For some reason or another, I’ve watched two films recently featuring climbers attempting ascents of El Capitan (El Cap for those in the know) in Yosemite National Park. I might add immediately that I’ve no interest in climbing.
In The Dawn Wall, we meet accomplished climber Tommy Caldwell who, after a series of personal traumas, decides to direct his attention to scaling the Dawn Wall face of El Cap. We meet the family, get the childhood, see footage of his early outlier success and hear how he was held hostage for six days by rebels in Kyrgyzstan in August 2000. Fast forward a few years, his relationship ends with fellow captive Beth Rodden and some DIY results in an almost career-ending accident. The thing is Tommy has grit and he doesn’t give up. For six years, he trained tirelessly on the Dawn Wall mapping every crack and crevice to mark out the path for its first ascent. Kevin Jorgeson is his climbing partner and we follow them all eighteen or nineteen days on the wall, returning each night to their base camp tent pitched on the cliff face. While some may think it’s pretty insane to devote one’s life to scaling cliff faces, you have to hand it to them for sheer grit and determination. An enjoyable 100 minutes with breathtaking scenery.
Free Solo was a different kettle of fish altogether as Alex Honnold attempts to become the first person to free solo —as in no ropes, just hands and feet — El Capitan. He’s a quirky chap, he lives in a van and has that uncensored honesty I know only too well from the ASD community. He knows he could plunge to his death with one bad move and is pretty zen about it. Halfway through the documentary, there is a sort of intermission from his preparation as we’re presented with a roll call, replete with media clippings, of various other free solo climbers that have perished in action. His partner Sanni and mother know better than to talk him out of it because it’s who he is. A very worried Tommy Caldwell appears now and then but later commits to helping him prepare because he won’t be able to live with himself if Honnold doesn’t make it knowing he’s the best man to help. We meet the National Geographic film crew led by Jimmy Chin, a talented film director that’s worked in the climbing industry for decades. Tommy’s tense, the crew are tense, the girlfriend is tense as they prepare the codes and protocols if something goes wrong. I’m tense, my son is tense. At any moment, he could plunge to his death like a live ritual sacrifice. Nail biting viewing.
Theatre was my first love. It all started with the One-Act and 3-Act AmDram festivals in our local theatre to get out of the house to smoke cigarettes on school nights. It wasn’t long before I had graduated onto the Class As in the Abbey, Peacock, Project, Tivoli and even more fringe events and locations. It’s physical. Being present with the cast, the crew, the soundscape of mutters, coughs, and gasps from the audience; the dust, the set, the murmur murmur hum before curtain. Pure energy. I can forgive anything — set, direction, costumes, props, performance — except bad writing.
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