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!  


Anonymous said...

Refreshing with a critical review for once. It seems all climbing media - including the small players such as blogs as well as the big players like UKClimbing or Rock&Ice - go with the idea of only publishing favorable reviews and not publish reviews of stuff they didn't like.

Peter Beal said...

I know all these guys and I also know they can make better films if they want to.

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

Spot on Peter. I was able to watch these two films as well and was very disappointed with WTTH, and only slightly more pleased with The Circuit. Daniel Woods's flash of Entlinge was anti-climactic to say the least, and the constant onslaught of music did more than detract from the climbing, it overshadowed it completely and not in a good way. I would actually like to see a climbing film made completely devoid of music with an emphasis on the sounds of the environment and the struggle between the rock and climber. There is nothing like the sound of a good hard slap of a sloper or the nail grinding bite of a crimper to get your climbing psych pumping.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the great comment Michah! Music can have a role in film but when it acts as wallpaper, I wonder what it's covering.

WJoe said...

I could not agree more. There are countless ascents of hard problems on youtube/vimeo. A real climbing film should provide some context about the climber or problem. Also showing the climber working the problem, that is showing failed attempts can convey a much deeper understand of the problem and its difficulty.

A nice example for a film worth watching in that regard would be Dave Macleods "Echo Wall".

mh said...

Just wanted to echo the following sentiment: The Schengen Files is a staple of my video collection, and IMO took climbing films a step in a more "thoughtful" direction with singularly well planned shots, and the conveyance of respect for the wilderness and its history. The reaction footage + commentary on Paul's ascent of TSOTW foremost communicated a sense of gratitude: for having had the opportunity to visit the world, to engage in the inner struggles that accompany climbing.

Welcome To the Hood and its Entlinge footage = appropriated urban culture forcefully injected into an outdoor setting, dat gun/kush smoke, wubwubwubs, and bros krushing.