Release: 23 Jan. 04
|Touching the Void
BY: DAVID PERRY
Very rarely do I get the sense that Iím watching a dramatic
change from the status quo while watching a genre film, especially when the
change comes with little or no predecessors. The Triplets of Belleville does
this for animation, and The Matrix did it for action, but outside of those
examples, the genres are mostly set in stone by now. Not so for
documentaries, evidently, as the jaw-dropping Touching the Void makes clear.
This is a film that presents documentary filmmaking as more than just
talking heads and found footage. This is a narrative film that somehow has
both of those elements of documentaries while never truly feeling like one
(which sets it apart from the similar aesthetic of Unsolved Mysteries). Best
of all, itís telling a story that deserves this level of innovation.
In 1985, experienced climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates become the first
to climb the west face of Peruís 21,000-foot Siula Grande Mountain. While
their experience climbing, and the reenactment director Kevin Macdonald give
it, isnít quite as notable as such an achievement might mean to climbers,
itís the return trek that makes this a story worth documenting. Simpson did
just that in his book Touching the Void, which this film is based on,
although he has said that his writing of the book was more to acquit Yates
than to tell his own story of survival.
Giving away that Simpson lives through the end of Touching the Void isnít
giving anything away -- he and Yates narrate most of the filmís
reenactments, and their faces, withered through nearly 20 years getting over
those days on the Siula Grande, appear on occasions. That Simpson does
survive, as matters get worse for him, becomes a miracle to behold. This is
a story of true grit and determination -- itís the type of story that
Hollywood would get sour grapes for telling, because itís just unbelievable.
I wonít relate all that happens in hopes that this review might provoke
readers to see this film without giving away any of its wonders (which isnít
limited to its narrative -- the images Macdonald and cinematographer Mike
Eley capture are awe-inspring). This is perhaps the greatest testament to
the suicidal nature of mountain climbing and the cathartic reasoning behind
it all. Touching the Void, climber or not, reminds us what it means to
survive, and does so without ever becoming contrived like a Hollywood
thriller. Rumor has it that this was long intended for a Tom Cruise vehicle
-- can you imagine the pretty people climbing and praying, the ecstasy and
the pathos? But that filmís already been made -- the nearly forgotten dud
Vertical Limit -- and Touching the Void, as a docudrama hybrid remains as,
perhaps, the only way to tell this story without reducing its power.