July 2017

Arts & Letters

Sweeping us up

By Sebastian Smee
Jennifer Peedom’s ‘Mountain’ is a meditation on the allure of the climb

When Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom set out to make her acclaimed 2015 film Sherpa, she couldn’t have known that she’d be on the scene when a 14,000-tonne hunk of ice cleaved off the west shoulder of Mount Everest, triggering an avalanche that killed 16 people in one rumbling, calamitous blow. The dead were all Nepalese, mostly Sherpas who had risen early to set a route for fee-paying tourists. Peedom didn’t film it – it didn’t seem right – but she watched the grisly logistics of the rescue, the retrieval of corpses.

Peedom had been making, as she put it, “a film in a man’s world with a whole bunch of men”. But then she met the dead men’s widows, including one whose baby was born the night its father left to meet his death. And so Peedom wondered not only about the urge men feel to put their lives at risk for the sake of scaling summits but also about the cost they are willing to let others bear when things go wrong. “I try not to judge,” Peedom said in one interview. “It’s a complex thing.”

Those of us who don’t feel the need to scale towering peaks are tempted to deny that complexity. We patronise those who do, often by defaulting to the robotic, semi-medicalised language of addiction, or genetics, or testosterone levels. But when we speak of the allure of mountains we are not just talking about a “condition”; we are also talking about a whole order of human experience. And, as Robert Macfarlane showed in his 2003 book Mountains of the Mind, this order of experience has its own absorbing history. It has inspired – besides no end of scientific and spiritual questing and all kinds of euphoria – great monuments of art, music and literature.

Mountain (touring nationally, 3–20 August) is a collaboration between Peedom, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Macfarlane. It is an attempt not so much to explain that order of experience as to evoke it, prod it, turn it over in the mind. It does so with a series of extraordinary images set to music, and an intermittent voice-over written by Macfarlane and narrated by Willem Dafoe.

In some ways the script’s limpid declamatory style (“Mountains humble the human instant … They live in deep time in a way that we do not”) betrays the more artful blend of sweeping intellectual reach and subjective, adhesive, fine-grained detail in Macfarlane’s book. But Dafoe’s voice is deep and grounding, and the words help structure an experience that is otherwise intended to induce vertigo, to swirl around us, to sweep us up.

Mountain premiered last month at the Sydney Opera House with a live performance of its soundtrack by the ACO. A sequel, of sorts, to Reef (a 2012 collaboration between the ACO, director Mick Sowry and surfer Derek Hynd), it included eight short compositions by the ACO’s Richard Tognetti and selected works by Chopin, Grieg, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Peter Sculthorpe and Arvo Pärt. The choices, though popular, were not necessarily obvious. Quite often, in fact, what lifted the experience out of the realm of cliché was a charged gap between sound and image – a sense that what you were hearing was not just there to affirm and enhance the visuals, but to pry open cracks, suggest totally new vistas.

Tognetti’s brilliant performance of Pärt’s ‘Fratres (for Violin and Piano)’, for instance, with its skidding bow strokes, long pauses and haunted harmonics, could easily have been used to catch the drama of a dangerous rock climb. Instead, it accompanied a sequence of shots of volcanic lava rolling and bubbling out of the earth, and the beauty of the passage was both unexpected and befuddling.

Mountain begins with footage of climber Alex Honnold pinned against El Sendero Luminoso, a vast curtain of rock in Mexico. The accompanying music, focused and dramatic, was composed by Tognetti. Seen from a distance, Honnold’s pose suggests a crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald or another of those northern European connoisseurs of the body’s suffering and corruption. But in short order the camera takes us closer – so we can see what seems almost inexplicable: Honnold – could it be? Yes! He is grinning.

To see mountains up close is to begin to understand the spell they can cast. Venturing even tentatively into their force field makes it hard not to hold in awe those who, not content with proximity, seek conquest instead. I grew up in a family in love with mountains. But the love was steady, faithful, not ardent and consuming. My parents annually walked and skied all over the main range of the Snowy Mountains; they hiked in Norway, New Zealand, Nepal. Our house was filled with books about Everest and the Himalaya, by Francis Younghusband, Maurice Herzog, Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner. But these men’s adventures were there to be read about, not emulated. None of us was about to go ice climbing.

I am more indolent by nature, but to some degree I inherited my parents’ love. I travelled to Nepal as a teenager and finished reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard halfway through a ten-day trek in the Annapurna region. Still under the book’s spell I returned to Nepal in my 20s, but never rose above about 10,000 feet. I was content instead to linger in that humanly habitable zone, weaving my way meekly over and under the tree line, enfolded in morning mist, shaded by rhododendron, admiring at a safe distance the peaks of Machapuchare and Annapurna, both glittering in the cruel, magnifying air.

The real risk-takers fascinated and appalled me. I remember walking through the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel in Kathmandu, talking peaceably with a Sherpa, when suddenly he stopped and tugged at my arm. Walking across the lobby and heading straight towards us was Messner – the first man to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to climb all 14 peaks above 8000 metres. He greeted my companion warmly (it turned out they had been on an expedition together). After he walked away, and for the rest of our time together, the Sherpa glowed with pride.

The realisation that even this hardy old man of the mountains held Messner in awe boosted my boyish sense of the glamour of mountaineering. But in truth, I had no way of comprehending what it was that drove people like Messner to seek out such extremes. There were times up in the Annapurna Sanctuary when I could almost imagine the feeling. But it remained beyond my ken.

Macfarlane, in Mountains of the Mind, is good on the psychology of risk-taking. He writes from personal experience of wild landscape as “a testing ground – a stage on which the self can be best illuminated”. Life, he writes matter-of-factly, “is more intensely lived the closer one gets to its extinction”.

But he also registers a relatively new development: risks used to be taken with some purpose in mind. Now they are taken for their own sake. Is this just the modern mind being more honest about its true motivation? Or is it, so to speak, a slippery slope, a kind of egocentrism that leads inexorably to the commercialisation of mountain-love – to Everest, for instance, becoming (in Macfarlane’s memorable description) “a gargantuan, tawdry, frozen Taj Mahal, an elaborately frosted wedding-cake up and down which climbing companies annually yo-yo hundreds of under-experienced clients”?

The movie element of Mountain contains a spiky critique of the modern mountain obsession. There is sped-up footage of ski resorts at night, busy car parks, chairlifts, logging, detonations that deliberately trigger avalanches, and the hectic abstract patterns of tracks left by downhill skiers. The most damning footage shows figures forming a giant queue on the slope of Everest. They seem no different, in essence, from paying customers at a theme park.

“What curious performances we put on with the mountains as our theatre,” intones Dafoe as, to the strains of Vivaldi, we watch men using a mountain the way a litter of cartoon kittens might use the carcass of a vast whale: not just pawing ineffectually at it but climbing it, hurling themselves off it, skiing and biking down it, tightrope-walking between its jagged peaks.

“Our wish to be first induces in us forms of insanity – and forms of grace,” says the voice-over, as we admire the stunts of adventurers who are “half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion”.

Still, for all its surfeit of thrills and its tacit critique, Mountain is finally more interested in inducing an urge to meditate, to marvel, to hold in awe. The film is beautifully paced – a triumph of editing as much as cinematography. About two thirds of the footage was shot by Renan Ozturk, the high-altitude cinematographer who also worked with Peedom on Sherpa. Much of it is extraordinary.

One shot, coming near the end – as the adagio from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto winds down towards its surprise shift from B to B flat – shows a snow- and ice-covered rock face surrounded by ethereal cloud. The rock has the gritty, complex texture of the kind that Willem de Kooning might have made with a loaded brush and a twisting wrist, so it stands out against the cottonwool blur of the cloud.

De Kooning often compared the content in his work to a “slipping glimpse”. As I watched this hypnotic footage, the phrase – with its suggestion of slipping and falling, its implied awareness of life’s transience – took on new meaning.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.


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