Some years ago, actually not that many, your choice of climbing movie was restricted to Rampage, the Masters of Stone series, or the proliferation of scratchy, grainy, rainy affairs mainlined into our retinas from Britain. Hard Grit, Stone Monkeys, that weird Johnny Dawes movie, Stick It, and the like. The interweb hadn’t really caught on, Youtube was still on the horizon, and personal video cameras still produced fare that was even worse than the Bigfoot footage or any video of Lochness/alien sightings. If it was a rainy weekend, or a miserably cold Tuesday night in the middle of winter, the only option was to sit down and at least watch other people climbing what you couldn’t, but as we all know, by the fifteenth rerun of Free Hueco our brains were leaking into our protein shakes, and we longed, without knowing it, for some good solid HD radness to kickstart our ailing phsyke back into some sort of resemblance to the hulks we were watching on screen.
When I first saw Rampage, on VHS no less, I was so amazed and enthralled with the grainy, Blair Witch Psychosis inducing handheld madness of Chris Sharma ‘SAH’ing his way up obscure West Cost boulder problems, that I went into a Birkenhead nationals competition thinking I was honestly capable of producing the same results. In short, watching climbing movies actually made me want to go out and replicate what I’d seen. They gave me the ultimate phsyke, and being as young as I was, my Disbelief Suspension had yet to be desensitized by the wanton use of CGI. Needless to say I dominated the opening moves of every route, Sharma-like, and fell off at the second clip, wondering vaguely why nobody was filming me, or why I was in a poxy little gym, rather than on some sunsoaked Californian boulder. That was my first taste of what watching climbing movies can do to the brain.
Time passes, as it does, and all clocks are but a shadow of the One Clock, shaving the endless seconds off the universe, where the big hand goes around only once. Climbing media has come a long way since those early days of unknown frenchmen swinging off grit routes, and has arrived in the HD injected big budget future. We now have BigUp Productions, and a whole legion of inspired amateur film-makers with funds to burn on Canon 5Ds and unlimited time on their hands with which to abuse them. There is truly good work out there, and some atrocious rubbish. But what there is most definitely not much of is a shortage of things to watch. Don’t want to brave those suspect clouds in case you get your smartphone rained on at the crag? Stay home and troll Vimeo to your heart’s content. Uninspired to hit the -40 temps at the gym and actually do something useful? Download Boulder Movie X and marvel at the wondrous marriage of trust-fund teenage America and Science.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to catch three relatively new bouldering flicks, and I thought, considering I don’t have any actual gear to review at the moment, that I’d share my thoughts. Whether my incoherent opinions and musings of the following actually influence your decision in what to watch is irrelivant, because you’re a climber, and if you’ve not already watched them, chances are you will do so anyway, without any external prompting, possibly at least a dozen times over until you’re quoting so much you really start to believe they were your own original thoughts.
These three flicks elegantly represent the genres of bouldering movies the world over. We have the shaky, ghetto gangster rap saturated mates-with-cameras offering of THE ISLAND; then there’s the arthouse, half bouldering half nature documentary, three hours of slow-mo dynoing, plus endless sit-down musings on why they climb, and what it means to be a boulderer affair of REACH; and finally, the out-and-out class-act slick no fails or falls, rehearsed bouldering and 5D Swiss shenanigans of BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE.
I’ll start with The Island first.
The most important thing you have to know about this movie is Chad Greedy. If you’ve seen Dosage 5’s long section in Arkansas, and wanted to brutally murder that one guy who compulsively vomits the phrase ‘How’d if feel’, and gets people to, as he puts it, ‘Tag his fist’, for the camera while saying ‘Shikading’, then prepare for more wrath while watching this one. In fact, The Island features a section in Arkansas, and that very same infamous ‘Shikading’ piece of footage is in it!! It’s the same exact footage!! Still, we cannot judge, because while he is indeed the most annoying human being in the cosmos, he sucks just hard enough at bouldering to pick up the camera more than he appears in front of it. Hence why we have so much climbing footage of his so-called friends, Dave Graham, Danial Woods et al. As long as you turn the sound off, you are in for hours of hard sendage courtesy of the Greed. And if you think that he can’t actually be all that bad in real life, trust me when I say he’s worse. In the movies you can only hear him. It’s an eternal torment for the soul, and the other several senses, to encounter this character in the flesh.
But I digress. The Island is, as I said, ghetto chic. The footage is grainy, noisy, shaky, poorly handled, and the editing is just as bad. The intro has graphics of names, places and grades, and just when you think you’ve settled into the opening segment, it’ll switch up on you with yet more intro. The gangster rap, while oddly appropriate for the tom-foolery of this particular group, quickly becomes grating, until by the end you’ve forgotten what happened in favour of concentrating very hard on understanding the incomprehensible lyrics of each new aural torture. About the bouldering itself, you know the score. Dave Graham gangles his way up hard Font testpieces like a Praying Mantis wobbling in the breeze, Daniel Woods stores nuts in his cheeks like a chipmonk and almost dislocates both shoulders trying to span heinous compression problems, and The Helmet, aka, Jon Cardwell, short-man crushes the rest. As you will see in the opening ‘Star Wars’ esque credits, these guys had no funding or sponsors yet still managed to make a movie about traveling around the world over the course of four years, encapsulating themselves in an odd fraternal bubble dubiously dubbed ‘The Island’. But the quality of the problems featured in each area is high, going from Font, Arkansas, Hueco, back to Ticino, and then back again to Colorado. Despite it’s obvious short comings, the main one being Chad Greedy, I enjoyed the movie, so long as the volume was right down. Oddly enough, for the flick out of these three with the smallest budget, it was the longest, clocking in at an hour and twenty of Chad Greedy madness. The scene where dodgy old Greed invades Daniel Woods’ personal space with a camera, asking him if ‘he want’s to go climbing today’ while the poor chap was asleep in his car is a good sum up of the entire thing…
Next up is Reach.
I don’t really have a lot to say about this one. A bouldering movie is a movie about bouldering. It shouldn’t try to tell a story any more complicated than ‘guy tries boulder, guy falls off boulder, guy swears/throws shoe at boulder, guy tops out boulder. Grade. Repeat. Credits. If you try adding story to a bouldering movie you end up with Chuck Fryberger’s Specimen: endless conversations about faff, and without grades, so that each problem showcased ends up looking like a warm-up. So leave the storytelling up to the guys with money, like BigUp and Peter Mortimer. Having said that, Reach does indeed try to tell a story that parallels the main action. It’s cast is short, made up mainly of Jon Cardwell, Dave Graham again, and a few others. First of all, the footage is gorgeous. I’m not entirely sure what equipment was used, but a liberal dosing of boom, steady-cam, and dolly was applied, making for some lengthy and at times laborious ‘Panning Nature Shots’, but they are all sumptuous in their own right. There are a few tricks available to the budding bouldering movie maker to fill-up, ahem, sorry I mean make a flick just that little extra something special, and these include Slow-mo, Time-lapse, and Panning Through Forests Bathed In The Light Of Stunning Sunsets. The maker of Reach spared no expense using every technique he could to stretch out his slovenly 40 odd minutes into something coherent. Like Core, if you sped the Slow-mo up to normal speed, took away the beautifully crafted yet superfluous periphery material, you’d end up with five start-to-finish boulder problems and credits barely filling ten minutes. Fun and enjoyable to watch the first time around, but subsequent watchings will have you reaching for the fast-forward button. We go from the woods of Arizona, a completely unrelated piece of action compared to the rest of the film, though nice to watch no less, to the woods of Brazil for some seriously crimpy double-digit silliness, to Lincoln Lake in Colorado, where three hard crimping monsters; Graham, Cardwell and Woods throw down on half a dozen v14 first ascents from Woverinland’s first season. Most of which have since been downgraded.
The one section I enjoyed most was the ‘Failure’ chapter. It showed the climbers cacking moves, falling, and swearing and throwing stroppy fits in a humerous fashion. Normally we see these guys floating (well not in old Graham’s case at least) hard projects like it ain’t no thang, so to see the progress of failure to sucess from such luminaries is refreshing and, dare I say, intensely satisfying.
Still, Reach isn’t quite worth the effort put to it, so watch it first and marvel at the cinematography, and then pass it on.
Lastly, we have Better Than Chocolate.
This movie impressed me, sitting in that Genre of bouldering movie that is all about hard bouldering action from start to credits. There is one interview at the beginning with Magic Wood discoverer Thomas Stienbrugger, but don’t worry, because you won’t be able to understand a single word and it is mercifully short. Cut to an archived shot of Bernd Zangerl cratering off a highball slab, and that’s you for the next hour. Slipped in there are well placed intros/mini interviews with certain boulder problems and the guys who climb them, which is a novel way of handling the whole ‘Who are the guys that climb and what are they thinking about’ section of any bouldering flick. If you enjoy watching people falling off repeatedly before climbing their boulders, then you might get a little over the slick, rehearsed feel of the action in this one. Right from the get-go the movie is all about the quality of the footage and the sheer quality of each individual problem. Each V12/13 looks like it’s been done and dialed a dozen times prior to shooting, and the guys climbing them fly through the moves with barely a ripple of effort, or a grimus to be seen. However, it’s a good way to showcase a lot of stellar problems very quickly, letting you appreciate how awesome a well dialed line can be, and the sheer number of them in this part of the world.
Special mention must be paid to the film-maker, who, after one month of owning a Canon 5D, made this movie by himself. He shot, edited and produced it off his own back, making all his camera equipment by hand. The joy of this flick is almost exclusively in the quality of the footage, and also in the beauty of the areas visited. It’s entirely shot in and around Ticino, with a few notable exceptions from other parts of Switzerland. Magic Wood gets the star treatment, and by the end all you want to do is go out and crimp some granite. It’s like fine wine, or fine chocolate,or finely crafted cutlery, or fine anything really. This movie is a cut above the others mentioned, and far above many of the ones currently on offer. No panning shots of nature here, no static framed shots of urban environments, no waxing lyrical about bouldering making people better humans, and interestingly not one frame of slow-motion. It simply contains a stack of very hard boulder problems climbed ( there is a little bit of hilarious failure) perfectly, from end to end, in the most developed area in Europe. At an hour long, it will either leave you feeling hollow and wishing for more, or you will have been uninspired with the highly polished nature of the ascents. Depends on your disposition. I like both, and I loved this movie. There aren’t many big name players here (apart from special guest appearance by Paul Robinson), just a bevy of unknown talent from around Europe, in particular, Finland. Oh, and Chris Webb-Parsons, gamping his way up a boulder and leaving you feeling sullied and unusual in a way only an Australian can elicit.
There is no story line here either. No attempt to make you take a journey into the hearts and minds of the climbers, or some half-hearted attempt at trying to define bouldering and the rest of existence. There is no waxing lyrical about anything, or any other kind of wax, come to that. You will have learned very little from the experience of watching this film, other than people in Europe make hard boulders look easy, or that Magic Wood looks like an extremely nice place to visit. And it will also make you want to go out and by a 5D. And also wonder how Michele Caminati’s eyebrows can raise as high off his forehead as they do. But that might be just me…
Summary? Island=ghetto-gangster rap inspired shaky camera boulders. Reach=film school drop-out slow-mo snippets of V14 action. Better than Chocolate=lesson in how the 5D can ruin all other bouldering movies.