Thursday, April 29, 2010

CORE by Chuck Fryberger: The Full Review

As promised, I am posting a full review of the new film CORE by Chuck Fryberger. As I have mentioned before, I am a big fan of Chuck's work. His visual sense is extraordinary and his idea of what makes an interesting scene is uniquely his own. I thought his previous film, PURE, to be one of the best recent climbing films made, and went to the premiere of CORE with a great sense of anticipation.

I was not disappointed at the Boulder Theater and upon viewing the film again several times, I am still very impressed. The primary reason for this is Chuck's clear commitment to creating something very out of the ordinary. The routes and problems are often under the radar, the climbers not necessarily the most well-known, and the settings and situations are explored for their potential to disrupt our expectations.

This is clear from the outset as a young and very talented climber, Shawn Erbesfield-Raboutou, is shown exploring a murky warehouse interior somewhere in Denver Colorado and coming upon an arcade game that consists of a mechanical claw reaching into a pile of stuffed animals and figures. Spine-tingling music eerily accompanies this scene. Each item that the gleaming metal claw grabs relates to the next segment in the film. The first is South Africa.

Chuck captures perfectly the environment of sculpted sandstone spires, cliff,and pinnacles that is Rocklands. Jamie Emerson's tenacity, expressed in words and climbing, anchors this segment nicely followed by some comic relief and a short segment with the only extensive depiction of women climbing in the film. A fair criticism of the movie is certainly its lack of female climbers.

Breathtakingly exposed solos by Kevin Jorgeson reveal the extent of Rocklands as well as Jorgeson's own cool under pressure. As he explains, "for a moment you can be a part of this landscape on that feature," revealing that the aesthetics of the position of the climb and climber have taken precedence over sheer difficulty. When he states, " I'm becoming more and more aware that I make people uncomfortable," you can readily believe it but his sense of control is convincing, wedded as it is to genuine humility.

The segment on BJ Tilden, hammering away as both climber and carpenter in Lander is inspiring as BJ stands in for all the serious climbers who pull really hard yet don't want to be called "professional". Tackling a heinous line of one-finger pockets on the Rodeo Wall at Wild Iris, the route Genetic Drifter exemplifies ferocity on limestone. Fryberger's affinity for the wide open spaces of Wyoming is readily seen in the sweeping landscape shots devoted to the surroundings of Lander.

A radical change in scene follows as we encounter Nalle Hukketaival in the urban setting of Helsinki, Finland. Cruising through the modern streamlined Euro-ambiance of the city on his longboard, Nalle exudes the new breed of climber, at ease in an ocean of electronic media, living in the new age of the "professional" climber. However, if you were not already aware of Nalle's incredible record, you might be deceived into thinking of him as a local hero, not an international star. The Finnish boulder problem he is shown on, The Globalist, is an exemplary illustration of the new paradigm; huge reaches, terrible holds, and tenuous compression.

From here we meet up with Matt Wilder and his epic struggle with a new problem called the Bandersnatch. Given his track record on V13 and up, I find it hard to believe that this super-steep arete is only V12, but that is Matt's style. Chuck films Matt leaving the problem for the day and focuses on the rock beneath it and shows a heart-shaped impression. It's a subtle and evocative detail, the kind that Chuck's eye readily scoops up when the camera is rolling.

The next segment is quite a bit more lifestyle oriented, the lifestyle of that curious beast, the professional climber. Lucas Preti pilots his bright yellow Ferrari to his house, apparently evidence of the wealth to be obtained as a pro climber. Things have indeed changed. Here we see some relatively obscure (for US viewers) bouldering areas in Tuscany set in a beautiful forest.Maybe it's just me, but this type of environment truly plays to Fryberger's strength as a cinematographer. The colors and textures of the sandstone boulders in an autumnal forest restore the primacy of the natural in the sport of climbing. The contradictory pull of media glitz, the dolce vita, and the primal urge of the season's turning emerge elegantly in this segment.

A radically different turn is taken back as we head to Boulder and the Devil's Thumb high up in the Flatirons. Here is Matt Wilder's bold and difficult "Cheating Reality" a stunning 5.14 R line in a stunning setting. Wilder's matter-of-fact rendering of this route belies its real difficulty and danger. The movie lays it all out for any would-be repeaters, though I doubt that will happen for a long while.

Then it's off to Rocklands for what is, in many ways, the focus of the film, Nalle's project, a problem that would become Livin' Large. A tall bald arete with hard climbing right to the end, its remote location and cryptic climbing banished any thought of an easy tick. By day 12 (remember Nalle has done several V15s in a few days or less) things are looking pretty touch-and-go. It is therefore with considerable relief that we witness Nalle's triumphant ascent. Truly, it doesn't get much better than this. So we wonder what is next and find out in a truly remarkable segment, one of the best pieces of climbing video I have seen recently.

In the warehouse Shawn snags a small stuffed elephant and we are back in Switzerland, in the workshop of the master of modern bouldering, Fred Nicole. A simple evocative piano sonata plays in the background as he finishes up a shoe resole. He recalls a time when the idea of a professional climber was impossible to conceive. Nicole reveals that he did not begin to climb with the idea of being a leader. In careful English, this humble giant in the world of bouldering difficulty, he says, "It was my own way, I was looking for something new..." and he pauses, remembering the history of the sport, reflecting on his predecessors. We follow him into the forest to a longstanding yet obscure project, a hybrid boulder problem/sport route deep in a cave.

"Discovering, still it's one of the last adventures in climbing, which makes it not just like a sport... it's a bit more than just a physical activity." At 39, Fred cannot count on being at the cutting edge of climbing difficulty but he reveals in this segment why he is a true artist rather than solely a climber. His route, L'Isola che non c'e' (literally, the island that isn't there, i.e. Neverland) is more than just a sequence of holds and moves, it's a creation, a representation of his ideas about climbing, a distillation of experience, experience that the young boy Shawn scoops up from the floor and runs away with, yet is unaware of, as it should be, the weight of the legacy he may inherit as he grows as a climber.

Chuck Fryberger is clearly growing as a film-maker. His sense of visual style and impact is at an unsurpassed level. The next step as I see it is for him to start exploring the human side of climbing in the intimate and low-key way that the Nicole segment clearly displays. I will echo Nalle in saying that it doesn't get better than this, but also bring out its double meaning, an implication that a new direction is in order, an exploration away from the arena aspects of hard climbing and towards the true core of climbing. By this I mean climbing's soul, however you want to define it, and the effects on our spirits of these strange voyages of discovery made by humans as we sojourn on earth a while. This film goes there from time to time, make no mistake, but should Fryberger decide to dwell there a while, well I can think of no other film-maker who will do the job better.

I will be posting a short email interview with Chuck in the near future. In the meantime, make sure to read this interview with him by Dave McAllister.


chuffer said...

Chuck's interview with Dave is incredible.

Peter Beal said...

It's pretty good. Fortunately there's not too much about the movie itself, which is where I will be going. And Dave, if you read this, open up your blog for non-logged-in comments. I was going to comment that the reason you felt a little let down on Nooks Rock was that you still need to do the lower start:)

sock hands said...

great review, peter

Unknown said...

great review indeed

Anonymous said...

Hey, that was a good review old boy.

Now it's time to see if the movie is as good!

Anonymous said...

"Here is Matt Wilder's bold and difficult "Cheating Reality" a stunning 5.14 R line in a stunning setting. Wilder's matter-of-fact rendering of this route belies its real difficulty and danger."

He is shown taking multiple short, harmless falls from the crux, onto gear at his feet which holds the falls. He says in the video that the first 40', which is 12a, is "the most dangerous part of the route". Anybody else have a problem with rating a route 5.14 R when the "R" part is only 12a, and right off the ground?

Other than that, Core definitely needed an editor to tighten up quite a few of the segments; the opening toy-grabber scene seemed to go on about twice as long as needed, and as others have noted, it suffers from lack of females, and from an overly reverential and humorless tone. Image quality also is surprisingly "soft" (as in, not sharp), with limited dynamic range (clipped highlights and crushed blacks) for something shot on a Red - a consequence of using SLR lenses no doubt.

Also someone needs to hook BJ Tilden up with a nail gun...

Peter Beal said...

Regarding the rating of Matt's route, I guess I'll trust him since he's done plenty of dangerous routes in the 5.13 and up grade. While it's true that the midway crux appears well protected, the top crux is done facing a long slamming fall and groundfall on 12a at the start sounds pretty serious to me. Speaking of serious, "anonymous", do you plan on trying the route?

Regarding the editing, those viewers used to jump-cut video eye-candy created for short attention spans will certainly find this movie taxing to follow. And if "sharpness" is the goal of filming, I suppose it could be critiqued on that point. However I think more than mere visual imagery is involved in filming climbing. If you can point to a better or more interesting film about climb, I would like to hear about it.

Anonymous said...

"However I think more than mere visual imagery is involved in filming climbing."

In which case a Canon 7D would have been the better tool. Better vids? Let's see... the Mike Call "Made In China" series, available for free download on Vimeo, is IMO the gold standard for climbing vids - tightly edited, incredible climbing, charismatic talent and great cinematography, with Progression a close second. The extraneous footage of cars and stuffed toys in Core, the navel-gazing interviews, and worst of all the unlistenable music completely lacking in any context to the action (including the cringe-inducing "I wanna undress you" line while Nalle is bouldering) leave one wondering which "climbing's soul" you are referring to; perhaps the one to be found in a gym?

Peter Beal said...

I'll check out the Mike Call video for sure. Thanks for the suggestions and I will add that your remarks about the film are totally welcome, though they are a bit harsh in my view.

Anonymous said...

I was totally surprised at the quality of Core.
I didn't like Pure at all, I couldn't follow what was happening in the climbing and thought the whole movie was more something to use as a background movie for a gym or store.
With Core I got sucked into the narrative and found the whole atmosphere of the appealing, with both well known climbers and lesser known, hard problems (such as the FA of livin large 8C) and softer, some 7B's as I recall.
Tottaly cool movie and worth checking out in my opinion.