Saturday, July 28, 2012

On the Circuit and Welcome to the Hood: A Review

Two climbing films came out this spring, films that their makers kindly shared with me for review. PRAK Media, comprising Paul Robinson and Alex Kahn, have created Welcome to the Hood, a follow-up to their earlier (and favorably reviewed by me) The Schengen Files. Cameron Maier, a very talented photographer at Bear Cam Media, has been working, along with Paul Robinson and Carlo Traversi and others, on documenting a bunch of new problems that emerged over the winter of 2011-12 along the Front Range. Both films are available from the same distributor 27 Crags and both have a similar feel so it makes sense to review them together.

Welcome to the Hood surveys a range of European problems, beginning with a series of scenes with mostly Paul Robinson at Fontainebleau. This will look pretty familiar to viewers of The Schengen Files and little new ground is broken here. Indeed the forest is treated pretty much like any other place in the video, a backdrop to pulling hard moves, a place for the "boss life" or was it "bawse"? Doesn't matter really, does it?

Then Switzerland and there are some beautiful problems shown here, nicely filmed, but again with zero context for any of it, just climbers cranking in the woods accompanied by the usual soundtrack of hip-hop/dubstep/techno. Since few of these were first ascents and most were repeats, it is unfortunate that we are not told more about the problems, who did them and what they meant to the FA-ist. There is a history to bouldering in Europe that a viewer of WTTH would do well to learn if he or she did not know it already. Furthermore, the environments of these boulders deserve more attention then they receive here, acting as mere backdrops to names and grades.

But as the interview emphasizes, this is about the 'hood, hanging out with friends and bouldering not about real life. WTTH portrays a fantasy world of apparently unlimited leisure enjoyed by white adolescent males (there is not one female ascent in the entire video) who can travel at will wherever they please and climb whatever they want. The laidback atmosphere of this video seems to me at odds with the levels of effort and commitment that the sport of bouldering requires from most of us and for this reason I found it less than inspiring. The denizens of a real 'hood would probably deride the "gangsta" scene as fairly "whack".

On the Circuit also tries to apply a concept, with a bit more success. Unfortunately there is some lengthy and over-serious discussion (which begs for parody) of what "The Circuit" actually is. I think very few viewers are going to worry very much about whether or why there are even more V13 and V14 problems on the Front Range of Colorado. The only thing that really makes the video stand apart is the effervescent personality of Dave Graham who once again has spearheaded a revival of bouldering in the area. Whenever the camera focuses on him, things brighten up a lot. Anyone interested in the goings on at Wild Basin, the roadside areas in RMNP such as The Bridge Boulders or Sprague Lake will find plenty to interest them. They will also want to check out Cameron's short follow-up featuring Dave on a few new classics, including The Grey.

Here's a short interview with Cameron, who in my opinion has a great deal of potential as a filmmaker and a photographer.

1.  How and when did the idea for the Circuit as a film emerge?
I would say that the basic idea of the circuit and then for turning our exploits on the circuit into a film emerged after Dave and I returned from Hueco Tanks and looked for more new climbing to fit into the later Winter/early Spring time period.  The seed might have been planted in November, when we got started at Elkland, before going to Hueco until March.  So in March climbing at Elkland even began to get a little warm and therefore we were on the hunt for more boulders closer to DG's residence in Nederland.  
Enter Wild Basin, and Bear Lake Road of course.  Daniel was keen on Elkland, and Dave and Paul got psyched on Paint it Black, which was just a little bit south, and then Wild Basin even a little bit more south, which makes up the local zones we have here On the Circuit.  You can start at one boulder/area and take pretty much the same road to get to any of the other areas.  Even that idea right there is tangible and worthy enough, we thought, to base a film from.  I had been shooting Dave, documenting most of the climbs from Elkland, Bear Lake Road, and Wild Basin, and this became part of the story.  Paul and Carlo were in town and were out on the circuit a lot and they as well became part of the story.

2.  What message did you want the Circuit to convey? Do you have an overall vision for your photography and filming?
We wanted the film to convey the message that there is really a huge potential in the front range here, and the more you look and explore the more you realize that.  And what is even better is that we are finding more stuff that is even more accessible, less of an approach, and on the same "circuit."  That is talked about a good amount in the film.
My vision for my photography and videography right now is to tell an engaging story that is rich with personality, humor, and passion for climbing as a way to experience our world.  All-out devotion to what it takes to develop new boulders/areas and to leave a positive mark wherever the journey leads.  Of course shooting with Dave for the past year has let me capture a person that is so passionate about what they do for a living that it's become something that will last as long as climbing is a sport.  Telling Dave's story through still and moving images gives me everything I can ask for right now.  And of course it's great when the other guys get in the mix like we had here with this film.  Everybody adds their own flavor and that's what we hoped to capture by collaborating.

3.  What equipment did you use to make the film?
Paul, Carlo and I all shot this film with our Canon DSLRs; the t3i, 7D, and 5D were all used.  Tripods, sliders, reflectors and automobiles made up the vital accouterment besides the cameras.

4.  Was this a self-financed production? 
This was indeed a completely self financed production.

5.  What's your next project?
New releases coming up are going to be a video of DG putting up more Wild Basin first ascents and also The Warrior Path (DG in Hueco) as a feature film, featuring new never before seen boulders/footage!  Going to be a fun movie for sure, plenty of drama and action.  The next 'new' project will start in South Africa when I meet up with the crew down there in a couple weeks.  I'm fully engaged by my work nowadays and look forward to making more, and want to thank everybody who takes the time to check it out!

You can find out more about Cameron at his website

A final note about these films. I want to add that from a technical standpoint they are excellent. The problems are all world class and the climbers do a great job. However, I think, especially given how easy it is to create decent production values these days with DSLRs, that the wave of the future has got to be more along the lines of this:
or even this, produced by Prana and made by Chuck Fryberger:

While I think the snowboard/surf formula has marketability on its side, I would really like to see more video that goes against the grain and tells a compelling story that is not just a compilation of climbs held together by a soundtrack. I think it's possible but people have to step up and try to do it. If anyone has suggestions of noteworthy independent climbing film efforts I might not have heard of, please let me know!  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Good Crazy, Bad Crazy

People in Colorado and around the world are trying to cope with this morning's horror in a movie theater in Aurora where a lone gunman, armed with numerous weapons and wearing a gas mask and flak jacket, killed at least 12 and wounded 50 at a midnight showing of the new Batman film. I learned of the shooting just as I was heading out the door to go to Rocky Mountain National Park and do some bouldering in Lower Chaos Canyon. Instead of listening to music, I kept the car radio tuned to NPR the entire drive, as reception allowed, taking in the details, including the suspect's booby-trapped apartment and careful preparation, all too reminiscent of the Columbine High School killings of almost 15 years ago.

 I hadn't been up to the Park in almost a month, having spent the last three weeks in Florence, Italy immersed in a world that revolved around scholarship and art, libraries and museums. It felt good to hike up the familiar trail and breathe in the cool fir-scented air of the forest morning. The splendor of the canyon opened up to the west, gleaming gray and gold, and the bright blue sky was reflected in the still waters of Lake Haiyaha. It might seem even more pointless than ever, I suppose, to walk into this high alpine canyon to climb little rocks, or try at least to climb them, and then walk out a few hours later. Even the beauty of the setting or the physical benefits of hiking and climbing cannot entirely obscure the absurdity of the enterprise of bouldering, especially in the context of a world that has apparently gone insane.

 I wondered on the walk out, after getting thoroughly beaten up by my project, whether we all could stand to reflect more deeply on why things like climbing or art matter, whether we should as a culture stand up to defend what I would describe "good crazy" as opposed to its bad counterpart. Climbing to me, in its best moments is the epitome of good crazy, a peculiar quest to understand something deeper about the world we travel through. At its best it is an innocent pastime, neither seeking reward outside itself nor recognition beyond a small circle of similarly inclined individuals. Obsession, despair, and sorrow, all are aspects of this experience along with insight, joy, even exaltation. Good crazy embraces paradox, frustration, imperfection, and the concretely experienced truths of transience. Good crazy works itself out as it goes along, seeking the passive path whenever possible and eschewing destruction and injury. Good crazy blames itself when things go wrong and vows to do better next time.

Bad crazy, which the world is too full of these days, seeks none of these things.It believes in a deranged rationality, upholding abstract ideals whose enforcement only results in more suffering. Bad crazy believes in the desirability of unfettered physical power and the self-imposed right to decide guilt and mete out punishment. Whether through drone aircraft in Afghanistan, suicide bombings, or deranged shootings, as have been all too common around the world in recent years, violence is the hallmark of bad crazy. Bad crazy never apologizes. Bad crazy happens in windowless rooms and in front of computer screens where an ever-present enemy is represented and enlarged all out of proportion to reality. This attitude is represented best by the quote from the Vietnam War, "It became necessary to destroy the village to save it." Regardless of the veracity of the source of the quote, its persistence in the popular imagination speaks to a sense of the insanity at the heart of the contemporary imperial-capitalist enterprise.

One of the potential virtues of climbing is that it promotes a good kind of crazy, a kind that reinvents the world in a positive way, that promotes curiosity and believes in complexity and diversity. It may ultimately be the most meaningful meaningless pursuit that many of us will pursue. I think that the most interesting forms of human culture speak to this enterprise of understanding over interfering. When I stand in front of a wall, whether in a museum or in a boulder field, I begin to hear voices, voices that tell me to think again, reconsider, try another vantage point, and I in turn speak back. Out of this dialogue comes something new, something that persists across time, that in turn creates its own new ideas and phenomena.

 The world needs more good crazy, more good ideas, more new art, music, stories, even new rock climbs. We all need to nurture attitudes of responsible exploration and discovery that respect the reality and dignity of living things. The world doesn't need more violence, repression, and brutality. If climbing can be a force for good in the world, maybe this is the way; by promoting better ways of being crazy.