Sunday 29 October 2017

Laws of gravity: "Base"

It's too perfect that Base should be distributed in the UK by Vertigo Films: this really isn't a movie for anybody who struggles with heights. The adventurous British writer-director Richard Parry made one of the better late-cycle found-footage features in 2012's A Night in the Woods, where a relationship could be observed falling apart in the course of a fraught Dartmoor camping trip; now he takes to the skies alongside representatives of the basejumping community, those daredevils who launch themselves off rocky outcrops and tall buildings while wearing airy jumpsuits they hope will catch a breeze and carry them horizontally, invariably filming themselves with GoPro cameras as they swoop and soar. The footage that has been sourced by Parry's performers - actual basejumpers, playing fictionalised versions of themselves - is rarely less than spectacular, repeatedly teetering (and obliging us to teeter) over the cliff edge. It's not just that they should seek to defy the laws of physics at every turn; they also choose to do so from the tops of sweeping hillsides in Switzerland and Rio de Janeiro, rather than, say, a clocktower on the outskirts of Nantwich. How this footage has been stitched together is another matter.

Early on, we see one jumper sitting behind a desk in an edit suite, and hear him musing in voiceover about the burden that comes with assembling the pieces of a life. The unexpected gravity perhaps derives from the fact Parry was doing something similar: leading man Alexander Polli died in a basejumping accident while the film was in post-production, a tragic development that appears to have pushed the project in a whole new direction. If the early thrill-seeking suggests we're in for eighty minutes of bronzed and toned bros sticking out their tongues and throwing up peace signs to camera, what follows is a markedly more sombre and self-reflexive exercise, centred on a man alone and indefinitely grounded in a South London flat, sifting through hours of footage and pages of Facebook tributes to his dead buddy, and trying to reconcile himself with his part in a loss of life. This gives Base some of the psychological shading that was already apparent in A Night in the Woods: when our troubled hero takes the express lift to the roof of a skyscraper overlooking the City, we're led to wonder whether he's planning one last leap into the unknown, and it seems a touch cruel he should head up in the company of his dead friend's gal (Julie Dray), a questioning presence who loved the deceased in spite of his compulsion.

Yet it also carries the film into curious territory, landing it somewhere between rigorous critique of impulsive masculinity and commercially-minded redemption journey: whatever internal conflict Parry had inside his own edit suite has seeped into the final cut, the Dray character's fluctuations, in particular, straining credulity. (Then again, these guys go with the wind.) At its best, Base gives us a real feel for both the highs and lows of what is, evidently, an extreme sport, yet the hybrid form - that element of non-fiction in the fiction - keeps raising questions that a straightahead documentary treatment might have been better placed to answer. How do these underemployed twenty- and thirtysomething gadabouts find the money to get them up a mountain in the first place? Is it just a rich kid's pursuit? (There's a gobbet of cod psychology in Parry's script: the Polli character mumbles about a banker father who threw himself out of a window after the markets tanked.) And - just from a ploddingly practical point-of-view - don't basejumpers have to hike back up these cliffs after landing, in order to retrieve those personal items they jettison before jumping into the void? I can understand not wanting to let the shadow of mortality creep across you - but wouldn't the looming knowledge of that chore dull the edges of any thrill?

Base is now playing in selected cinemas.

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