Banff 2012: the death of the spectacular

I have in my possession an unpublished essay by Arne Naess entitled “The Spectacular- An Enemy?”  According to Bill Devall, he wrote it in the mid-80s after visiting Canyonlands National Park for the first time.  At the moment that binder is buried in a box under boxes down in the garage, so I cannot quote it directly, but memory recalls that Naess’ argument is that the spectacular and spectacularly unsubtle landscapes of the American West will evoke a sort of scenic elitism.  Among other things, such a view will lead to only the most visually obvious wild places being revered and protected.  This has de-facto been the case anyway, as by the time the National Park service was up and running, and certainly by the time the Wilderness Act came into being, most of the wild places left unspoiled were spectacular by default.  Spectacular places tend to have little value for industry, and as one example it has only been in more recent decades that we in America have seen Wilderness areas designated in less rugged, lower altitude places which might be valued by (for instance) the timber industry.

Naess’ argument is more relevant than ever in the age of digital HD.  The latest iteration of the Banff World Tour which came to town this week demonstrates that more clearly than ever.  As I’ve said in previous years, the task of contemporary adventure film makers is to go beyond visual pornography, to identify and then expound upon a narrative thesis.  It is too easy to get good cameras and software and rely solely on the wow-factor of time lapses, slow-mo, and synthetic saturation to lull an audience into remaining stationary.  Mountain in Motion was an especially boring and awful example, as was Petzl RocTrip China.  Both are among the worst films I’ve seen in five years of attending the Banff World Tour.

Thankfully, this year we also saw one of the best I’ve seen at Banff.

In Honnold 3.0, the Lowells and Peter Mortimer could have been forgiven for focusing only on the climbing.  Yosemite is after all the very definition of the spectacular, and the Owens River valley is up there as well.  To their credit, the stunning visuals and jam dropping boldness are held in reserve, and Honnold’s sardonic personality and the mental side of what he does is put front and center.  My own free soloing is well in the past, but my memories of on-sighting hundreds of feet off the deck in Eldo or the Red are burned into my mind.  This film gives a faithful, non-reductive portrait of the mental and emotional dimensions of free soloing, which is a formidable achievement.

Why were Big Up and Sender able to do this?  A large part of the answer is no doubt that they’ve been doing climbing films long enough and well enough to get over themselves and the awesome raw material they have at their disposal.  Big Up invented the bouldering film and pioneered many of the technical aspects of climbing films now taken for granted, and I still recall the scrappy, soulful Scary Faces, which focused on everyman climbers in Boulder and launched Mortimer’s career.  Being climbers themselves, and experienced enough to look beyond the visually spectacular to the subjectively spectacular, the makers made Honnold 3.0 an impressively well-rounded work.  Quite frankly, it saved the evening.

Banff will, in the years to come, begin to struggle for relevance. The market for visual porn will always exist, especially in the adventure community, but I do not think I was the only person that evening bored more often than was appropriate given the setting and ticket prices. The other issue is of course that with Youtube and Vimeo the need for festivals will continue to decrease, unless the bar (for entry) is raised. It is time to demand more thought outside the editing room.

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7 thoughts on “Banff 2012: the death of the spectacular

  1. it’s late and i’m fading fast, so take from this rambling what you will, if it even makes sense. my first question though is this – do you think the banff tour is less inspiring now than it was 5 years ago when you first attended? or is it simply that you are harder to impress, the more experienced you’ve become in your own adventures? i guess i ask because there are only so many variations on the same theme in this genre. and while it may be getting old and boring to you, my guess is there are lots of people who haven’t seen these same types of films played year after year. are you growing out of it? is there a chance others are growing into it?

    also, i think part of what you are seeing, at least in my experience, is people who are now able to easily carry their own gear into the backcountry, and tell their own stories in film. in one sense, this is an amazing advance, because no longer are huge film crews required to shoot the thing, nor do you need big funding. but on the other, telling a story is that is compelling (not only visually) is extremely tough to do, and just because you are doing unique adventures doesn’t mean you will have a unique or powerful film. so i think you are seeing a lot of films at banff and the like that are great stories, that just aren’t told well.

    that is certainly how i felt putting together my first film this year, which screened at banff and is on the world tour. i was a one man band – and i only had one goal really; that was to give a glimpse into our corner of the world, hopefully share some unique places. but as a guy who shot, wrote, edited, it’s very difficult to tell a great story well, especially without the help of others to develop the story better. it takes years of experience to become great at it, and very few people can wear all those hats well.

    certainly it can be done, but it’s rare to find the perfect blend. the guys who do it well generally do it for a living and with much larger budgets. getting folks who can shoot their own stuff AND tell a great story AND do it without having to sell out to corporate sponsors are a rare breed indeed. (like the guys who shot Mountains in Motion – Paul is a landscape photographer by trade, who lives in Banff. His photos are incredible in their own right. the film is a total labor of love for him, one he and his wife produced, funded themselves, wrote themselves, and hoped would share their stoke for canadian rockies with others). I for one was quite impressed by it, thought it was beautiful, and had a much better storyline than the typical timelapse porn that is all over the place nowadays. so you have a gradient of experience and films there – from rank amateurs in the film world who are just dipping their toes into the world of adventure film, all the way up to million dollar productions with amazing quality and great storytelling. i don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of filmmakers “getting over themselves and their awesome footage.” you make it sound as if shooting mountains in motion is “too easy.” i guess i see it differently – i think it’s insanely hard, and i found the footage to be very inspiring all in it’s own right. was it the best film there? maybe not, but still, for 15 minutes, i found it very worthwhile.

    yet, even some of the big budget adventure films still aren’t REALLY telling great stories. they are simply shooting insanely impressive video, but generally the music and the video carry the majority of the film (think “art of flight,” “where the trail ends,” “life cycles,” “all.i.can” or any of the other popular adventure films out right now.) and by and large, the crowds eat it up. and some times, that’s probably all the story needs, because great music and great visuals can do a lot (think Danny Macaskill in “Industrial Revolutions” which I thought was brilliant). and sometimes, trying to look a the deeper “why” of adventure is just so corny. i mean, some of these people just do it because they love it, they can’t really articulate why that is… also, keep in mind, that many of these productions you like are not the kind that will be given away for free to viewers on the internet. people who are great storytellers gotta get paid, and putting together a film is ridiculously time and resource intensive.

    i am not sure where the genre is going, but I am also not so sure Banff is slipping into irrelevancy either. is there another model that is going to replace it? does the adventure film world need a new model? it’s obviously wide open right now for people to produce their own stories and distribute them through youtube and vimeo. but on the other hand, the guys who are great storytellers are great for a reason, and they need to make money so they can stay alive. they can’t just throw up their work on the internet for free. what you are seeing at banff is a combination of people who are both pro storytellers (like Big Up and Sender Films) and people who are first time filmmakers (like Mountains in Motion and myself). banff will likely stay relevant for that reason – it allows filmmakers to get their videos seen without releasing them entirely for free online where they can’t be compensated in anyway. it also allows banff to showcase unique films from across the spectrum, which is a big deal for developing young filmmakers. i personally enjoy that variety.

    perhaps that model will change at some point. and perhaps the crowds at banff tour stops will tire of basically seeing the same cliched variations on a tired old theme every year. but my guess is unless some one else can do a better job sharing the stoke, there will always be a new crop of adventure minded people looking for fresh inspiration and adventure porn, and they will likely keep filling up the seats. and there will likely always be another group of people who are not as easily impressed as they may have been the year before.

    so that said, i’m very curious which films you’ve seen in the last while that you do think are worth checking out, besides honnold 3.0. i know you liked “cold,” which tells me you will probably like renan, jimmy, and conrads new film “MERU” when it is finally finished. did you happen to see “Crossing the Ice?” i thought it was awesome – but almost entirely because cas and jonesy have infectious personalities and they weren’t afraid to videotape themselves in their most vulnerable situations… what about gimp monkeys, did that show at your stop?

  2. [For everyone out there, Dan's Last of the Great Unknown is very much worth seeking out, and Banff or elsewhere.]

    We did see Crossing the Ice this year, which was very good. Their dedication to filming their own suffering was indeed impressive. Eastern Rises, from two years ago, is still one of my favorite outdoor films of all time.

    I have no doubt that I’m more hackneyed than many in this respect, but I think it’s a sad testament to their overuse that something like Mountains in Motion can seem so routine and unremarkable. To stay relevant Banff needs (IMO, as always) to tighten their criteria, and insist on narrative excellence along with the flash and magic. I’ve heard plenty of grumblings that you can see an increasing number of the Banff films for free online, and I think they’ll loose the younger generation is they don’t continue to support the people you speak of, those who are pro enough to bring the whole package.

  3. Visuals aren’t enough? From the tiny little corner that I occupy, that opinion seems at the same time quite narrow yet expounded upon with a too-broad brush.

    IMHO the more narrative you need to tell the story, the bigger your failure in using the visual medium. I feel inundated with (often mundane if not inane) verbiage on a daily basis. Am championing my own ‘speak less, say more’ cause, if only for the benefit of the birds. Visuals speak much more clearly, and allow the viewer to draw varied conclusions that words might not.

    One short but good example:

    That you can think it ‘easy’ to capture quality time lapse and slo-mo in an outdoor environment, often while on the move, tells me you’ve not yet delved into it. Can’t be done satisfactorily with a P&S, thus an SLR (plus batts, lenses, intervalometer) is mandatory. One good 3-4 second time lapse takes a minimum of 600 stills over a ~15 minute (minimum! two hours is far better) period. Any quality slo-mo requires the haulage and time to set up implicit with use of a tripod.

    Agreed 100% on too much fanciness in post. If only excess use of Final Cut could make one bleed…

  4. Pingback: Valhalla: the continued immolation of the spectacular | Bedrock & Paradox

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