MailAll great films, regardless of genre, have a story to tell. These stories are deliberate from the get go, whether they are in the form of dialogue, action, symbolism, perceived, or imagined. Documentaries are no exception. Robert McKee, the guru of cinematic storytelling, writes that, "The archetypical story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities." Unfortunately for the REEL ROCK Film Tour's landmark 10th anniversary, the film falls short, especially compared to last year's REEL ROCK 9, Valley Uprising: Yosemite's Rock Climbing Revolution.
This year's REEL ROCK production is made up of five segments, three of which feature overlapping players, mainly Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. Both are exemplary climbing machines, at the top of their game, and on top of the world, literally and figuratively, but their stories fall flat on the big screen. Perhaps they are a bit too self-confident, which makes their formidable climbs seem boring. In the first segment, Caldwell and Honnold take on Mount Fitz Roy, a jagged range that jettisons straight up from the earth. Mount Fitz Roy's silhouette cuts through the open sky in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on the border between Argentina and Chile. The range remains among the most technically challenging mountains on earth, and as Caldwell and Honnold show viewers, the views are spectacular. The conversations between the two climbers are banal and the use of words like "retarded" are cringe-worthy, as is the overused term "traverse." Viewers may want to offset the irritation of the excessive use of the word by making a drinking game out of its overuse. The range holds special meaning for Caldwell, who named his toddler son, "Fitz" after the peak. As Caldwell has become a family man, he often talks about the dilemma that risk-taking poses for him as a climber and father, saying that, "Risk is selfish," but then again, risk is what defines climbers of his ilk. As Caldwell journals platitudes about courage and pearls of wisdom about risk and dreams for his son, it may seem to viewers that Caldwell's real audience is the camera and not Fitz.
If there are two compelling reasons to see REEL ROCK 10, they are the second and third segments. The second segment is an homage to Dean Potter, a visionary and legend in the climbing and freebasing world. He pioneered the creation of "freebase," a hybrid extreme sport that combined rock climbing without ropes and skydiving. Potter, along with another climber, died in May 2015 in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite National Park. The tribute is beautifully presented, it opens with wide shot of Potter standing still, observing a corvid interact with the world. The short segment gives viewers a glimpse of that something that made Potter so special, his love for, and desire to be, free.
The third segment is also compelling because, unlike the first segment, it tells the story of overcoming fears and limitations. The segment introduces a little of the history of "highball" boulder climbing, essentially free climbing giant boulders (round or odd shaped as opposed to straight, vertical walls) without the use of aids. The risk of falling is high, and the higher the climb up a boulder, the harder the fall. Highballers use pads to break their falls, but even then the falls can be deadly. The segment is compelling because it focuses on Daniel Woods, a long and lean climber whose physical strength is limited only by his mind. Woods is unable to hide his vulnerability; he is as honest with himself as he is with viewers. This makes his triumph resonate with his friends and viewers.
The fourth segment is about the Horseshoe Hell climbing competition, the Burning Man of climbing. The 24-hour endurance rock climbing competition brings teams of climbers to the sandstone cliff walls of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, AR. The segment is fun to watch and presents a curious look at Alex Hunnold. Last year the Press interviewed Hunnold for the Valley Uprising: Yosemite's Rock Climbing Revolution review, and he was not only smart and charming, but also gave a sublime reason for why he climbs, he said, "The joy of movement, running in an open space, the pleasure of it, that is the heart of climbing. Combined with the aesthetics of Yosemite, one of the most beautiful places in the world, it is rewarding. It drives you to push yourself." The Hunnold seen in this fourth segment is very different, his over-confidence borders on arrogance. Hunnold seems jaded, but there is no doubt that he is still the best in the world.
The fifth and final segment once again features Caldwell, this time as he and Kevin Jorgeson make history with their 19-day ascent up Yosemite's Dawn Wall in January of this year. Jorgeson's story and experience of the climb is compelling. REEL ROCK 10 positions this segment as a cliffhanger (pun intended) for the upcoming film about the historic climb. Perhaps REEL ROCK 11 will find its footing once again and reach the cinematic summit.
REEL ROCK shows on Thursday, Oct 8 at 5:30 & 8 p.m. at Bear Tooth.