In early January, a ragtag group of movie critics hiked, skidded and slid through treacherous, dizzying drifts of snow and ice to Cinema 21 for an afternoon press screening. Shivering, scarf-muffled talk was of the fierce ice storm that had shut the city down for several days and was now finally, thankfully, ebbing away. Most of us were still suffering from rolling TV-news delirium, eyes like saucers unable to focus on our precious writers' hands, mutilated by the welts and blisters of the snow shovel.
It wasn't long before the meager few inches ruling our lives began to look rather pathetic in comparison to those of other men--an experience to which some of us were acclimatized. On the screen, Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void, the visually stunning documentary about two British climbers' hazardous expedition to and from the snowy pinnacle of Peru's untamed Siula Grande, which peaks at a staggering 21,000 feet (that's a mile and a half taller than Mount Hood), brought us down to earth with a bump.
The climbers were Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Touching the Void is Macdonald's cinematic rendering of their incredible story, first told through Simpson's memoir of the same name. It is the story of their twin assault on Siula Grande, the events that led Yates to controversially cut himself free of his badly injured partner, and Simpson's miraculous and arduous escape from a seemingly certain death.
Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of a Discovery Channel documentary: Talking-head monologues are mixed with dramatic reconstructions, with superior results. Simpson and Yates speak with a candor and intensity that brings home the life-or-death gravity of their story. Simpson, in particular, stares down the lens with the uninhibited conviction of a man who has faced more critical challenges than a video camera. It's easy to question the motives or the sanity of a man who risks his life of his own volition, but it is far more difficult to remain unmoved by his testimony, as he describes physical and psychological pain beyond our imagination. In Simpson's words, a defiant, single-minded personality comes forth and we begin to understand what kind of person can face death and win. He is also very funny, notably his gallows humor reflecting on a death soundtracked by '70s disco group Boney M. His partner, Yates, ostracized by the climbing community--but not by Simpson--for his pocketknife pragmatism, shares Simpson's quintessentially British knack for gross understatement. Unlike Simpson, he is proven fallible and thus rooted in our world and not the superhuman.
Macdonald's use of dramatic reconstruction, a technique tarnished by its use in crude TV fare, is a brave and hard-won success. He took his crew into the inhospitable Peruvian mountains, as well as the Swiss Alps, and emerged with footage that truly captures the beauty and the desolation of such terrain. The technical achievement of filming in this environment--where the wind chill can dip to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit--is a staggering one. The viewer is transported into another world, while Macdonald's camera never intrudes, like a hopelessly lost fly on a wall of sheer ice. Ingenious studio effects and wind machines can make us shiver, but only authentic footage like that in Touching the Void can communicate how tiny a speck a human being appears on the side of a four-mile-high mountain.
It's this imagery of human insignificance that vindicates Macdonald's storytelling method. A dramatic Hollywood retelling, especially one with a recognizable star, would only have diluted the profound emotions involved. Part of Touching the Void's appeal, and evidence of Macdonald's real skill, is that we know Simpson made it back, but we forget--we're on the edge of our seats throughout. We keep watching to see how much more he has to endure, or what frightening, exciting accident is waiting around the next cliff-face. It's a real adventure in every sense.
After the final credits rolled, we critics left the theater, coats stoically unbuttoned, and headed sheepishly into the mild Portland winter.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9:15 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 6-12. Additional shows noon, 2:15 and 4:30 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.