Six Damn Fine Degrees #79: Mountain movies that peak my interest

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

There is apparently no shortage of movies set on or around mountains, mountain climbers and peak-seeking adventures in recent years according to my initial IMDb search. Yet when Julie asked me to follow up on her lovely piece surrounding Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air from last week, I felt hard-pressed to find such movies that I had truly enjoyed (or let alone had seen). Wouldn’t the glorious scenery of mountain peaks, the thrill of the climb, the horror of the fall and the brave men and women surviving all of that lend themselves ideally to dozens of great screenplays?

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #78: Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer, 1997)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of life tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world. ~ Jose Ortega Gasset (Quoted in Into Thin Air)

By Randy Rackliff, from Into Thin Air*
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A tale of two movies

I like films that are cinematic, that show me images I wouldn’t see otherwise. I like directors who are audacious about their use of the camera and of editing. I like my movies not to look like TV fare. (I don’t like my TV fare to look like TV fare, for that matter.)

In spite of this, I very much like John Sayles’ movies. None of the ones I’ve seen so far are visually spectacular, although they’re definitely not drab. It’s more that Sayles clearly isn’t interested in David Lean-type filmmaking. As a matter of fact, his films don’t look like he’s trying to impress their audience. They seem, at first, unassuming little movies.

But, once you get into them, they pack a surprising punch. Much of this is down to the fact that they’re immensely political films, something not seen very often in American filmmaking. Certainly politics is often used as a backdrop for movies – how many thrillers or action movies get a kick out of putting the president in jeopardy? – but they’re not interested in politics, not really.

John Sayles

John Sayles’ films are, but they’re not of the finger-wagging, lecturing type. Clearly they’re mostly left-leaning in their politics – almost all of them are concerned with small communities being fundamentally changed by big business – but more than that, they don’t tell you what to think. They provide you with Sayles’ interpretation of facts, but you’re still the one who has to make up his or her mind.

Limbo, which we watched on Sunday, is a strange film. It starts very much like Sunshine State or Lone Star, depicting a small community undergoing changes, focusing on a small ensemble of characters… but about halfway into the movie, it turns into something else. There is a thriller element, just as there was to Lone Star, but what the second half of Limbo reminded me of more than anything else was Into the Wild (also see Roger Ebert’s comment on the movie). Sayles, whose focus on ensemble casts usually is almost as strong as Altman’s was, zooms in on the fate of three individuals in an exceptional situation. Yes, it ties in with earlier lines in the film about how Alaska is about to be turned into a themepark and how people want the illusion of danger – they want to feel at risk without actually being at risk -, turning these lines on their head, but in effect it feels like Sayles started making one film and decided half-way through that he’d rather make a very different film.

The net effect is strange but compelling. Ten minutes into the film, I thought I knew what to expect; one hour into the film I no longer knew where Sayles would take me, which was exciting and quite frightening. Anything, literally anything, could happen to these characters.


And then came the ending. Absolutely fitting. And it felt like a punch in the stomach. Not because it was horrible or tragic or nasty. Because it was consistent to what had been set up. But, again, not the kind of thing you do if you want to impress or please your audience. I read that there’d been catcalls when the film was shown at festivals, and I understand why. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the “lady-or-the-tiger” ending was the only proper way to end the film.

But if I ever meet John Sayles, I’ll kick him in the shin.


P.S.: John Sayles is one of the consistently best writers for women, especially for middle-aged women, in American filmmaking. He should write for the stage…

Where the wild things are

Sean Penn is clearly a very talented artist. He’s also annoying and self-righteous as hell, at least sometimes (and I’m saying this as someone who basically agrees with many of his opinions). So what happens if someone annoying and self-righteous makes a film about someone annoying and self-righteous?

In the case of In the Wild, what happens is that you get a beautiful, moving, disturbing and infuriating film.

The film clearly has admiration for the uncompromising cut Chris McCandless makes with his family and his past, and for the way McCandless – calling himself Alexander Supertramp (he doesn’t seem to be ironic about this) – goes out into the American wilderness to become himself. Penn’s movie, especially in its images, shares his protagonist’s awe at the beauty of the country and of nature, and so do we to some extent. Part of me definitely thought, “Yeah, man, I’ll get rid of all my belongings, get some survival gear and live like Grizzly Adams! Right on!” And I didn’t even need to be smoking pot to think it.

At the same time, McCandless (as portrayed in the film) can’t be described as anything else than a self-righteous, selfish adolescent. Clearly many of the societal conventions he abandons are also selfish in nature – do parents have any claim to their children’s lives? does a sister have a claim to her brother? But Chris makes people care about him and then he’s off. Being human, the film implies amidst the awe, also involves human contact, human responsibilities… and responsibilities seem to scare McCandless. It’s either that, or he’s cheerfully callous about waltzing into people’s lives and then waltzing out the moment they feel for him.

It is this ambivalence about the central character that makes Into the Wild more than just a beautiful film. Some critics have been rather negative about this: why feel awe for such a selfish jerk? Didn’t McCandless simply got what he deserved? Yes, he (the movie character – I don’t want to judge the real person on the basis of a movie) is selfish, and yes, he is a jerk. Yes, he’s a coward who doesn’t have the courage to forgive. Yes, he’s also an idealist and a dreamer, and his cowardice is also his courage. Strip the film of this central ambivalence, and you turn the movie into a simplistic cautionary tale: Don’t abandon your family and your cosy capitalist surroundings to go into the wild, because you’ll die of starvation in an old bus, only to be found by moose hunters two weeks later.

Personally, I prefer to feel both awed and infuriated. I prefer to be given enough space to make up my own mind. And space is something Penn’s film has in spades.

Into the Wild