Producer Hot Aches
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateWednesday, 14 November 2007
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The age of celebrity is not being kind to adventure. Rumbled by the press, Bear Grylls has been publicly dragged backwards through a hedge of his own propaganda. Ranulph Fiennes, in a recent review of his latest autobiography was dismissed by author Sara Wheeler as ‘the archetypal adventurer of our gruesomely unheroic era.’ In fact, the very word ‘adventure’ seems now to be devalued, generating ideas of sponsorship, the corporate lecture circuit and bluff, and very few of risk-taking.
Should we care? If a few cartoon figures want to rake in cash by pimping themselves to the public, they can go right ahead. It doesn’t make much difference to the grade of Lord of the Flies. I only mention Lord, praise be to Ron Fawcett, because in Committed, Hot Aches Productions new climbing film, Jude Spancken pops up making an on-sight ascent.
With the youthful Graham Desroy encouraging her to ‘just enjoy it’, she sets off with negligible fuss on a route that would leave Bear Grylls reaching for his jumars or scuttling back to his luxury hotel. Spancken looks powerful on the rock, strong-shouldered and determined, but her reaction on pulling over the top was almost muted: ‘I’m quietly happy now,’ she says with a slow smile.
Were this mainstream television the director would have been wringing his hands in frustration. ‘Where’s the jeopardy?’ he might ask. (Hence the comment I saw on a recent television pitch, with the demand that it was ‘jeopardised up’ to make it more appealing. My God, there really are people out there who talk like that.) Fair enough, unless you’re a climber, you can’t see the jeopardy in what Spancken is doing. You need to be able to read the clues in her ragged breathing and slightly hurried movements, to understand the quality of the gear she’s putting in, to be interested in what she’s doing. Ramp those up so the public can be engaged and impressed, and you lose the subtlety and context that make climbing worthwhile.
Twenty years ago, there was less of a gap between the mainstream and the specialist. Al Hughes could make a film attempting to capture some of the freshness and creativity of the climbing scene at that time, in Stone Monkey. It got behind the sheer physicality of the sport, and tried to show the psychological world behind it, without ever straying too far from the reality – if reality is the right word for Llanberis in the mid 1980s. Now we have the delightful Tim Emmett engaging with the charming Julia Bradbury in a nevertheless vain attempt to bridge two diverging worlds.
So we should be grateful to Hot Aches, and other shoestring production outfits in Britain like Slackjaw and Posing Productions who have taken advantage of improving and cheap film production technology to turn out films that on occasion match the values of the very best documentaries, but also have a passion for the subject that won’t allow it to be diluted for the general public’s diminishing attention span. Making something for cognoscenti is almost a term of abuse these days. Niche is failure. But that’s because niche doesn’t get the numbers to make serious cash. Bear Grylls and Ran Fiennes look like cartoon figures because they’ve needed to re-write the script to build a brand and shift product.
I guess it all comes down to how rich and famous you want to be. All three producers reviewed here have made well-received films in the last few years, all seem to exist in an atmosphere of mutual support and co-operation and none of them are starving. What’s more, filmmaking is leading the charge in expressing what modern climbing is all about, buoyed by the growth in film festivals and extreme film schools, like that at Kendal. The influence of American film-makers like Peter Mortimer is also present. The contrast with climbing writing, undermined by diminishing editorial interest, even with climbing photography, is stark. Movies are so this year.
This is partly because of the energy and talent of the filmmakers currently at work. They all have recognisable styles and points of view and they can all, more or less, tell a story. In Committed, Paul Diffley and Dave Brown have captured a year of hard trad climbing, a good chunk of it happily far from the Peak District, and in doing so trace rock climbing’s most dramatic variation as it has developed from the era caught so memorably by Al Hughes.
There is some jaw-dropping footage, notably Neil Mawson smacking into the boulder at the bottom of Meshuga at Black Rocks from a distance. James Pearson shows why so many of the last generation think he is the man to carry standards forward, with his ascent of The Promise. Ben Cossey hums a Dylan song and then giggles with an appropriate hint of madness as he solos the Burbage E8 Simba’s Pride. Wildest of all is a clip of Johnny Dawes musing: ‘Whether or not it’s right to climb these routes, I’m not sure.’ It’s a little late for equivocation now, John.
Were Committed simply about slender young gritstoners with thousand-yard stares, then it would still be interesting, but Hot Aches explore other limits, like the challenge faced by Kevin Shields, who is missing much of his left hand but still climbs hard new routes, often solo, like his E4 line Darker Side at The Quadrocks near Largs in Scotland. Sheilds climbs better than most of us despite his disability, but the point is made that we’re all facing our own limitations and wondering just how far we can or perhaps should go.
Whether or not gender is a limitation on a rock climber is contentious. Physically, perhaps, depending on the route, but is it psychologically? In the late 1980s I heard several male climbers reflect that the rise of sport climbing was responsible for more women taking up the sport. They’d been put off, apparently, by the risk. Of course, lots of men had been put off by the risk too, which is why so many of them are now packing indoor walls. And anyway, that belittling point of view has been exposed by some impressive head-pointing by women like Lucy Creamer with her recent ascent of Slab and Crack at Curbar.
Committed shows Katherine Schirrmacher abandoning her cereal bowl on the breakfast table – doesn’t she do her share of the washing-up? – in her haste to get to Burbage South and the elegant E7 arête Balance It Is. Head-pointing E7 had, Katherine reveals, been ‘a long-term fluffy ambition of mine’ for a while. Me too, Katherine, but whereas I really am fluffy in my ambitions, Ms Schirrmacher is of the arse-kicking persuasion, wrestling with the final balance moves in a display of fluffy determination that takes, well, what? What’s the female equivalent of ‘he’s got balls’? She’s got ovaries? Dunno. Whatever it is, Schirrmacher seems hooked.
‘It feels like I’ve taken this drug that everybody else has been taking for years,’ she says as the credits roll, ‘the hard grit head-pointing drug, and I’ve thought, oh no, I’m not taking that drug, and suddenly it’s, oh my goodness, what have I been missing out on?’