Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sheer Cliff

Movies: Free Solo

Free Solo is an undeniably excellent documentary in part because of how polarizing it can be to the audience.

The film follows Alex Honnold, a rock climber know for his incredibly difficult (and mind-blowingly dangerous) feats of free solo climbing, which is basically rock climbing but without ropes. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin--the latter of whom has spent ten years filming Honnold climb--follow Honnold as he prepares a free solo climb never accomplished before: climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Though other climbers have scaled El Cap, no one has attempted to free solo it. Probably because it is a nearly impossible feat and, of course, one wrong move will have the climber plunging to their death.

This narrative crux is what makes Free Solo both exhilarating and upsetting. Free solo climbers die doing what they love often and the filmmakers don't know whether they'll capture a gambit so daring, so bananas, that it will go down in the annals of history...or just a really classy snuff film. They also don't know if by agreeing to film Honnold's climb they will inadvertently push him to take risks he would not normally take, thus taking on some responsibility if he were to die.

Honnold himself is an incredibly polarizing figure. He mentions that previous girlfriends have suggested that he has a personality disorder and, well, yeah, it kind of feels that way at times. The camera cuts away during a scene where he fills out a medical form that asks if he is depressed, but according to this article, Honnold answers that question in the affirmative during a podcast. Likewise, an MRI reveals that Honnold's amygdala, the fear center of the brain, has very low activity--meaning that it takes a lot to get his fear response to work.

Viewers are treated to cringe-inducing scenes of Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who seem poorly matched by my (limited) view. Honnold tells her multiple times that he would never put her worries before his own desire to climb. When a fellow free solo climber Ueli Steck falls to his death during the period when Free Solo was being filmed, McCandless recounts bringing up Steck's wife to Honnold and Honnold saying "well, what did she expect?" And fair enough, it's McCandless's choice to remain in a relationship with Honnold, but putting aside the fact that he could basically die at any time--in fact, is likely to die given what his career is--Honnold comes off a a low-level sociopath. Or maybe that's too strong. He comes off as flat, single-minded, uncaring of other people generally, and unaffectionate. What a prize.

But the awkward scenes between Honnold and McCandless only add to the depth and nuance of Free Solo. It's interesting to see a man who basically doesn't care if he dies be held up as an athletic hero and it's hard to decide what you personally feel as a viewer of this film--should dare devils like Honnold be held up as heroes, exemplars, and examples of the power of (indescribably) hard work? Or should the be allowed to do what they do but not celebrated, considering how dangerous their passion is?

The film itself is absolutely thrilling--watching Honnold explain the intricacies of a particularly challenging section of El Cap that involves holding yourself to the rock using half your thumb and a toe while you karate kick to a slightly better foothold is dizzying. And then he fucking does it. Without rope. It goes from dizzying to vaguely nauseating.

The article I linked to above, which is from a climbing magazine, does a better job at explaining the mixed emotions one might feel about Free Solo--especially if one is a rock climber (I am not) and truly understands how insanely dangerous free soloing is. The author wonders if others will be inspired to take up free soloing after seeing the film--the implication being that the movie could directly lead people to, well, die. On the one hand, adults should feel free to pursue dangerous hobbies as long as no one else gets hurt. On the other hand, if Honnold were expounding the joys of auto-erotic asphyxiation, would we see him as a hero, or as someone in need of help and mental health services? How close to tempting death can a person get before they move from daring to suicidal?

Grade: A-

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