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Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Chin’

I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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