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Psycho Vertical

DirectorJen Randall
Producer Light Shed
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateThursday, 16 November 2017
Rating 5 out of 5


It’s fair to say this film is not a tremendous advertisement for Kingston upon Hull, the United Kingdom’s current city of culture. Having spent his early years at Tywyn idolising his father and falling in love with the hills where his father spent much of his time, Andy Kirkpatrick was abruptly hoofed out of Eden, following the collapse of his parents’ marriage. This was prompted, prophetically, by a climbing trip to Yosemite. And so the young adventurer was necessarily relocated to the urban wilderness of Hull, an experience Kirkpatrick describes as ‘being held underwater’ without the possibility of ever coming up for air again. Life in a city he describes as dank, malevolent and decaying was not nearly as congenial as it had been in mid Wales under the warm sun of his father’s intermittent gaze.

On the upside, this fall from grace and existential despair did give Kirkpatrick some fabulous material. As Andy’s dad says in this clever, beautifully made film: ‘All my bad habits, Andy’s made into a career.’ This works on two levels of course: his father’s reluctance to stick around gave Andy Hull – he’ll always have Hull – and the son’s subsequent personal relationships follow a similar pattern. ‘Man hands on misery to man,’ as Hull’s Philip Larkin wrote in his fuck-you-up poem. This unpromising start and his determination to escape it has fascinated Kirkpatrick ever since. ‘My old life became nothing more than a film in my head I would watch for the rest of my life.’

The flipside of this late-period Johnny Cash misery is Kirkpatrick’s brilliantly mordant sense of humour. Early in the film, he describes himself as a writer and sometimes a climber, but he’s more often a performer. He offers pieces of himself, or at least, versions of pieces of himself, to a public that more often than not roars with laughter. He’s a Tony Hancock of the heights, someone who failed to make art school but found self-expression on blank faces of rock and in full theatres. That’s an intoxicating mix for any creative artist, and Jen Randall takes full advantage, contrasting rather downbeat interviews (‘Love doesn’t get you very far at all.’) with uproarious nights at the theatre.

Psycho Vertical is theoretically a film version of Kirkpatrick’s first book of the same name. But Randall puts a little more distance between the viewer and the subject than we’re allowed in the book. It allows for a cooler assessment. And of course the book is now ten years old. Kirkpatrick is more moon-faced these days, more bearish; much of the film is taken up with a patient 18-day ascent of the El Capitan A4 South Seas. If his stage show, which also makes an appearance, is all about manic overstatement, on a big wall Kirkpatrick is resilient and dogged. And quiet. It’s a startling contrast. Above all, he has an immense appetite for living his life in public. You can’t help wondering how much of what he says he means: ‘I don’t let my crapness get in the way,’ he jokes at one point. This look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me shtick is done with a sufficiently knowing wink that he gets away with it.

I can’t immediately think of a climbing film that uses sound better than this one. The music selections are great, but it’s the random noises, particularly the use of piano wire, that signal the taut contradictions inside Kirkpatrick’s mind, which, like a complex wall, provide plenty of challenges for Randall to explore: childhood, exclusion, danger, anger, even redemption. It’s also witty and beautifully cut suggesting a creative impulse that is perhaps more in control than the one it’s investigating. One wonders what she’ll do next.

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