Jen­nifer Pee­dom’s Moun­tain

Se­bas­tian Smee on Jen­nifer Pee­dom’s Moun­tain

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Se­bas­tian Smee

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, semimed­i­calised 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 mat­terof-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 ice­cov­ered 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.

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