By Elias Savada.
The word “breathtaking” doesn’t do justice to Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain. It’s so far beyond that. The manner of the imposing photography, which often suggests someone climbing upside down, is just one of the remarkable things about this emotionally driven exploration of the majesty of rock. What makes this film tick are unidentified peaks – footage was shot on all seven continents – that offer awe-inspiring views, accompanied by equally forceful words and music. The meagre 1,300 words spoken by Willem Dafoe are from British writer Robert Macfarlane’s award-winning 2003 tome Mountains of the Mind, while the music, performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, moves you to merely watch and enjoy.
With the camera pulled way back, climbers above the clouds are mere ants on earth’s vast rock formations. The incredible photography by climber-cinematographer Renan Ozturk just begs you to sit back and absorb the cinematic orgasm that is Mountain. Whether observing the beautiful colors or occasional stark black-and-white imagery, this film is a religious experience more than a mere documentary. The ever-moving camera captures breath-taking landscapes, occasionally dropped to closeups of Sherpas and monks.
There’s even some old silent monochromatic cinema verité footage culled from decades-old weathered films, refashioned with a lovely ebb and flow, particularly surrounding the vanquishing of Mount Everest, the only actual location identified in the narration.
Captured in slow-motion, time-lapse, and other speeds, from unearthly angles that defy your viewing logic and gravity, this is a potpourri of the bone-chilling experiences these men and women endure for a rush of adrenaline that those of us (who like to remain earthbound) will never understand. Occasionally taking a musical break from the selections of the orchestra conducted by composer Richard Tognetti, the sound shuffles down to the clank of a crampon, the thrust of a ice axe, and the wind-blown snow offering their own simple symphony.
Some of the folks shown in the film are apparently just crazy. Who climbs a mountain in shorts and sandals? Granted, there’s no snow, but I’m still shaking my head at this lunatic image of life along a precipice. I’m going to say that the adventurers in this film have a world-centric view way different from most of us comfortably watching their mountain goat antics from out multiplex lounge chairs.
Faces are frozen, bones are broken, and appendages bloodied against the unspeakable beauty of being at the top of the world “sharpening our sense of being, setting life on a knife edge.” This exhilarating madness is extreme stuff, as skis and snowboards reach higher into the heavens, because “to certain people, the call to adventure is irresistible.”
While the conquest of any of the peaks in this film provides a fitting example of the human spirit, there’s also the excitement that riding down these rocky beasts can provide, and a half-hour in, you’ll see the daredevils take flight in a seemingly doomsday scenario that captures a speck of a human being skiing at impossible angles and pushing forward at dizzying speeds. Later, a horde of humanity is racing down a mountain in multi-colored attire, kicking up snow as the sun pops over the horizon. It’s an incredible flow that, watched from above, harkens back to the inventive dance choreography of Busby Berkeley 80-plus years ago.
One of the greatest shots shows a person seemingly walking on air, on a tightrope strung between red-colored elevations in the Painted Desert. The light-fingered twinkle of a piano accompanies this death-defying feat, as a drone circles about the wire walker, a speck of humanity against a beautiful blue sky.
These modern-day Evel Knievels are driven by a need to excel in the extreme. The sights are often disturbing…and fascinating. What is that idiot doing at the top of a sheer cliff? With a bicycle? He’s but one of more than a few billy goats out there who can add the ability of flight to their resumes.
Formations of stone, ice, snow, water, lava (this segment being particularly timely with the Kilauea Volcano eruptions on Hawaii’s Big Island), and other earthly delights flow about this film with a poetic blast that begs to be witnessed on the big screen. The biggest one you can find.
Like Cornell University’s alma mater, the world’s scenic splendor is reared beneath the arch of heaven. Packed into an exhilarating 73 minutes, Mountain is a transcendent, wondrous ode to the majestic heights our planet offers.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).