Film Review: The Summit – Cinematic Altitude and Attitude Sickness

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The eyebrow-raising The Summit provokes many questions but is a film that should appeal to aficionados of adventure (in particular mountaineering), jaw-dropping nature cinematography, armchair travelers and even mystery buffs.  The Summit is about the 2008 expeditions to the peak of K2, the second highest mountain on Earth (after Mt. Everest), located in a remote region between Pakistan and China in the Himalayas.  One out of every four voyagers who ascend to the peak of the so-called “Savage Mountain” never makes it back down to live and tell the tale.  In August (known to be a month when melting ice causes increased hazards) 2008 18 climbers — including members of various European, Asian and international teams, their Sherpa guides and a solo adventurer or two — reached K2’s pinnacle.  But then, in one of the deadliest episodes in mountaineering history, 11 of those who had ascended K2 mysteriously perished on the way down.

Director/producer Nick Ryan and writer Mark Monroe (whose screen credits include the outstanding documentaries The Cove and Chasing Ice) use various film techniques to try and unravel the unsolved mystery as to what really happened on those icy, snowy slopes that would have perplexed sleuths from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple to Inspector Maigret to Jessica Fletcher and beyond.  The filmmakers artfully utilize archival footage, in particular of an earlier 1954 Italian expedition to K2, which similarly resulted in controversy for climber Walter Bonatti.  There are also lots of original interviews with the survivors (except for the South Korean team leader agreed to go on camera).  The differing takes on what happened and why is Rashômon-like.

And speaking of Akira Kurosawa, arguably the best thing about The Summit is its stunning cinematography, much of it gorgeous aerial footage shot with a hand held camera and gyro-stabilized Cineflex from a helicopter that, according to press notes, ascended as high as 24,300 feet.  The starry, starry night sky lensed from the rooftop of the world is nothing short of epic in its celestial exquisiteness, and many of the Himalayan vistas, as one awestruck interviewee says, are “almost heaven.”

The Summit also uses amateur video shot by a number of the climbers using various recording devices to document their ascents and descents.  While watching a significant slice of the sequences I wondered exactly how the filmmakers were able to get that footage — was it possible that due to the innovations in lightweight, reasonably priced video equipment (which cineastes such as Jean-Luc Godard only dreamt of in the late 1960s/early 1970s) that all of the scenes were authentic and shot by the summiteers?  If so, The Summit might be pushing the envelope of documentary-making.

Unfortunately, according to the film’s credits, press notes and a KPFK interview with Monroe that aired Oct. 2, a substantial portion of the motion picture is composed of reenactments.  In fact, Ryan took a camera crew more than a continent away from Pakistan to shoot at the Eiger Mountain (where the great 2008 feature North Face was shot on location) near the Jungfrau, with the Bernese Alps doubling as the Himalayas.  (Or should we say the “Hima-liars”?)

The thorny issue of recreations in films that purport themselves to be “documentaries” (a term coined by British documentarian John Grierson in the early 1930s) has bedeviled cinema since the 1920s, when Robert Flaherty poetically shot his ethnographic films Nanook of the North and Moana of the South Seas, which seemed to be realistic records of his far-flung indigenous subjects’ way of life.  But, as it turned out, Flaherty’s Eskimos and Polynesians reenacted various activities, as opposed to their merely being captured by his poetic camera eye.

Although The Summit notes reenactments in the end credits and press notes, a strong case can be made that its failure to do so in a disclaimer at the top of the film, and to clearly label staged films as such, especially those shot thousands of miles away in Switzerland doubling for Pakistan (just as it often does on many Bollywood movies shot on location in the Swiss Alps), undercuts the film’s veracity, and whatever conclusions one may draw regarding the mysterious deaths of the 11 climbers.  So rather than being strictly a documentary, The Summit is debatably a combination of feature and documentary filmmaking, where elements of fiction and nonfiction films mingle.  Flaherty’s own works, in particular his post-Moana movies, may be more properly defined as docudramas instead of as documentaries — or, perhaps, White Shadows in the South Seas, Tabu, The Elephant Boy, etc., with their scripted stories enacted on location often (but not always!) with indigenous performers, may be a cross between the two.

Another noggin-scratching factor regarding The Summit is the motivation of the climbers.  Why would anybody risk life and limb to ascend a death-defying mountain nicknamed the “Savage or “Killer,” where a quarter of those who make the top will never make it down?  Especially during a time of the year when optimal conditions for what’s already a bad situation have already passed?  The reason for this passion for peaks piques one’s interest.

In his 1880 book A Tramp Abroad about his (mis)adventures in Switzerland and Germany, Mark Twain explained the “disease” of “Alpenism”: “There is no opiate like Alpine pedestrianism… the spell… which people find in the Alps, and in no other mountains — that strange, deep, nameless influence, which, once felt, cannot be forgotten — once felt, leaves always behind it a restless longing to feel it again… they said they could find perfect rest and peace nowhere else when they were troubled: all frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps; the Great Spirit of the Mountain breathed his own peace upon their hurt minds and sore hearts, and healed them; they could not think base thoughts or do mean and sordid things here, before the visible throne of God.”

Fair enough; I myself have trekked (if not climbed) around the Jungfrau, Matterhorn and so on, and the Swiss Alps can cast a spell that’s nothing less than absolutely enchanting.  Having said that, I wouldn’t risk my neck to hike the Alps.  Why would anybody gamble their entire future on such a daredevil undertaking?  One of The Summit’s interviewees blithely says: “The bigger the dream, the bigger the risk.”  And the wife of the doomed Irish summiteers, Ger McDonnell, who is a focal point of this semi-doc tells the camera: “He knew he could climb it and climb it safely.”

Well, without trying to be cruel or flippant, apparently not, because McDonnell, along with 10 others, didn’t make it back alive.  There are only a few fleeting moments in The Summit following the 2008 debacle that raises the eyebrow-raising question as to why anyone would undergo this personal torture and risk, and what state of mind such devil-may-care risk takers possess?  Even among the survivors, two of them reportedly lost toes due to frostbite.  In her 1920s/1930s cycle of “Mountain Films” actress/director Leni Riefenstahl exalted these wannabe Übermensch, and celebrating the Nazis’ master race theories in her 1930s semi-documentaries can be viewed as an extension of her earlier mountaineering movies, such as The Blue Light. (The so-called “genius” of Riefenstahl was to bring a feature film cinematic sensibility to the actuality of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, so that 1935’s propaganda-palooza Triumph of the Will has a nonfiction content with a fiction form — how appropriate for the delusional, image conscious fascists.)

The 2008 deaths at K2 made international news, and a headline questioning the intelligence of these mountainous counterparts to madcap motorcyclist Evel Knievel is briefly glimpsed.  Elsewhere, a female interviewee remarks: “People think we’re mad,” but then the film uncritically marches on.  The biggest failure of The Summit is to not critically analytically try to get under the skins of its thrill seekers and to find out what makes them tick.  Are their routine lives back home so boring, uneventful, empty, meaningless and devoid of purpose that they try to fill up the void with these dubious deathly enterprises, in order to give them a rush of adrenalin to prove to them that they are still alive, and that life has a purpose?  Are they sexually dysfunctional?  Inquiring minds want to know — but apparently not the filmmakers, who may have lost the cooperation of their subjects if they pursued a less admiring and more objective, even critical line of questioning.  Who knows what deals Ryan, Monroe and company may have cut with the climbers so they would literally cut them some slack?

Having said all this, The Summit depicts admirable — as well as despicable — qualities.  While some are so hell bent on their quest to conquer K2 that they decline to help endangered climbers in their moments of need, others, such as McDonnell and I believe a Serbian solo summiteer, display courage and compassion in their efforts to help and rescue others.  Above all there are the Sherpas, the Nepalese guides who are professional mountaineers.  The intrepid Pemba Gyalje appears to be a genuinely heroic and capable figure, who is in that screen tradition of the “noble savage” that stretches back to Flaherty’s masterpieces. P emba is a Nanook and Moana for our time, and he, along with the awe-inspiring scenic cinematography, are the best things about The Summit.

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