Directed by Jennifer Peedom (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
Jennifer Peedom's body of work, thus far, has been obsessed with the natural world, specifically humankind's relationship and obsession with that which is indifferent to us. This tradition is continued in Mountain, an experience deeply rooted in the idea of the grandly cinematic being innately tied to the realistic spectrum in the mind of human artistry. As a meditative poem on humanity's desire for the existential, Peedom's film of Robert Macfarlane's verdant prose read by Willem Dafoe's wise, gravelly intonation (a voice he's had since he was in his late twenties, as anyone who is familiar with his filmography knows) invokes the wonder of our tininess, our arrogance, and our fragility in the face of these monuments to the giant wheel of time.
While Macfarlane's prose ruminates on where and when the compulsion potentially was birthed in us to literally climb mountains, Dafoe's voice ponders with wisdom: in the past, "daily life brought ample hardship and danger, there was no need to seek out more," but as humanity evolved and the industrial revolution bestowed us common comforts that we had long wanted for, we began to gravitate towards that which we perceived to be divine; the great beauties of nature, untouched by human hands, unreachable by most, desolate in loveliness and inhumanity. Dafoe wistfully intones that humans compelled to climb great mountains or perform intricate skiing techniques on treacherous cliffs are "half in love with themselves, half in love with oblivion"; our narcissism makes us reckless, confident in our own survival against all odds, but nature does not mourn us, and it does not pity us.
To see these people bloody their hands and joints, cower against winds at a hundred miles per hour, free-fall from mountainsides on nothing but a bungee cord left me breathless. I don't even enjoy going camping. I know enough of nature to understand its utter indifference in me. I am not so bold as to presume I can trek into the wilderness and come out with all my limbs, like that guy from Into the Wild imagined (spoiler: he died). Whatever compels some humans to climb mountains is not necessarily a trait I possess. But I don't think anyone could deny, up there among the clouds with Peedom's camera and a very singular few, the majesty of what it witnessed. "Madness," Dafoe explains, may be a prerequisite to mountain climbing.
All in all, Peedom's doculyricthoughtpoem is a breathtaking odyssey for the senses; not as much a traditional documentary as an observant rumination on not only the human longing for the unknown but our utter foolishness where our hope is concerned. Some humans would give up everything if it meant for a moment, isolated and immortal, they felt somehow complete. The answer to such a question differs for all of us, but the fact remains that some are drawn to the mountains, monoliths of some forgotten eldritch god, as others are drawn to the ocean's depths or the skies that hang suspended in perpetuity, ever-present. Macfarlane contemplates; Dafoe expounds, and Peedom illuminates. And I love anything that can utilize Beethoven's Emperor Concerto to its greatest effects. Oftentimes, now, I feel a deep stroke of vague sadness when I witness something like this - how much longer will our natural majesties remain as they have, with a climate so vastly altering so quickly? To have them immortalized on film, I suppose, is better than nothing at all. But the thought gives me pause: that something so ancient could be altered so drastically by our folly.