Daily Archives: September 26, 2021

Free Solo (2018)

*. There is a pleasure in watching any great exercise of skill. This is most obvious in sporting events, but can also be experienced watching a chess grandmaster playing, or a virtuoso musician soloing, or indeed in any number of daily occurrences. I’m particularly impressed by people whose job it is to operate heavy machinery with a light touch. If you’ve worked in a plant where the machines aren’t all robots, or just watched a garbage truck collect bins along a crowded curbside, you know what I mean. This is the sort of thing that operators get so good at, because they do it every day, that it’s a kind of magic seeing it at work.
*. Alex Honnold’s whole life was rock climbing. It seems to have been pretty much all he did. Add some freakish physical attributes (huge hands and a giant wingspan) and you’ve got someone whose accomplishments on a cliff-face seem supernatural. Then throw in the fact that he’s climbing an impossibly sheer cliff (Yosemite Park’s El Capitan) without a rope and you’ve got a spellbinding movie.
*. At least the climbing part, anyway. Honnold himself presents a bit of a stony fa├žade. But I don’t think that’s the result of any mental abnormality, though that is duly suggested here, as this was a time when being good at anything required being placed somewhere “on the spectrum.” It’s the trope of autism as a super power. Personally, an amygdala which makes it hard for someone to get excited about anything seems to me to put one at a definite evolutionary disadvantage.
*. In any event, Honnold just comes across as a low-key sort of guy. Unfortunately, the filmmakers try to compensate┬á and add human interest by showing him interacting with his girlfriend. She is highly irritating, as though auditioning for the part of “annoying girlfriend,” but as they did later get married I guess things worked out.
*. Even knowing in advance that Honnold made it to the top on his own doesn’t diminish the anxiety one feels, especially with the vertigo-inducing shots the film team managed to capture of the feat. One of the few really introspective moments in the movie comes when one of Honnold’s friends, watching the climb from the base, keeps turning away from the cliff, looking into the camera at one point and asking how we (by extension, us, the audience) can watch this. Well, “we” watched Grizzly Man too, and that didn’t have a happy ending. I’m sure if Honnold had fallen to his death they would have destroyed the footage and there wouldn’t have been a movie.
*. In fact, I think the most intensely felt part of the movie is co-director Jimmy Chin’s anxiety over being possibly complicit in a tragedy. But I guess for obvious reasons they didn’t want to foreground that, choosing to go with the girlfriend.
*. Combined with the natural beauty of the setting this is a great film to look at. To the question of “Why?” the answer seems to be only for the rush and a way for Honnold to test himself. It’s certainly a spectacular hobby to take up, and the movie lets you enjoy lots of vicarious thrills. And yet, at the end I was left with a feeling less of triumph than of emptiness. I hope it inspires others to get outdoors for some exercise (though they should always climb with a rope), but is the movie an antidote to excessive screen time and video-game playing or does it just translate the demanding physical experience it documents into those same terms?