Movies about extreme heights and extreme sports invite a particular kind of voyeurism. For those of us who would never in our wildest imaginings ride a bike off a sky-high mountain peak and then parachute to earth, I can heartily recommend the documentary “Mountain,” where such feats are standard.
Actually, I’m making the movie sound a lot more like an ESPN special than what it really is: a cinematic essay, complete with high-flown voice-over narration provided by Willem Dafoe. The Australian director Jennifer Peedom, with the immense contribution of her cinematographer, Renan Ozturk, and a pull-out-the-stops score featuring Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, shot over 2,000 hours of footage in 15 countries, including the United States, Norway, Tibet, and New Zealand. At a brisk 74 minutes, it’s a high-altitude jamboree. (Peedom’s 2005 doc, “Sherpa,” was much more straightforward.)
A word of caution about that voice-over narration: It’s derived from Robert Macfarlane’s memoir “Mountains of the Mind,” and it’s so florid that it verges on parody. Here’s a sample: “Only gods and monsters dwelled at heights.” Or this: “To those who are enthralled by mountains, their wonder is beyond all dispute. To those who are not, their allure is a kind of madness.”
Count me in the “kind of madness” camp, at least when it comes to doing anything other than marveling at them. It’s one thing to gaze up goggle-eyed at Everest, quite another to dirt-bike down it. When it is not making us “ooh” and “ah,” “Mountain” features all manner of adventurers, including ice climbers, those aforementioned parachuting mountain bikers, wingsuiters, and daredevil downhill skiers. Their exploits are captured by helicopter, drones, and GoPros. As someone who has difficulty negotiating the rope tow on the beginner ski slope, to me all of this is quite heady.
The movie isn’t real big on who/what/when/where, and I often had to figure out exactly what mountain range I was looking at – except for Everest, of course, which gets pride of place here. The film’s thesis is that, until three centuries ago, it was deemed an act of lunacy to climb such a mountain. Mountains “were places of peril, not beauty,” intones Dafoe, although, if anything, “Mountain” demonstrates that they can be both. He adds, “They were rituals of awe, but only from a safe distance.” What appears to have changed is that, in the film’s view, urban life just became too darned safe, and so we needed mountain climbing to seek out new perils. I use the term “we” here advisedly, although Dafoe doesn’t. I often felt like piping up, “Speak for yourself. I’m content with climbing stairs.”
It’s questionable whether this film needs narration at all, or at least whether it needs the faux biblical lyricisms served up here. The panoramas are so glorious that I didn’t ache to hear any highfalutin hoo-ha on the soundtrack. It’s the same problem I have with most Shakespeare movies, in which the “poetic” imagery often competes with the language to the detriment of both. “Mountain” would be better if it were simpler.
Peedom dutifully records some of the injuries, and worse, that extreme mountaineering entails, but she saves her biggest sorrow for what Everest has become: an overrun tourist trap for amateur adventurers who, guided by a fleet of overworked and presumably underpaid Sherpas, attempt partial ascents. But Everest doesn’t seem to care that it has become Everest Inc. It rises into the clouds as unspeakably beautiful as ever. Mountains, the movie suggests, want nothing from us. Grade: B (Rated PG for perilous sports action, some injury images, and brief smoking.)