audience.

crevasseThese Alpha Males and their anti-Darwinistic behaviour fare quite a bit better than most of the participants in another under-prepared expedition, the 1996 climb of Mount Everest documented in Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The accident of a horribly broken leg and knee joint were compounded by a lack of supplies. Joe and Simon might have been able to travel more slowly and cautiously and might have avoided the accident, or they might have been able to descend more slowly and not have ended up separated, had the climbers brought a sufficient supply of gas to melt snow into water to rehydrate themselves. Low on supplies, then eventually without supplies at all, they rushed through their climb and, when circumstances turned dire, were forced into dangerous decisions.

To See or Not to See: For all its huge subjects—life, death, the survival instinct, obligation, guilt, the mountain—it's a small film that moves quickly and lightly over the depths, letting them speak for themselves. And that's a good thing. I suspect that the book, with presumably more of Joe's insight into his friendship with Simon and continued loyalty to him, may be the more compelling version of this story, but then you'd miss the vision of those billowing clouds above the mountain.

Just as when I went to see Everest at an IMAX theatre, the power of suggestion nearly did me in; I shivered all the way through. Bring a woolly hat and mittens.

Outside Food: I ate it all before I left home, and was underprepared for my ordeal.

Previews: I was underwhelmed.

Kill Bill Part 2: Uma Thurman talks in black&white to the camera. No one in the audience seemed interested, and this was in Austin, which is usually Tarantino-Town.

The Barbarian Invasions: A heartwarming celebration of our lives. Maybe I was exhausted from lack of outside food. The trailer had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Jim Carrey meets enigmatic chick (Kate Winslet) who changes her hair colour more frequently than my friends from the Risley artsy-crazy dorm days. Elijah Wood pops in and out of a spectacularly confusing trailer that appears to be about having one's memory selectively erased. I kept having flashbacks to Paycheck, which is a bad, bad thing.

The Day After Tomorrow: Sweeping snow-covered mountainous vistas, crevasses with icebound ships instead of climbers. Science fiction on one of my favourite topics: a post-apocalyptic world, the devastation brought on this time by a climate wildly out of control, plunging Earth into a sudden ice age. Opens on Memorial Day. From the director of Independence Day, which I thought was quite entertainingly funny. Of course, I also liked Timeline.

The Stepford Wives: Have your very own Nicole Kidman built to match your Lexus. Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, and a bunch of other powerhouse actors.

This movie seen through the kind contribution of a friend. Thank you.

Touching the Void photos copyright Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert & Brian Hall/FilmFour Ltd.

Posted by OutsideFood at February 21, 2004 11:59 PM

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