Jennifer Peedom's intriguing blend of documentary filmmaking and classical music comes to home theaters courtesy of a stunning Blu-ray release.
Jennifer Peedom’s essay film Mountain begins not with snow-capped summits or other skyward fantasias, but the tuning of an orchestra: instruments are assembled, the conductor readies his baton, and Willem Dafoe mutters in front of a microphone. It’s a fascinating decision to prepare her audience with the artifice of the film she’s about to prepare, like watching the orchestra warm up before an opera. Mountain is similarly operatic, an awesome spectacle that begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Mountain is now available on Blu-ray, and while your home theater may not achieve quite the same effect as the Sydney Opera House (which is where the film premiered), it’s an admirable release that captures the crispness and majesty of the doc’s sumptuous visuals.
Like her previous film Sherpa, Peedom treats Mountain more like an essay film than a narrative, more focused on instilling feelings than telling stories. There are no characters, no relationships, no arcs; just man’s aggregate push to reach the highest points of the world, and the spiritual importance that instills in us as a species. For all intents and purposes, it’s a concert film, something seemingly designed to accompany the plaintive, beautiful score by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (which produced the film). Amongst the yearning strings and contemplative pianos, Dafoe’s sonorous voice croons the words of Robert MacFarlane from his 2003 book Mountains of the Mind, a much-needed narration to accompany the arresting, miles-high vistas captured by Renan Ozturk.
That being said, there is still a rough story being told, even if it’s not done through a cast of intriguing characters. Tracking the earliest recorded attempts to climb the world’s peaks by explorers and skiiers from around the globe, Mountain pulls back to old black-and-white archival footage of the earliest attempts to climb Mt. Everest before building up to Ozturk’s HD-ready aerial shots of some of the planet’s greatest geographical challenges. Whether in the early 1920s or now, Peedom frames these intrepid explorers as driven by the same goal to achieve, explore and understand.
At its core, Mountain is nature porn at its finest; between the lines, it becomes a beautiful extrapolation on the incessant drive for man to conquer nature, and in doing so to better understand it. “Because the mountains we climb are not just made of rock and ice, but also of dreams, and desire. The mountains we climb are the mountains of the mind.” The essential image of Mountain is a man or woman, climbing, skiing or biking their way through the most inhospitable terrain. Skiiers flip and twist in slow motion through the Alps, a ballet set in snow. Daredevils free-dive off nests of bungee cords stretched out for miles along mountain peaks. A cyclist stands with his bike atop a mountain, triumphant. We sail along vast mountain ranges along with a brave explorer swinging through the peaks in a wingsuit, freed of the shackles of gravity. It’s majestic, spiritual stuff.
Peedom’s subjects are far from supermen – their human desire to reach for the sun is not without a few stumbling blocks (as we see in a cringe-inducing montage of short falls, bloodied fingers, and anguished cries from the cavalcade of climbers who stumble in their ascent). However, all that pain is worth it, given the astonishing sights of gorgeous mountaintops peeking from above clouds, the existential thrill of reaching the summit. We never know these people by name, or spend much time with them, but we share in their joy.
While Mountain feels tailor-made for the cavernous heights of the big screen, it comes to home theaters courtesy of a crisp, flawless Blu-ray treatment that captures all the jaw-dropping scale of Ozturk’s brilliant nature cinematography. As extras go, the film comes with a sizeable number of bonus features, including a making-of documentary, a conversation with the director and Q&A with MacFarlane, and the trailer. Though it would have been excellent to have a feature-length commentary, perhaps the film doesn’t need that much explication. The mountains, and Dafoe’s narration, are enough.
Mountain is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Greenwich Entertainment.