Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Free Solo

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo is the record of Alex Honnold climb of El Capitan without ropes. It’s both boring and frightening. Anyone who has competed in an extreme sport will be familiar with the feeling that the film produces in the viewer and that probably was created in the crew which was tasked with recording the feat. There's the waiting and then the tremendous anxiety produced when your turn comes. It's not Honnold, but one of the camera crew who comments "I'm done," when it's all over. As for Honnold the affect states produced are obviously another matter, which might more likely be related to the ecstasis addicts seek. “It does feel good to feel perfection if only for a brief moment,” Honnold says. Even more telling he remarks “Imagine an Olympic medal athletic achiever and if you don’t get that gold medal you’re going to die.” The problem is that Free Solo isn’t a convincer. At one point Hannold has an FMRI which shows a low amount of activity in his amygdala meaning that he requires a great deal of stimulation to emote in the way a “normal person” would. Perhaps such daredevil antics are what motivate Honnold’s tempting of fate. Surely Nik Wallenda, who has tightrope walked between skyscrapers, displays a similar coolness that might be the other side of being dead, which is, of course, the name of the game here (the movie describes the fatalities of other free soloists). Running a marathon or undertaking an Iron Man test the limits of the human spirit, as do the 12 brutal three minute rounds of a title boxing match. However, the activity under scrutiny in Free Solo seems more like aberrant behavior than a form of bona fide striving. You read about kids who die leaping between rooftops and one wonders if this attempt to defy gravity isn’t just a lucky exception (though the intricate way Honnold choregraphs his ascent is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film). If you remember Icarus didn’t heed Daedalus' warnings when he flew too close to the sun. 

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