Falling Down

Touching the Void, a documentary about a very bad descent.

Into thin air

“If you don’t make a decision, you’re stuffed,” explains Joe Simpson, one of the British narrators of the quasi-documentary mountain-climbing disaster/inspiration picture Touching the Void (IFC Films). Here’s the context for his potential stuffing: In the ‘80s, while climbing the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with a partner, Simon Yates, Joe fell and broke his leg (or, more precisely, drove his lower leg into his kneecap) and was then inadvertently lowered into a 300-foot crevasse. Not hearing back from him, Simon assumed the worst and cut the rope, sending Joe hurtling into oblivion. Improbably alive but mangled, frostbitten, starving, dehydrated, lying on an eggshell ledge over another drop of hundreds of feet and still many thousands of feet up a wall-of-ice mountain that no one had ever climbed and no one ever would climb, several days walk (on unbroken legs) from the nearest one-llama Peruvian backwater, Joe takes stock of his situation and decides that if he doesn’t do something, he’s stuffed. What makes this a heroic moment is that 99.999999999999 percent of all humans would consider him pretty well stuffed already.

We know, of course, that Joe was not stuffed: The fellow groaning in that crevasse is an actor (Brendan Mackey); Joe himself is sitting snugly in a studio in England reflecting on his and Simon’s less-than-excellent adventure. The Scottish director Kevin Macdonald’s idea is to recreate that climb with actors (and stunt fallers) and have the real guys (plus an acquaintance, Richard Hawking, who remained at the base camp) tell their stories into the camera. Some critics have suggested that the heavy use of vérité documentary techniques makes Touching the Void something of a con job, but it’s not as if you think there were cameras with those guys at the time, and the audience I saw the movie with had no trouble leaping back and forth between the real and the real-ish. It was only when the Macdonald got fancy that I had issues with his filmmaking: with all that B-movie slurry, hallucinatory, in-and-out-of-focus stuff after Joe drags himself thousands of feet with no water or walking stick—essentially reliving the breaking of his leg with every agonized step—while his fingers turn black with frostbite and his sun-charred skin begins to flake off his face. At this point, I should add, “arggghhh”s and “owwwww”s were regularly heard from all over the theater (in contrast to the first half hour, when the Andes vistas elicited mostly “ooooh”s).

While some of the moviemaking looks very conventional, I have enormous respect for the camera operator and wouldn’t blame him a bit if at times he worried more about stepping into a 300-foot crevasse than in getting the most original angle on every part of the descent. It’s true that the movie, arrested between documentary and drama, doesn’t quite do justice to either medium: The actors playing Joe and Simon don’t have anything like “lines” to simulate “drama,” or even just “conversation,” while the real guys often fall back on bland English understatement. (“I was knackered. Then I thought, hang on, we came all this way, we might as well stand on top. …”) It is sometimes hard to know what to make of the guy in the base camp, Richard, who comes off (probably through no fault of his own) as being creepily indifferent as well as thoroughly useless. There is also a large vein of New Agey oneness with the universe and talk of personal growth. But that’s the appeal of mountain climbing, I guess (I wouldn’t know): to push, suicidally, beyond the limits of human endurance in the name of feeling more alive. In that spirit, I plunged into the 20-degree New York air with my coat unbuttoned, at one with the stars in the crystalline sky, breathing the air of triumph. Today, however, my nose is running. I think I’m stuffed.