Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Disciples of Gill: A Film by Pat Ament
Pat Ament under King Conquerer Crack at Flagstaff Mountain, November 2009
Yesterday was a beautiful day, cold but clear and dry. The snow was stubbornly hanging in there from the last snow in shady spots but the boulders up on Flagstaff were mostly dry and warm. I put in a long afternoon up there, logging around 40 problems from VB to V8 moving from the Crown Rock area up the First Overhang Ridge. Towards the end of the afternoon, as I was climbing in the Upper Y area, I ran into Bob D'Antonio who mentioned that Pat Ament was coming up the trail. I had not seen him in many years so I felt it was an auspicious coincidence. He was in town to premiere his latest film, "The Disciples of Gill."
I chatted with Pat briefly and headed down to the Red Wall for a final set of problems, doing the Moffat Direct (V8) quickly and the standard V4 on the right. This last took a couple of tries as I had forgotten a crucial foot placement and reminded me of how solid these problems from the 60s can be, especially at the end of a long session. This put me in a ruminative mood and my remarks about the film which I watched, albeit in a somewhat truncated way, are influenced by this.
Climbing, it has been remarked, is an art but it has a singular characteristic that makes it difficult to compare with say painting or even music. That is the aspect of performance. The climb itself is not like a painting, that is to say the climber does not write upon a blank canvas. It is more like dance where the climber writes upon a surface that will be once again what it was before the dance. A few patches of chalk linger but little else remains to record the performance.
Pat was among the earliest to recognize this need to preserve not just a "record" of the climbs but also the attitude, the grace, the style of the climber In John Gill, he had the perfect subject as Gill quite literally became the embodiment of ease on rock when he was climbing.
The short clips that Pat took of Gill in Pueblo form much of the heart of the film as well as a few sequences of Jim Holloway at Cloudshadow on Flagstaff. Here the idea of movement is clearly visible. The climbers, moving silently in ghostly black and white are like presences from another place and time. Yet the distance is complex to measure or even describe. The player in all of this is time, a topic too vast to touch upon here.
There is a moving opening sequence of Pat belaying his young daughter on the cliffs near his home in Fruita as he explains to her what changed in climbing in the sixties. There is a great deal of material consisting of interviews with important figures from that era as well. I missed much of this as my 3-year old daughter decided it was time to do something else. And to be honest, I think that part of the film needs to be reconsidered and reconfigured. I know I would like to see a bit more in the way of contemporary voices assessing the idea of bouldering and the legacy of the sixties and seventies in this age.
There is something about moving over rock that talking about it can never recapture, something young and vital, that isn't self-conscious or reflective. It is one of the sorrows of climbing that so much that matters is lost so entirely. This film is a tribute to that truth. Pat is to be commended for singly taking up a task that should be embraced and sponsored by the climbing community as a whole; that is the preservation of an era that founded climbing as we know it in America. It is sobering to realize that its leading figures will soon be gone.
I understand that the film is still a work in progress and I anticipate the "final" version eagerly. History is written in many ways and its essence, with regard to the act of climbing, is and always will be elusive. Any gesture to rescue it from oblivion is a gesture of bravery and generosity.