Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Between the Trees: A Review
Looking at the world of climbing video, it is clear that the trend is towards the Big Up style of video. We see big names in amazing locales, the latest testpieces filmed using high-tech equipment, and a generally professional polish put on the whole thing. Yet often we are left wondering in the end about what it is exactly that is being captured. Yes there is a big show and we are left amazed but not much else.
In the very beginning of Keith Bradbury's latest film, between the trees, we hear the voice of Tyler Landman, one of the most gifted boulderers of his generation, utter these words, "I was a eagle, and I flew down, and I was a fish swimming." These lines indicate right from the start that something very interesting is going on here. This is not going to be your typical climbing movie. The introduction merges parody and comedy set in the evocative ambience of grainfields and forest. Credits roll, so minimal as to pass almost unnoticed, and we are off to Fontainebleau.
The first scene is the forest in winter as Keith walks into a dark snowy forest to try a problem called Gecko, a problem that will figure prominently elsewhere in the film. Here as in many other places in the film, atmosphere, mood and ambience play the leading role. The footage is minimally edited and the movement is natural and uncontrived. In other words what is interesting about Between the Trees is what is left out, what is left unsaid.
A gorgeous panning shot across the rise of land at Cuisinere Franchard that holds Karma leads seamlessly into Ty leaping onto the starting holds. As he completes the problem, a frozen image of Ty remains at the top while another Ty runs back down to the base. This kind of camera work could go all wrong, seem pretentious and “arty” but here it just works. Ty comments on the problem while the boulder just looms there in the background like a kind of sculpture, framed by three pines.
The setting sun shimmers on the horizon across the valley at Cuisiniere Crete as Ty finishes Duel. The light filtering through the trees provides a striking backdrop as he ruminates on the complexity of the problem. The gray-green textures of the magnificent Partage are as fascinating as the problem itself. Keith’s orange shirt is a striking accent point in a maze of crossed tree branches, mossy green walls, and the stubbly texture of fallen leaves. The problem itself is almost an afterthought.
You might say that it’s inevitable that Fontainebleau would shape the film and to a certain extent I would agree. However this emphasis on environment emerges time and again, too often to be merely coincidence. It is a trait I noticed also in Keith’s other films, a tendency to seek out subtle, understated visual environments that frame both climber and problem in the realm of the natural world in all its mystery and complexity. By way of contrast, one might refer to the old-school classic, The Real Thing, with Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat, which often literally rides roughshod over the same terrain. I wonder if Ben is performing an act of expiation by sponsoring Keith’s efforts to film Fontainebleau. It would be an appropriate gesture. Keith has truly got the real thing here.
The less artistic among you may appreciate other aspects including the sheer diversity and number of problems depicted. An eclectic soundtrack keeps things lively and unpredictable. Ty reflecting on the nature of climbing in the forest brings us back to the dual natures of Font climbing, how it is cerebral and athletic at the same time. Seated in a wheatfield, or a deserted picnic area, he reminds us of the uniquely meditative aspects of climbing. If I have one issue with the film, it’s this: Keith tie your shoelaces already!
Perhaps it is the time of year that gives this film a valedictory feel, an elegiac tone. The colors are somber, the skies mostly gray and subdued. The photographer constantly seems to reach beneath the surface to what is buried rather than what apparently meets the eye. This to me is the essence of art and what makes this film special. It is beautifully realized in the sequence featuring Elephunk, where the problem is immaculately captured at close range and then the view is lengthened to reveal piles of stacked piles of logs, dead objects in front of the living forest, the climber caught between these two states of being. This is an extraordinary moment in climbing film, in my view, and one that deserves real recognition.
The film closes on an ambivalent note for both climbers. Keith faces down failure on the sit-start to Gecko, a situation any serious climber can recognize. He can clearly do the problem but for whatever reason, cannot actually finish it. An intensity of emotion emerges here, not one rooted in success but in frustration. It feels like a doomed relationship and indeed in some footage not included in the film itself (I wish it had been; it is in the Extras) Keith really goes, as he put it, “close to the bone.” Ty finishes on a high note climbing-wise but followers of this immensely talented climber have seen him retire from the world of high-end bouldering. He decided not long after the filming, that at least for now, climbing full-time is not for him, and went to college instead. So for both, there is a sense of incompleteness, again understated and implied; a redemption postponed for Keith, a quest in different directions for Ty.
Keith tried asking for donations with his last film and apparently got 20 of them out of 1000+ downloads of the L’Etranger video. This film deserves much more support and recognition than that. It is quite literally the best climbing film I have seen in years and Keith should be rewarded for taking the genre in new and important directions. So go to his website and find out how you can purchase this work and support authentic climbing films.
I will be posting an interview with Keith later this week, including some words from Tyler as well.