The Ghosts of Everest

Everest.  May 10, 1996.  When it comes to disaster folklore the date itself has an Everest-ian awe about it.  The storm that shook the mountain that day, and its immediate aftermath, were propelled into the spotlight by John Krakauer’s utterly compelling book Into Thin Air, which evolved from an article on guided ascents he had been commissioned to write for Outside magazine.  This legend was built upon, sometimes contradicted and debated by Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, Beck Weather’s Left For Dead and a plethora of subsequent books written by survivors or observers.  What happened behind the drawn curtain of those black clouds was further parsed, argued and questioned in documentaries like The Dark Side of Everest and Storm Over Everest, debated in on-line mountaineering forums, and was even the instigator of fiery showdowns at book festivals.  Nearly 20 years have passed since that devastating storm and much of that fractious dust has now settled.  Time heals wounds.  Though, it must be said, only some of them.

Into this now dormant fray steps the British-American blockbuster, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest.  The film tells the story of friendly rivals New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and their quests to guide paying clients to the top of the world’s highest peak.  Hall is the methodical Kiwi, thoughtful and precise; Fischer a somewhat enigmatic and ephemeral character prone to bouts of contemplative drinking and impulsive decision making.  Both team leaders never return from their ill-fated summit attempts as a ferocious ex-cyclone engulfs the mountain on the afternoon of May 10, 1996, with members of the two climbing teams strung out across the mountain’s death zone, struggling to descend to the (relative) safety of their tents, still perilously high on the mountain, at camp four.

The film focuses predominantly on the futile struggles for survival of the two leaders and the (almost) death and resurrection of amateur climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin).  Weathers is left for dead as he lay just a few hundred metres away from camp, face down in the snow, gloveless, the exposed flesh of his face and hands already dead and blackened.  Weathers’ story is one of perseverance and the indomitable nature of the human spirit.  It is the optimistic counterpoint to the hopelessness of Hall’s predicament.  He is trapped high on the mountain, still communicating sporadically with those at base camp via radio and even, through some low-fi ingenuity, with his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home in New Zealand. But he is too exhausted to descend, having spent a night exposed to the full force of the storm and lies beyond the reach of any rescuers.  “You might as well be on the moon,” is a phrase Hall used hypothetically to describe such a situation, unaware of the prophetic nature of his own words.

For those familiar with the story the events depicted are inevitable.  Ill-fated decisions form a kind of disaster checklist as the storm races towards the mountain from its origins in the Bay of Bengal: Fischer allowing guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurõsson) to climb without supplemental oxygen; Hall not turning back client Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) despite missing key deadlines; Weathers insisting on waiting for Hall to return before beginning his own descent.  Each one a Harbinger of doom.

Kormákur is successful in pacing the events leading up to the storm, steadily building tension like a slowly quickening drum beat.  But as the storm hits, its chaos is translated chaotically to the screen.  Things happen.  Some live, some die.  The action feels routine and superficial and by the time the credits are rolling somehow unresolved and unsatisfying.

In his review in The New Yorker Anthony Lane argues the film suffers from the same overcrowding that the summit attempt itself encountered.  I agree with that sentiment.  In attempting to tell such a broad story the filmmakers are forced to condense too much of the unfolding drama.  The huddle on the South Col, an epic struggle of a group of hopelessly lost individuals forced to come to terms with the perilous fragility of their own mortality, is given only a cursory treatment.  People are lost, and then they are found.  Others are left to die.  As a result, only the agonisingly drawn-out demise of Rob Hall is really properly fleshed out.

Paradoxically I think the film’s biggest shortcoming is that its narrative is too narrowly focused.  The story of the 1996 storm is epic not just because so many died, but because so many escaped their own brushes with death.  In making the choices they have the filmmakers have delivered a film much like the experiences it depicts, lost in a no man’s land, neither here nor there.  Ultimately such an epic tale is just too big to fit into the restrictive mould of the feature film.  For anyone familiar with the real-life story, the filmmakers’ omissions are too resounding to be ignored, and as a result work to detract from the film’s pathos.

For me, the most disconcerting of these omissions is the almost complete whitewashing of the Taiwanese expedition from the story.  Gau Ming-Ho’s (Makalu) survival story is every bit as harrowing and remarkable as Weathers’ is.  When you consider that he was actually stranded higher up on the mountain than any other survivor, it is perhaps even more so.  Such was Makalu’s condition when the survivors reached camp two, he was the first to be evacuated from the mountain by helicopter.  In the film only Weathers is evacuated.

Like Weathers, Makalu lost large parts of hands his to frostbite (he also lost all of his toes).  While I understand that filmmaking is about choices and that perhaps the filmmakers considered Makalu’s story too similar to that of Weathers, I find it hard to shake the belief that Makalu would have featured much more prominently in the film had he been a westerner.  It seems inconceivable to me that the person trapped higher than any other survivor speaks but two words in the film.  And that was while back at base camp.  Even though he was not part of the Fischer or Hall teams his story is so inextricably linked with the storm, and the characters portrayed in the film, his absence is deafening.

As a popcorn movie Everest is certainly entertaining enough.  Visually stunning, its greatest achievement is in showing us these brightly coloured, down entombed specks, as they inch their way towards the top of the earth. I’ve read some describe the film as inferior to the Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger or its even more dreadful imitator Vertical LimitEverest is certainly vastly superior to such cartoonish and blustery films. But as a record of what happened on Everest during the 1996 storm it is superficial and flawed.

As such, Martin Breashear’s brilliant 2008 documentary Storm Over Everest remains the definitive filmic record of the 1996 disaster.  The events of that day are told through the recollections of many of the survivors of that storm: the left for dead Weathers and Makalu; guides Neil Beidleman and Michael Groom; paying climbers Charlotte Fox, Lene Gammelgaard, Sandy Hill Pittman, Lou Kasischke, and John Taske.  The sense of confusion and helplessness felt by so many in the storm, which is missing from Everest, is almost palpable when told firsthand by those who were there.

This misplaced emotional connection is perhaps best epitomised in the last images of the film.  The filmmakers’s decision to show a short home movie clip of Hall’s now teenage daughter Sarah is jarring, completely out of context, and feels like a phoney, cynical feel-good tactic.  It cheapens what had been to that point the film’s strongest emotional content, the heartbreaking final conversation between Hall and his wife.  The filmmakers successfully portrayed this real-life conversation without resorting to melodrama.  But maybe much as the climbers themselves are mysteriously called to the mountain, in the end they just couldn’t resist the lure of melodrama’s siren song.

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Chasing Amy

If there is one image in Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy that I identify with the most it is an innocuous, almost incidental shot that comes towards the end of the film.  It doesn’t even feature Amy.  A young child playing on a beach in St Lucia throws some unseen object at Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s (expletive deleted) father.  When I leave the theatre that somewhat obtuse image stays with me.  It is what I feel compelled to do, though maybe just in a figurative sense.  Maybe not.  I don’t think myself a violent person.  My last serious altercation was precipitated by my failure to understand that my Superman handkerchief wasn’t the only one on the planet, let alone at my kindergarten.  Yet watching this film I feel my fists clench involuntarily whenever that man appears on screen.  By its end, the film has me responding to Amy’s inevitable destruction as if I were in the audience of a Punch and Judy show.  I am shaking my head, letting out horrified guffaws, responding with Pavlovian outrage whenever he appears on screen, by her side.

I have never been an Amy fan.  I can honestly say I don’t remember ever hearing an Amy Winehouse song before watching the documentary.  Sure, I’ve heard people talk about her popular songs like Rehab and Back to Black, though I was never quite sure whether or not Back to Black was just a cover of AC/DC’s Back in Black, such was the attention I paid to her career.  Amy was just some messed up junkie with a few hit songs and a death wish that I heard about in passing, though I do remember my reaction to the news of her death as something like: ‘well that was inevitable wasn’t it’?

So I came to this documentary as a bit of a clean slate.  I’d read some press about the film, and it got me interested, maybe because I have more than a passing fascination with stories about tortured geniuses.  But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this sad tragic figure.  Young Amy is an engaging, awkward character.  Quick-witted, intelligent, mischievous, with a transcendent voice, destined for greatness, though she possesses an almost child-like honesty (watch her eyes when Jonathan Ross tells her that her management company also manages music-factory farmed  S Club 7), incapable of bullshit.

I almost instantly feel a kind of paternal affection for her.  Though this affection is for Amy the person not Amy the performer.  I have to confess that don’t find her music all that enjoyable to listen to; I am definitely no fan of jazz music, with its bebop chords and wailing vocals.  While I recognise her singing voice as something extraordinary, I don’t enjoy hearing it.  I am certainly not about to engage in some retrospective iTunes download binge.  Having said that I do recognise her extraordinary lyric writing talent.  Her words are raw and jagged like the broken mirror shard she drags across her skin in a Terry Richardson photo shoot with then fiancé Blake (I will return to this moment later).  She was a truly gifted performer.  It’s just not my kind of thing.

Amy the person lived and died in the shadow of her father.  Early in the film, she describes him as an absent father, even before he moved out of the family home to take up with another woman with whom he’d been engaged in a years long affair.  Amy was nine.  I would argue that it was the defining moment of her life. The feelings of abandonment this must have generated dogged her future relationships with men, including her father.  Amy remained a daddy’s girl, complete with declarative shoulder tattoo, to the bitter end.  For whatever reason her feelings for her father never grew beyond that childish phase when wide-eyed daughters think their fathers infallible.  Most good fathers can never live up to being placed on such a pedestal.  The bad ones don’t come even remotely close.  I’d classify Mitch Winehouse as one of the later.

With her father gone Amy was raised by mother Janis.  She acted out; developed a penchant for tattoos and piercings.  In her own words Janis was too weak and indulgent to say no to her wilful daughter.  Though perhaps Janis was just too shellshocked from the betrayal and abandonment of her husband to provide Amy with the discipline she craved.   Both parents reacted to Amy’s teenage bulimia with negligent indifference, describing it as fad she would quickly outgrow (head shake moment).  Her death from alcohol poisoning a decade later was enabled by the toll this fad-bulimia had taken; Amy too broken and thin to process a toxin that wouldn’t have been lethal to a healthier body.

The second most important relationship in Amy’s life was with Black Fielder-Civil.  With hindsight it is so easy to define their co-dependent relationship as the beginning of her end.  Fielder-Civil is a lamprey-like character, in the right place at the right time to hitch a ride on a fish that is going somewhere big.  But I think it is a too easy for us to condemn this easy-to-condemn figure.  Given her abandonment issues it isn’t hard to see Fielder-Civil as just a cypher.  If it weren’t him she would probably would have let some other troubled junkie hitch their wagon to her star.

When Fielder-Civil calls an end to his intense affair with Amy to stay with his girlfriend, Winehouse is devastated.  She writes Back to Black. The eponymous album launches her onto the world stage.  With Amy now a global commodity Fielder-Civil conveniently re-enters in her life.  After a quick engagement they marry in Florida.  He introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Begin downward spiral.

Fielder-Civil has commented since the documentary’s release that it is unfair to blame him for Amy’s death.   Though he is quite a loathsome character (his twisted reasoning for filing for divorce is another head shake moment) I have to agree.  He was an enabler not a leader.  Amy’s unconditional love for him was pathological.

One of the more sickening sequences in the film is the footage of Amy and soon-to-be-husband Blake at a shoot for celeb photographer Terry Richardson.  It is pure voyeurism as Richardson snaps the couple with his two old-style cameras as they pash-on.  Backstage, Amy tells the video camera, wielded by her fiancé, in a child-like chemical addled voice ‘I wrote I love Blake on my Tummy’.  She is describing the part of the shoot where Richardson has her holding a long pointed shard from a broken mirror to her skin.  She is wasted.  Her eyes are dead.  The mischievous sparkle in her eyes of her early interviews lost to the fog.  It is hard not to feel repulsed by Richardson’s enthusiasm.  He is exploiting them.  I suppose he represents us.

Despite the gloom there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the film.  Early Amy’s eye-rolling reaction to an offscreen reporter waxing lyrical about Dido’s songwriting inspirations is priceless.  Sadly as Amy is lost to her addictions such moments become all too infrequent.  In a brief window of sobriety for the 2008 Grammy Awards (she was nominated for six awards) we catch a last glimpse of this mischievous spirit after Natalie Cole reads the name of fellow nominee Justin Timberlake’s entry, ‘his [song] is called What Goes Around… Comes Around?’  Her face couldn’t look more contemptuous.  Any thoughts that this moment of sobriety may become a turning point in Amy’s life are dashed just moments later as childhood friend Juliette Ashby recalls Amy’s backstage confession: ‘Jules, this is so boring without drugs’.

As 2011 approaches Amy’s death looms inevitable.  Her management team send her on a twelve show comeback tour of sorts through Europe. Such is her enthusiasm for the tour we are told that she is taken unconscious from her home and delivered to the private jet still unconscious (head shake moment).  The first concert in Serbia is a well-publicised disaster.  She is too drunk to perform.  It is set to become the final live performance of her career.  All remaining shows are cancelled.  In just over a month Winehouse will be discovered laying in her bed, dead.

It didn’t have to end this way.  Yes, Amy made a string of disastrous choices.  But ultimately she was let down by the one man she should have most been able to depend upon with her life.  Mitch Winehouse repeatedly appeared to prioritise both Amy’s and his own fame at the expense of her welfare; his shameless attempts to publicly exploit his daughter’s misfortune both before and after her death too numerous to document.  Yet even towards the end his was perhaps the only voice that could have set Amy straight.  He claims that there was nothing more he could have done to save her, though this seems completely at odds with the reverence in which she held him.  Even during her last recording session, a duet with Tony Bennett, she tells Bennett how jealous her father would be of her at that moment.  She is her daddy’s girl.

Mitch is currently engaged in a high-profile publicity campaign condemning the film.  He quibbles about trivialities with the final cut of the film, focusing on things like the editing of his statement ‘Amy didn’t need to go to rehab at that time’.  The filmmakers cut the final three words. The time he is talking of was prior to the release of Back to Black.  Though Mitch didn’t believe Amy needed rehab ‘at that time’ plenty of her closest friends did.  That Mitch continues to argue this point is a sad indicator of the delusion he has cocooned himself in.

Since Amy’s death Mitch has continued to build a career out of being Amy’s dad. The former taxi driver has released an album, written a book, and established the Amy Winehouse Foundation for troubled youth.  Now he threatens to produce his own film in response to what he sees as the omissions and misrepresentations in Amy, particularly during the final three years of her life.  Based on everything I have seen and read about Mitch since watching the film I think it promises rival the propagandistic splendour of FIFA hagiography United Passions.  Asif Kapadia’s Amy has done much to rehabilitate Amy Winehouse’s tattered reputation. Let’s hope Mitch’s response is about more than simply rehabilitating his.