I have in my possession an unpublished essay by Arne Naess entitled “The Spectacular- An Enemy?”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.