Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain is guaranteed to bring on vertigo. The camera soars, leaps into space and hangs at extraordinary angles over stupendous mountain landscapes. One breathtaking image follows another. This seventy-four-minute documentary, shown in modified form for live performance, was suggested to Peedom by Richard Tognetti. The film explores humanity’s relationship with Nature and is more than just a thrill-seeking catalogue of death-defying moments. As it progresses it becomes a reflective essay. Three centuries ago climbing a mountain would be seen as an act of lunacy. The European Romantic movement and its search for the sublime had a major impact. The collective need for transcendence led to people embracing mountaineering as a means of meeting that challenge. This climaxed with Hillary and Tenzing conquering Everest in 1953.
Peedom’s film is also a warning. With the revolution in light, hi-tech equipment and the rise of extreme sports the commercialisation of Nature is increasing. Today’s skiers, base jumpers and bikers may ultimately have a lot to answer for. Views of an adrenalin-fuelled mountain-bike ride across the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye show an egotistical machismo at play; and images of deforestation, mass queuing and crowd control on the slopes of the Himalayas are similarly sobering. The film encourages people to respect mountains for their magnificence as well as their place in a complex eco-system.
Principal photographer Renan Ozturk has brought off some astonishing shots, such as a climber ascending the sheer rock face of El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico without the use of a rope. In other instances Ozturk uses the latest drone technology to show a range of jaw-dropping vistas. This is supplemented by skilfully assembled footage covering mountaineering history. A gravelly-voiced Willem Dafoe reads a narration based on Robert McFarlane’s book Mountains of the Mind to give the film a narrative spine, and becomes more abstract in its later stages with links to American experimental cinema collaborations of Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi) and Ron Fricke/Michael Stearns(Baraka).
Mountain features original interlinking music composed by Tognetti plus a range of pieces from Vivaldi, Beethoven, Chopin and Peter Sculthorpe, usually in truncated form. Heard live with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on tiptop form, image and sound were a meeting of equals. The ACO played standing, which may have obscured the sightlines for some of those nearest the stage. There was an athleticism about the playing that matched the subject and the string sound was bold and vivid. Tognetti led with style and dash, and extremes of dynamic grading were observed whilst overall impulse was never lost. A truncated version of Chopin’s D-flat minor Nocturne, played with great feeling by Tamara-Anna Cislowska, led into the ‘Prelude’ from Grieg’s Holberg Suite as footage of early climbing expeditions was shown. Vivaldi’s Winter (delivered at blistering pace) caught the sense of survivalist suffering under Everest’s shadow. Peter Sculthorpe’s brief Djilile appeared twice, and Tognetti played a shortened version of the Adagio from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with grace: although the accompanying image of snowflakes falling in slow-motion seemed a rare miscalculation. At the close, Cislowska ‘s playing of the slow movement from Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto had an almost hallucinatory quality that matched perfectly the long slow pull-back from a mountain peak.