24 Lies a Second: Defiance and Inevitability

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Defiance and Inevitability

One of this week's attempts at Bond counter-programming was The Alpinist, a documentary by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen – this is one of those films which is obscure to the point of not even having a Wikipedia page (a fairly arbitrary metric I admit), which perhaps indicates just how deep some cinemas are having to dig at the moment. Mortimer, who narrates the movie and occasionally pops up on screen, is described as a 'veteran filmmaker', although much of his CV comprises seven entries in the Reel Rock franchise and two First Ascent films.

Yes, we are back in the world of climbing, which is apparently experiencing something of a moment of coolness right now. I imagine that serious climbers, who are active, outdoorsy people, are not one of the demographics most likely to have a loyalty card from a major multiplex chain (or even community arts centre) and so most of the audience for climbing movies like this one is made up of somewhat sedentary types (yes, I put my hand up) looking for some vicarious vertigo.

Then again, either I am wrong or there are more of us than I would have thought, as the last climbing movie I saw, Free Solo, was playing to a packed house when I watched it. To say that The Alpinist is stuck in the shadow of Free Solo is an oversimplification, but it does have a definite sense of…

Well, you know, I get the feeling there's a sense of one-upmanship between serious climbers (the new film touches on a 'speed record' rivalry between two of them) and in a similar way, rather than stick with familiar territory, Mortimer and his team seem to have been motivated by a desire to find a new and unusual subject, obscure even within the climbing world.

They settled on a French-Canadian climber named Marc-Andre Leclerc, who – when they first came across him – was completing startling ascents with a minimum of publicity or social media attention. The film documents their initial meetings with Leclerc and his formative climbing years in the Canadian town of Squamish, touches on Leclerc's history, and then gets down to what the audience is really here for, footage of Leclerc dangling above a terminally long drop, held there only by one and a half fingernails and what resembles an obscure cooking utensil. There's a not entirely pleasant sensation that appears at these points and gasps are common in the auditorium.

Then again, this is what Alpine climbing is all about – climbing with a minimum of support, a minimum of people and a minimum of fuss. It is, to the average person, an insanely dangerous hobby – but as Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest solo, points out, the threat of death is an essential part of the climbing experience. The film dwells on this at some length, which eventually turns out to be significant.

Even Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, and a man whose brain does not feel fear in the same way as (most likely) yours or mine, pops up and says that some of what Leclerc is doing is 'crazy'. The film does an excellent job of indicating the differences between Honnold and Leclerc – Honnold seems competitive, driven, hyper-focused, while Leclerc comes across as a more laid-back, almost Candide-like figure – albeit one with a past including a heroic intake of mind-altering drugs.

Documentary films these days often seem to go off on odd tangents and this one has its moment when the film crew discover that the subject of their film is a man who isn't all that keen on actually being filmed – for Leclerc, climbing solo means just that, and having a camera crew around spoils the purity of the moment for him. He keeps clearing off to the other side of the world to climb up something without telling Mortimer where he's gone; at one point there's a scene consisting of the slightly exasperated film crew pointing the camera at Mortimer's phone, through which the star of their project has finally decided to get in touch with them.

It's a funny interlude, which is followed by Leclerc's attempt to climb Torre Egger in Patagonia in winter (Mortimer and his team are not allowed to accompany him, but another climber is permitted to film part of the attempt). More epic scenery and defiance of death ensues.

But then, however, what has been a competent and occasionally slightly oddball documentary takes a very different turn, and whether this counts as a spoiler or not I don't know. Technically, in standard movie terms, it certainly does; realistically, probably not. Anyway, spoilers, if spoilers they be, coming up.

The film has stressed the extreme danger of free solo climbing, and run the roll call of people whose attempts to find the limits of climbing possibility extracted the heaviest price from them. What happened while the film was in its initial period of post-production was that Marc-Andre Leclerc joined their number.

Documentaries about living subjects are fairly common; so are retrospectives looking back on the life of someone who has passed on. The defining feature of The Alpinist is that Mortimer started off making the former, only to find himself, fairly late in the process, doing the latter instead. The results are very odd – the film does nothing to tip the uninitiated off about how events are going to unfold; it has no eulogistic, retrospective quality to it for the majority of its running time. Footage of Leclerc's memorial gathering and poignant contributions from his girlfriend both appear, but it's almost like they've been added to the end of a pre-existing film


Perhaps this is intentional, because I presume it does do something to replicate the sense of shock that all involved must have felt at the time that the grim news came in (having done some of my pre-film research I sort of suspected how it was going to turn out). Or perhaps the film-makers simply couldn't go back and rework the movie in the light of what had happened. Either way there's still something very odd about the change in tone that occurs in the final section of the film.

This is a technically accomplished movie with some incredible imagery, both of the landscape and of the people setting themselves against it; not quite as focused or successful as Free Solo, but still impressive. However, what will stay with me is not any of those things, but the jarring reminder of what is at stake, which the film puts across in the most immediate and visceral way. Most of the film is beautiful and philosophical; the end of it is raw and unsteady. The transition between the two happens off-screen, of course, but in a very real sense it is what this film is about. I'm not sure how accomplished as a movie The Alpinist ends up as a result, but it is certainly a powerful and memorable film.

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