Scaling the Depths

‘Touching the Void' & ‘Eternal Sunshine'

In 1985, British mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the twenty-one-thousand-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, making a daring ascent up a treacherous and previously unconquered face of the mountain. On the way down, disaster befell the two, a horrifying mishap that quickly achieved notoriety in the world mountain-climbing community. In Touching the Void, Scottish documentarian Kevin Macdonald recreates the climbers’ grueling ordeal of survival.

Macdonald’s film consists of reenacted mountain scenes, performed by actors and a pair of climbing doubles, wrapped around studio interviews of Simpson and Yates. Matter-of-factly, the two describe the risks involved in scaling remote peaks with minimal equipment and no support team. “There’s no line of retreat,” Simpson explains. “If you get badly hurt, you’ll probably die.” That the pair come off as normal English blokes only highlights the extreme nature of their passion. The climber’s fixation on an essential spiritual truth-that to live without confronting one’s own mortality is hardly to live at all-makes him a mortality junkie, craving the thrill of having life reaffirmed over and over, in the most literally death-defying circumstances. “This is what we live for,” Simpson and Yates confess. “That mixture of power and grace.”

With this, the filmmakers bring into focus the themes that make Touching the Void much more than an adventure story. Mike Eley’s camera sweeps vertiginously over majestic crags and harrowing plunges, conveying a grandeur that reduces the two men to tiny specks in an endless immensity of creation. At every turn the film conveys a visual religiosity, fetching up metaphors for human aloneness, ambition, and struggle-images like the puny light of a helmet lamp twinkling on a sheer face of rock in the gloom of twilight. And always, the slow, forbidding look up toward the heavens.

The vision mixes beauty and danger in equal measure. The immense white meringues of fresh powder after a storm make for treacherous climbing, cornices that can give way with one false step. With one such step, Joe breaks through and plunges out of control; when he lands, the impact shatters his leg, gruesomely driving his tibia up through his knee joint. At twenty thousand feet, such accidents often mean death. But Simon acts heroically. Refusing to abandon his partner, he ties their two ropes together and begins lowering him down the mountainside, three hundred feet at a time.

It seems all but hopeless; and then something even worse happens. The decline steepens toward a cliff, and Joe, tethered to Simon far above, goes sliding off; in the gathering dark and the howling wind, Joe now dangles helplessly at the end of his rope-a metaphor dreadfully made real. Hundreds of feet above, Simon has no idea what has occurred; all he knows is that the rope has gone taut, and that Joe’s weight is gradually pulling him down. The two men shout to each other, but their voices dissolve in the wind. Simon waits, and waits, and waits. An hour and a half passes, and with the weight on the rope threatening his precarious hold on the mountain face, Simon decides to act for his own survival. With a penknife he cuts the rope, abandoning Joe to his fate. The next day Simon makes it down the mountain and back to camp. Joe is dead, he tells a friend who’s been watching over the campsite.

But Joe is not dead. Cut loose, he has plummeted into a deep crevasse, where against all odds he lands on a fragile ledge and survives. Numb with pain and terror, he assesses his grim situation, shining his light down below. “The head torch went down and down,” he recalls years later, “and the darkness just ate it.” The thought of dying alone brings rushes of panic. In the film’s most disturbing moment, we see Joe crouched in the icy gloom, wailing in rage and despair: “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

From here on, Touching the Void becomes an exercise in the resurgent and tenacious will to live. “You’ve got to keep making decisions,” Joe explains, looking back. “If you stop making decisions, you’re stuffed.” His first, terrifying decision, since there is no way to climb out of the chasm, is to go down deeper, in hopes of finding some unseen way out. And lo and behold, in deeper darkness shines a light. Following it, he emerges, hilarious with joy, into the sun. Weak with dehydration and loss of blood from his injury, he now faces a seemingly endless journey of pain. How to get down the glacier, and then down several thousand vertical feet of boulders and scree back to camp? And even if by some miracle he makes it, will anyone still be there? Better not to think that far ahead. In Touching the Void, despair lies in seeing one’s predicament whole; psychic survival depends on breaking it down into the next few feet. Charting Joe’s progress as he crawls from one rock to the next constitutes the film’s brief for a limited vision, reminding us that the gods’ view is unbearable to humans. Touching the Void is hard to watch. The film puts a viewer through agonies of anguish. It doesn’t just chronicle a near-death experience; it feels like one. Lying on his back at night, staring at the stars, Joe experiences “a weird sensation that I’d lain here for centuries, for lifetimes, becoming part of the rocks.” Death seems less an event than a process, a quiet dwindling. “It was just a slow, steady reduction,” he recalls. “You didn’t care anymore whether you were brave or weak. You didn’t have any dignity. I felt left with nothing.”

What’s interesting is how such intimations of nihilism fail to account for wellsprings of courage and faith whose origins cannot easily be explained. Touching the Void works ironically, deepening its mysteries through its subjects’ inability to express them. Brought up as a Catholic, Joe had long since stopped believing in God, but had often wondered if, faced with a mortal situation, he would experience a foxhole re-conversion. It doesn’t happen. “I realized, I really don’t believe. When you die, you die. There’s no afterlife, and that’s it.” And yet his recollections remain tinged with awe-and bafflement-at the source of his own will to live. “It seemed like there was a very cold and pragmatic part of me that was saying, ‘You have to do this and this and this if you want to get there. So keep moving.’” It was a “separate” part of him, he recalls, “quite insistent and quite clear,” and “very uncaring.”

Evoking a sense of exalted puniness in the face of creation, Simpson’s trial by ice reveals the paradox of an exhilarated nihilism, taking us where atheism and deep spirituality blur together, and nothingness becomes its opposite. Like Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Touching the Void works by affirming what its protagonist stoutly denies. Who is that voice calling to us in the icy night of our despair?

Recent years have seen a spate of cleverly constructed films-Memento, The Sixth Sense, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation-that use fragmentation, replay, reverse chronology, and other narrative trickery to mess with our moviegoing minds, throwing us into doubt about the “reality” of what we’re seeing. Malkovich and Adaptation were the work of that Houdini of trickster-screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman. Now, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he’s at it again.

The film’s title is almost impossible to remember, and that’s part of the cleverness. Eternal Sunshine recounts the rocky, tender love affair between a shy nerd named Joel (Jim Carrey), and his mercurial nemesis, Clementine (Kate Winslet), who meet one Valentine’s Day on a snowy, deserted Long Island beach. Each has the strange feeling of having met in some other life. And in a sense, they have. The futuristic plot involves a mysterious clinical outfit called Lacuna, whose neurological treatments enable patients to expunge painful memories-indeed, entire relationships. Kaufman and director Michel Gondry proceed to take us on a madcap tour of Joel’s mind, following the cat-and-mouse game between his memories and the Lacuna technicians busily trying to hunt them down.

If the narrative convolutions of Kaufman’s previous films annoyed you, you’re not going to like this one, either. If, like me, however, you found those films dazzling but ultimately empty, then Eternal Sunshine may strike you as a magnificent fulfillment of crazed genius. The movie achieves a truly rare mix of the absurd, the surreal, and the heartfelt. Improbably, its wacked-out premise and structural hilarity concoct a melancholy meditation on love, loss, and memory, while delivering a message-subversive to our culture’s therapeutic optimism-about the tragedy of healing. Healing, Kaufman understands, depends in part on forgetting; and forgetting is a kind of violence, to the brain and to the soul. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best movie I’ve seen since...I don’t remember when, exactly.

Published in the 2004-04-23 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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