O ne of the earliest appeals to the cinema was that it offered, for the mere price of a ticket, the chance to travel vicariously to distant lands and to see things that most people would never experience in their lifetimes. That appeal still holds today, and is the basic for Jen Peedom’s Mountain, a visual and musical poem that delivers just what it says on—mountains and lots of them (74 minutes worth, in fact, shot on location in 21 countries).
The strong points of Mountain are the cinematography (credited to 41 different individuals) and the soundtrack, which includes both original works by Richard Tognetti and a lot of familiar classical music, including (of course) Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.The music (ably performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra) and visuals work together remarkably well, and perhaps the best way to enjoy this film is to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Unfortunately, Mountain is saddled with a fatuous narration by Robert MacFarlane, drawn from his book Mountains of the Mind and gamely delivered by Willem Dafoe. I can only imagine how hard Dafoe must have had to work to maintain the requisite tone of High Seriousness while delivering lines like “to travel to the high peaks is to cross a threshold…into a place where time warps and bends and sensations are thrillingly amplified” and “to the mountains we go, in headlong pursuit of peril or a testing ground on which the self can be illuminated.” Seriously, give the man an Oscar already, because this may be the acting performance of the year.
Rather than offer a serious examination of the role played by mountains in human existence (hint: some cultures have evolved in exactly that setting), Mountain prefers to dote on adrenaline junkies and peak baggers, to the point where it sometimes seems like an extended segment of the X-Games. Apart from the few glances we get of what appears to be daily life in a Tibetan monastery, when there are human beings on screen, they’re mostly white dudes with really expensive gear who treat the mountains as their personal playgrounds. It makes for great visuals—among the more impressive examples being a skier who is dropped from a helicopter straight onto pristine snow, and some guy walking across a cable apparently slung between two peaks—but doesn’t add up to much of anything.
There are also plenty of standard-issue shots of rock climbers isolated against huge rock faces, as well as some presumably actual falls and bloody injuries. The latter at least offer some novelty, but in all cases they tell us more about the people who are willing and able to undertake such pastimes (a point largely left unexamined in this film) than they do about the mountains themselves. Nor does Mountain have much to say about how non-white, non-privileged people have chosen to interact with the mountains, or how what the mountains mean to people who live among them.
Returning to my original point, while international travel may be easier than ever today, few of us will ever venture to Antarctica or Tibet, let alone view their mountain peaks from above, but you can see all that and more in this film. On the down side, you will seldom know exactly what you are seeing, as the director has chosen, in most cases, to not identify specific locations or the year in which the footage was shot (some is clearly historical, although most seems to be fairly recent). If you find that approach frustrating, you will soon run out of patience with this film. On the other hand, if you choose to adopt the director’s apparent premise that all specific mountains are approximations of some Platonic ideal of the mountain, and hence the individual details are not the point, then you may find Mountain to be a satisfying experience. | Sarah Boslaugh