Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 20, 2018

The Dawn Wall; Free Solo

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

Quite by coincidence, I just finished watching press screenings of two newly released films about professional rock climbers scaling El Capitan, the 3000 foot granite rock formation in Yosemite Park that rises at a ninety degree angle from the ground. “The Dawn Wall”, which is available for sale as a DVD or VOD starting on December 4th at the film’s website covers the ascent of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson up a portion of El Capitan that had never been scaled before, mostly because it lacked the nooks and crannies that made other vertical paths more navigable. By analogy, it would be like instead of playing Bobby Fischer in his prime playing him blindfolded and after having drunk a fifth of Jack Daniels. Playing now at the Angelika in New York City, “Free Solo” is focused on Alex Hannold, whose specialty as the title indicates is rock-climbing without a rope. Maybe the analogy with Hannold’s climb up El Capitan is playing Bobby Fischer blindfolded, after dropping LSD, and washing it down with a fifth of Jack Daniels.

Mostly as a result of breakthroughs in digital photography, both films are visually spectacular—so much so that I felt like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo” half the time. Like “Man on Wire”, the great documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNqlynceGko) about Philip Petite walking a tightrope between WTC 1 and 2, you can barely stand the tension even though it was obvious from all three films that they were celebrating great achievements.

“The Dawn Wall” is mostly Tommy Caldwell’s story. It was his idea to master the Dawn Wall and Kevin Jorgeson was recruited for the two-man team. Caldwell is to rock-climbing as Muhammad Ali is to boxing or Babe Ruth was to baseball. He broke all sorts of records early on and pushed the envelope even further in a sport that practically defined envelope-pushing. In 2000, Caldwell found himself in a challenge even bigger than climbing El Capitan.

With a group of other climbers, including his girlfriend who was also a professional, Caldwell was half-way up a rock formation in Kyrgyzstan when bullets began bouncing off the rocks all around them. They were coming from the automatic rifles of Islamic fundamentalist rebels on the ground beneath them. After they were ordered to come down, they basically became hostages of the men who were ready to kill them at a moment’s notice. In fact, a Kyrgyzstani soldier who was also a captive was shot in the head along the way. As they were being led to the rebel camp by a single guerrilla up a winding path in the mountains, Caldwell consulted with his comrades. The only way to freedom was to throw the guerrilla off a cliff, a task he was willing to assume himself. After voting in favor, Caldwell jumped him from behind and threw him to what he thought was his death. At the risk of including a spoiler, I can say that the man survived the fall and was found guilty of terrorist acts by a Kyrgyzstani court.

If this was not enough drama in the superstar’s life, he was back home not far from El Capitan working on a bandsaw in a shed next to his house when he accidentally took off the top third of the index finger on his left hand that would have ended the career of any rock-climber since it is essential to getting a grip on the side of a rock wall. Showing the same kind of grit that made him choose this career in the first place, Caldwell learned to get by with less. It reminded me of how Django Reinhart became one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time even though one hand was crippled by a fire in his home when young.

In an interview with Tommy Caldwell in the press notes, we learn that in addition to the life-threatening conditions such men and women operate in, the “normal” working day is about as far as the pampered athlete’s life as you can imagine:

Generally, when you big-wall climb, you get up at first light and you climb all day long until it gets dark, no matter what. The Dawn Wall was completely different than that because we needed good conditions and really cold weather. If it’s hot your fingertips cut much more easily and the rubber on your shoes is softer and falls apart, so we had to wait until it was cold, which often meant night-time. Our daily logistics were pretty funny: we would wake up with the sun – it’s impossible to stay asleep up there without shade in the blazing sun. So you‘d wake up and just hang out in your portaledge for the whole day until night-time comes around. We would climb from about 5 o‘clock in the evening when the sun would leave the wall until 1 o‘clock in the morning, under headlamp a lot of the time. It was a good combination of a lot of time to enjoy the place that we were in and joke around, and when night-time would hit it would be down to business and it would be really intense for a few hours each night.

“The Dawn Wall” is co-directed by Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell, who have been rock-climbers themselves for many years. Brett Lowell, who has a great deal of experience in high-angle camera work, is Director of Photography. The three of them have made a great film that I recommend highly.

Caldwell makes a cameo appearance in “Free Solo” as a consultant to Alex Hannold helping him pick a route up El Capitan that would fall within the realm of possibility of someone using his bare hands rather than ropes and tools as was the case with Caldwell and Jorgeson.

We learn early on that free solo climbing is qualitatively more dangerous than what Caldwell does. Over the years, there have been a number of casualties that Hannold considers fatalistically. Like a professional racing driver, it is understood that the slightest misstep of the hands on a rock wall or on a steering wheel can lead to death.

Like Caldwell, Hannold is an odd bird. Caldwell became obsessed with rock climbing at a very early age after his father decided to toughen him up. As a shy and somewhat intellectually challenged grade schooler, his body-building father decided to take him along on dangerous outside activities including rock-climbing. A friend of Caldwell observed that he might have been found guilty of endangering a child if caught in the act. Fortunately for father and son, Caldwell took to the sport like a duck takes to water.

About a decade younger than Caldwell, Hannold became a huge fan of the superstar. We learn that unlike playing professional baseball or tennis, or even auto racing, rock-climbing does not make you rich unless you are at Caldwell’s level. In a lecture, when asked about how much money such professionals make, he answered that if you are good, you might make the same money as a dentist.

Back in 1968, a group of us were sitting around SWP headquarters in New York City chewing the fat when Derrick Morrison, an African-American party leader I deeply respected, raised eyebrows when he said that sports will die away under socialism. All of us tried to argue him down but his point was clear. Professional sports, especially boxing and football, turn men into the modern equivalent of gladiators. Take away the competition and the hunger for money and they will wither away.

Will rock-climbing survive? It just may because it involves existential choices that have little to do with capitalism. Why do children climb trees even though they know that they can break an arm or a leg if they misstep? There is a need to push the envelope that is very much akin to what makes us human. I recommend both of these very fine films as a reminder of how climbing a rock wall is as much a creative act as playing an instrument or writing a poem. Both are among the best documentaries I have seen this year even though they are not the socio-political treatises I specialize in. Enough said. Go see them.

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