All of you unashamed aestheticists who have not seen the documentary film Mountain yet, get off your arses and do so before it disappears from the big screens completely. If you don’t give a rat’s arse about beauty but like a bit of awe and adventure, then this is a film that you must see. On the other hand, if you are not all that fussed about beauty or adventure but like to think about stuff then, again, “Mountain” might be right up your alley. If you are one of the rare people who is turned on by all these things, then you have hit the jackpot with this documentary.
At various stages during “Mountain” the camera dreamily drifts over impossibly beautiful scenery for minute after and minute and you become so entranced with the mountain settings and the extraordinary cinematography that you wish the film-maker would not move away from the theme that mountains are so wondrous that they seem alive all by themselves. You know, from previews, that the film features amazing interaction between humans and the natural world, but you wish that the film-maker would not be so crass as to bring people into the picture.
Aesthetics versus human achievement
Moments later your senses are bombarded with scenes of athletes doing things that you wouldn’t believe that people who don’t wear red and blue tights with a big “S” embroidered on the chest could possibly do. Instead of wishing the focus would be turned back to the beautiful mountains you find yourself unable to control the urge to mutter “nooooo” or “faaaark” or “oh God” under your breath. You discover that you have shimmied forward to the edge of your seat and you are on the verge of falling onto the floor!
While the extreme skill and unbelievable daring of the mountain-loving athletes featured in the documentary are awe inspiring enough, it is not the guts and technical ability that took this little black duck’s breath away most. The thing about the adventurers for me was the endurance that they demonstrated. In one scene a lone climber is half way up a vertical face and the extreme effort has taken him hours. In tears, his head slumps forward onto the cliff face and he is heard to mutter, “I just want to go home!” or something similar. Clearly, the climber has hours to go before reaching the top… and then must worry about a similar number of hours and effort to get all the way back down. The physical exertion, need for total concentration and exhausting terror is unrelenting. In scene after scene, seemingly impossible and unendurable feats are survived. Crash tackling an airliner at take off speed, playing footy with a herd of bison or arm-wrestling with a combine harvester seem equally plausible.
A humanistic perspective
The film, through juxtaposing gorgeous mountain scenery with demonstrations of what humans can achieve in such extraordinary scenery, performs an unusual feat in filmmaking in that it shows that seemingly opposed naturalistic and humanistic perspectives can not only co-exist in a film but that the two perspectives can enhance each other to create a more thrilling whole. While initially the viewer might form a view that nothing can top the natural beauty of mountains, by the end of the film, the viewer walks away believing that humanity, in some senses, can enhance the beauty of mountains.
While “Mountain” promotes wonderment at the achievements of many mountain adventurers it does not shy away from scoffing at the way humans are also capable of enormous crassness when it comes to the natural environment. Scenes of dozens of climbers forming a queue to “conquer” Mt Everest and hundreds of skiers skiing down a man-made trail on a resort mountain stripped of its timber to create a human-friendly environment make viewers wince.
I am a big fan of Willem Defoe. Willem is the film’s narrator. Don’t worry. He doesn’t rabbit on about the human stars of the film. The people featured do not even get a mention. They are just used to highlight the wonder of the mountains and how the mountains can enhance the lives of humans. Willem’s philosophical ramblings are superimposed over a gorgeous musical score performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Mountains inspire human greatness
Despite long periods of ill-health throughout his life, nineteenth century European philosopher Nietzche worked hard to achieve wellness. Niezche’s mental and physical health plan centred around the mountains. Without his passion and determination to explore, climb, walk and rest in mountains, Nietzche would have been unlikely to have survived for as long as he did… and, quite probably been unable to create the philosophical writing that he managed. Much of Nietzche’s philosophy, that very little is achieved without extraordinary effort and determination, is reflected in the film “Mountain”. With every stunning mountain scene and extraordinary act from the human players on the screen I can imagine Friedrich Nietzche sitting in a cinema somewhere watching the film and nodding and muttering to himself, “yeah… that’s what I’m talking about!”
There is an odd ironical twist to being in an audience watching “Mountain.” For me, anyway, it is almost impossible to not think to myself, as the program unfolds, that I should not be watching this stuff in a cinema, but I should be there doing it myself. The film seems to me to argue, in an unspoken way, that to be merely an observer or, even worse, an exploiter of mountains is to neglect a human being’s obligation to him or herself to live! Yet, here we all are, sitting in a cinema, observing rather than participating. It’s a weird feeling to be enjoying something while feeling shame. There is also a sense that the enjoyment would be so much more if I was actually doing it instead of seeing it!
Mountains don’t seek our love
The dialog at the end of the movie may seem like crass cliché, but like a lot of crass clichés there is enough truth there that the sentiment is appreciated. I don’t remember the exact words, but it went something like this.
“Mountains don’t seek our love… or our approval… or our death! They don’t really give a rat’s arse about us at all. They want nothing of us! But they do shift the way that we see ourselves, they weather our spirits, they challenge our arrogance and they restore our wonder. In a sense, we need their aliveness!”