Touching the Void (2003, USA, Kevin MacDonald) AKA I Kiss the Sky
First up, I had planned to write something of the sorta depth and catch-yer-breath fascination that this here film deserves, but I just plain ran outta time (going on holidays tomorrow) and energy (I’ve got ten other films I outta be saying something about as well). Still and all, lemme tell you that as a study of the pure primal urge to survive, that fundamental refusal to surrender to oblivion that resides in the core of our being, you've gotta give it up for Touching the Void.
Two cocky mountain climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) decide to take on a peak in the Peruvian Andes that has never been climbed, and in the hubris of their youth fail to fully comprehend the awesome forces that they're fucking with, and one of the fellas nearly meets his end as a result. The film has all the apparent symmetry of a Greek tragedy, but there's something remarkably subversive about this here film. As Joe Simpson hovers near death, he confesses some very interesting things. First, despite being raised a devout Catholic, he has long since turned his back on his faith, and no longer believes in God, and as he dangles at the end of a rope hundreds of feet above a bottomless crevice, he admits that in that moment, he knows for certain that this was the only life he's gonna get--no death bed repentance/conversion here; no praying to God for a last-second reprieve--and that there life is about to end. Suddenly it becomes clear: This is not the stuff of yer typical Hollywood docu-drama. Further, in what he fervently believes are his final moments of life, Simpson confesses that there was no one (no sweetheart, no Mom, no Dad) filling his final thoughts with feelings of love. Essentially, he feels...nothing. Emptiness. A Void. And as he struggles, suffering from a badly broken leg and desperate dehydration, against all hope and all the odds to clamber over the unforgiving Andean terrain to find his climbing partner Simon Yates, he becomes so delirious that he forgets where he is, and 'comes to' wondering if he's in the parking lot of some pub after having the shit kicked out of him again.
And it is here that the truth of Joe Simpson, and of mountain men like him, emerges. That is this: The very strength of will, the vital and stubborn determination that allows him to survive an ordeal that would have crushed an even slightly lesser man, well, these are the aspects of his character that make him nearly impossible for others to be around. Make no mistake, this is not a film celebrating courage or heroism or any of those heart-warming values. This is a film about the qualities that get him offa the mountain, which are the very same qualities that got him stomped in bar fights (more than once, apparently), and result in him having no one to moon over with Death beating down his door. Most interestingly, what drives Joe is not simply his determination to live, but his unwillingness to die alone. For a fella whose essential anti-social nature is well-documented in this film, this incongruity in his character was fascinating, and so I found that tidbit of information particularly delicious.
This is also a film of rare and epic beauty; few films in my memory have captured the striking landscapes of mountains as Touching the Void. This is especially important in order to establish the monumental task in front of Joe as simply but effectively as possible by pinpointing his place on this massive mountain’s facade, and the use of long zooms works very well to aid us in this matter. In fact, the dramatic re-enactments of the climb are absolutely terrific--if I didn't know better, I'd swear they were authentic--and the choice of having Simon and Joe narrate their own story is brilliant, cuz even though it "gives away" the ending (we know they survive) the film is much more about HOW (and not IF) they (and Joe in particular) survived. My only quibble is the finale--the film peters out rather than crashing noisily in some sorta glorious mess, which is what I'd been angling for given the way the story was being shaped.
Now, I confess to being something of a mountain-climbing junkie--as in, I love reading about shit like this (LOVED Into Thin Air, for instance) cuz I know I'll never EVER do it myself--so films like this are like methodone to me. Anyways, Touching the Void would make a very interesting companion piece to Gus Van Sant's Gerry, methinks, but since not everyone has seen both films and I don’t wanna spoil yer experience in either (or both) cases, I will leave it up to your vivid imaginations to determine exactly why. This is a pretty terrific film.