Soundtracking the thrill of the climb in Jennifer Peedom’s ‘Mountain’

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

With “Mountain,” director Jennifer Peedom has done for the mountaineering film what Marks & Spencer’s did for food advertisements years ago: taken the concept and beautified it to such an extent that it provokes a visceral response. Salivating over the movie’s visual perfection is the only appropriate reaction.

That being said, the film is not just about the visuals. The brainchild of Richard Tognetti, the artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), “Mountain” is as much an ode to classical music as it is to the peaks themselves, so much so that the opening frames are not of a Himalayan vista but of the orchestra gently tuning their instruments to concert A, bows at the ready.

“The ACO approached me to make this film,” says Peedom. “I had just finished my feature-length film ‘Sherpa’ (2015) and was offered this creative opportunity. It was a chance to make a film in a completely different way, without the traditional tools of storytelling: characters and dialogue.”

As the orchestra strikes its opening notes, the viewer is transported from the concert hall to the limestone cliffs of El Potrero Chico, Mexico, where free climber Alex Honnold smears the wall, unroped, staring directly upward at the camera. Below, the cliff drops a hundred meters or more, to a dense canopy of forest. It is a vertiginous shot, one that will turn the stomachs of the acrophobic. Honnold is there, but the mountain is the star.

It is a common theme in the film. By design, everything “Mountain” does seeks to minimize the presence and significance of the human in relation to both mountain and music. People are not the subject of the film, the mountain and the music are.

Consider this: Throughout the film, almost the only words we hear spoken by the film’s human subjects are from mountaineer Jonathan Griffith. Clinging to the face of the mountain as loose flurries of spindrift fall on him from above, he leans into the mountain and cries, high-pitched, wretchedly, “Oh God, take me home.” It is a harrowing moment, made better for its setting to a low-energy moment in the “Allegro non molto” movement of “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

“It was predetermined from the outset when we were making this musical film,” says Peedom on the lack of dialogue. “If I were making a traditional documentary about the nature of our fascination with mountains, you’d have interviews and people talking. But we couldn’t do that in this movie. It had to be a visual piece and a musical piece.”

Instead, tying the film together are the baritone narrations of Willem Dafoe, who reads from a script composed by veteran travel writer and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane in collaboration with Peedom.

“It took me a long time to decide who to ask (to narrate),” says Peedom. “There was something about the words that meant they needed a voice to ground them. I didn’t want them to feel too esoteric. It had to be someone whose voice would hold up to the ACO but also be someone you would believe could exist in that environment.”

Without a doubt, “Mountain” is one of the most impressive collections of mountaineering cinema ever assembled. It is a compendium of footage shot by Peedom with cinematographer Renan Ozturk, and that of Canadian production house Sherpas Cinema, who offered their extensive libraries to Peedom and Ozturk. The location list is equally extensive, from the powdery slopes of Niseko in Hokkaido to Antarctica, Pakistan and Tibet.

And when it comes to the athletes featured in the film, the credits read as a who’s who of the mountaineering world: Alex Honnold, John Jackson, Scotty Lago, Mark Landvik, Travis Rice, Candide Thovex, Danny MacAskill. Even Jeb Corliss appears for one hair-raising wingsuiting scene.

But “Mountain” is not all triumph. As well as Griffith’s moment against the cliff, much of the film’s focus is on the dangerous power of the peaks.

“At one point I realized we needed more suffering,” says Peedom. “But footage of suffering is really hard to come by. When it’s snowy and windy and cold and you’re in a storm, all you want to do is save yourself and get inside a tent. To pull out a camera in the midst of that is a really difficult thing to do as you risk losing fingers.”

The film also offers critique of mountaineering tourism of the kind that has developed around “bucket list” peaks such as Mount Everest, perhaps not surprising considering Peedom’s prior focus on the challenges that face the Sherpa community there.

“This isn’t climbing any more,” Dafoe reads, while scenes of climbers making their way in lines through the Khumbu Icefall. “It’s queuing. This isn’t exploration, it’s crowd control. This is the modern industry of ascent. Where the risks are taken the most by those who have least.”

This multifaceted approach helps fully realize the power of mountains, demonstrating a vision not only of what draws us to them, but the very real risks that accompany time in those orogenic zones.

“They want nothing from us,” offers Dafoe in his closing monologue, “and yet, they shift the way we see ourselves. They weather our spirits, challenge our arrogance, restore our wonder. More than ever, we need their wildness.” And so, “Mountain” offers tribute to nature’s giants.

“Mountain” (Japan title: “Crazy for Mountain”) opens at Shinjuku Musashinokan and Cine Quinto in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on July 21. It opens at Cine Libre Umeda in Osaka and Kyoto Cinema on Aug. 11, and is scheduled to open later on in the year at select cinemas across the country. For more information, visit crazy4mountain.com.