This mountain is certainly high, but not very deep
Directed by Jennifer Peedom
Every Memorial Day weekend since 1979, the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival has regaled viewers with a selection of nonfiction stories about sporting, environmental, cultural, political and social justice issues surrounding our planet’s high-altitude climates. The best short documentaries from each year’s fest are taken on a road tour, introducing audiences around the world to mountains and mountain culture.
Now comes a feature film—wholly unrelated to Telluride—that boils the festival’s nearly 40-year history down to a simple 74-minute experience for your eyeballs. Needless to say, the brief running time precludes much in the way of details and subtleties. In fact, Australian writer-director Jennifer Peedom’s rather bluntly titled Mountain could have easily expanded its title to Mountains: What Are They, and Why Are They So Popular?
Peedom’s simplistic yet beautiful-to-behold film is a 1:1 mixture of high-altitude sports documentary and context-free Koyaanisqatsi-style imagery and music. While high-
Adding to the solemnity of it all, Willem Dafoe narrates Peedom’s film like the world’s most self-serious car commercial. “The mountains we climb are not just make of rock and ice,” he intones, “but dreams and desires.” Unwilling to let that bon mot rest, he adds, “The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind.” Dude, that’s heavy. Like medical marijuana heavy.
Dafoe’s vague narration—much of it evidently culled from British writer Robert Macfarlane’s 2003 book Mountain of the Mind—offers nothing in the way of facts or statistics, re: mountains. Instead, he drones soothingly and poetically on about the film’s central speculation: that mountains were once sacred places, homes to unknown gods and monsters. And now, modern man has replaced “mystery with mastery.” In the form—one is forced to assume—of rock climbing, PowerBars and unwashed ponytails.
Dafoe’s interjections are woven amid images of men (and the occasional woman) “mastering” these rocky upthrusts of once-divine geography. The film’s opening shot, for example, depicts Alex Honnold free climbing (no ropes, no anchors, no safety gear) up the sheer rock cliff of Yosemite’s El Capitan, the ground a distant, vertiginous memory below his dangling feet. It’s breathtaking, all right.
The film’s arresting cinematography comes courtesy of famed German mountaineer and photographer Renan Ozturk (subject of the infinitely more gripping mountain-based documentary Meru). Images drift between Ansel Adams-worthy black-and-white, stark color and a smidgeon of archival footage (pioneering mountaineers, old school ski patrols, mid-century modern gondola rides).
“Our need for mountains runs deep and wide,” insists the film’s narration. It does? Why exactly? Because mountains are “wild and ungovernable” and we can climb up them or ski down them, evidently. And yet the film’s central premise borders on the culturally clueless. Peedom’s thesis seems to be that ancient man used to reside in the mountains but moved away from these harsh, dangerous (yet highly spiritual) environments, forsaking the holy and the transcendent. Now, man has returned, ice axes and REI outerwear in tow, to conquer them. Of course, this view really only applies to a small group of rich, mostly white men who have insisted on trekking up dangerous mountain peaks and planting little flags since at least the days of Sir Edmund Hillary.
This narrative more or less ignores the fact that plenty of people around the globe—from the Andes to the Alps to the Himalayas—still make mountains their home. Despite shots of meditating Buddhist priests and fluttering prayer flags, Mountain ignores these locals, concentrating, again, on all those white people and their Gore-Tex backpacks. In its flashback footage, for example, no mention is made of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali Sherpa guide who basically schlepped Hillary and his gear up to the summit of Mount Everest.
Then again, Mountain never mentions Hillary by name either. In fact, the makers of Mountain didn’t actually talk to anyone captured on camera. As a result, the film never even gets into the psychology or the motivation behind modern-day mountain sports. Instead, we get lots of wordless, symphony-enhanced shots of mountain peaks shrouded in icy mist, time-lapse images of snow drifts swirling off rocky cliffs and a few pictures of some pretty cool goats.
It could be successfully argued that Mountain isn’t about facts; it’s about feelings. What with all the awe-inspiring images and stirring orchestrations, Mountain will definitely make you feel small and frigid and acrophobic in the best ways possible—especially if you see it on a giant movie screen. Expect more than Alpine eye candy and Thoreau-style poetry, however, and you’ll be numbed to pretty pictures of rocks and snow in no time.