Friday 22 December 2017

Peak cinema: "Mountain"

The Australian documentarist Jennifer Peedom is shaping up to be a little like Leni Riefenstahl before she got into all that tricky Nazism business. Peedom first made an impression on UK screens back in December 2015 with her film Sherpa, a gripping account of the tensions mounting between climbers and guides on the slopes of Everest; she has returned this Christmas with a film that all but does away with human focal points, reducing those people who pass before its gaze to tiny specks moving up and down vast hillsides. Mountain aims to compose a stirring hymn to the world's great peaks, "wild and ungovernable", as our suitably craggy narrator Willem Dafoe phrases it, yet captured here in close-ups, angles and light a starlet would die for. That Peedom is going for something more impressionistic than the usual David Attenborough/NatGeo treatment is evident as early as an overture that keeps its cameras indoors to witness the Australian Chamber Orchestra, source of the film's music, warming up; if any BBC influence can be felt here, it comes from those poetic flights of fancy (From the Sea to the Land Beyond, Atomic) which sought to traverse a given theme or subject with music and reels of archive footage in their backpacks.

The thesis is that mountain-climbing is a relatively recent pursuit, and one we're still collectively figuring out: if the peaks have been there for aeons, it's only during the past few centuries - during the formation of our towns and cities - that mankind has been minded to wonder what, if anything, lay beyond the foothills and above the cloudline, and whether it, too, may be reclaimed, tamed, civilised or commodified. The archive thus roams from genteel Pathe-era newsreel, following those adventurous souls who first went in search of the sublime, to the kind of yowser GoPro footage now routinely uploaded to YouTube; Peedom's field of inquiry extends beyond the mountains themselves to how they've come to be documented over the years. One minute, we're setting out among those formally suited ambassadors of Empire responsible for bringing back the images that went to make up the likes of 1924's recently rediscovered The Epic of Everest; the next, we're tearing after Red Bull-swigging latter-day Mallorys, clad in Lowe Alpine, who throw themselves off cliffs clutching onto youthful memories of Warren Miller snowboarding videos.

Peedom's film has been far better produced and packaged than any of the latter: with the possible exception of Werner Herzog, no director currently working has thought longer or harder about how to capture the majesty of mountains. Yes, there are familiar elements in the mix: helicopter flyovers of iridescent, unspoilt snow, some Koyaanisqatsi-like timelapse photography. Yet Peedom gets breathtaking effects from redirecting those self-same helicopters to fly in low and flat, like a plane approaching a runway, so as to emphasise the unbelievable scale of her subjects, and point up the distance separating summit from terra firma. This restless close-up/faraway variation brings us face-to-face with gorgeous textures (cooling lava, snow and ice sheets shearing off), but equally allows Peedom to yank the ground away from beneath our feet, pulling back to show some eager-beaver daredevil straining to climb a sheer rockface with no visible ropes or safety net (no!, your inner health-and-safety inspector screams, stop it!), and then pulling back once again to highlight how isolated and vulnerable these explorers are, how close they are to wiping out.

Danger lurks in sequence after sequence: spellbinding footage of a tightrope walk between rocky outcrops, an event apparently witnessed by Peedom's crew and no-one else, more hectic inserts of BMXers and basejumpers leaping into the void with an enthusiasm wussy mortals like you and I would consider unthinkable. Peedom frames these activities within the context of a cautionary tale: that narration (penned by the director with the author Robert Macfarlane) comes to note the narcissism, hubris and idiocy that result in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, each year, and the commercialisation that now ensures that, at any given time, something like half the world's population seems to be scaling Everest. As Dafoe solemnly intones: "This isn't climbing; it's queuing." In most cases, however, the response to Peedom's imagery is one of awe - awe, coupled with vertigo-induced collywobbles, and a more generalised regret that a film as essentially inorganic as The Last Jedi should have chosen this week to monopolise the world's IMAX screens. Despite its slender 74-minute running time, this is, doubtless because it had to be, a properly big picture. Mountainous, even.

Mountain is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming online. 

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