Thursday, July 22, 2010

Climbing, Surfing, and Sermonizing: 180° South

Chilean Patagonia is truly beautiful country that just cries out for an ambitious development scheme. At least, that seems to be the takeaway from a new documentary, unless it is trying to make a statement on conservation. It is hard to tell, because it only interrupts the on-screen action for an environmental lecture every forty-five seconds or so. That is unfortunate, because there might be a decent real life adventure film buried underneath all the proselytizing in Chris Malloy’s 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless (trailer here), which is now available on DVD.

Though they would eventually become wealthy outdoor sporting apparel magnates, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins (founders of Patagonia and North Face, respectively) were once rock-climbing surf slackers. Their 1968 ascent of Cerro Corcavado in Patagonia became the stuff of legend amongst climbers, especially for outdoor writer Jeff Johnson. As 180 opens, it looks like Johnson will finally have an opportunity to follow in his mentors footsteps up the Corcavado. Naturally though, he takes the scenic route, signing on as a crew member on a small yacht making its way to Chile.

In retrospect, this may or may not have been a mistake. In a freak accident, the mast snaps, forcing the yacht to take refuge on Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) to improvise repairs. Though the delay shortens the window in which Johnson can safely attempt the climb, it allows him an opportunity to enjoy the local surf and to meet Makohe Ika, the first Rapa Nui woman surfer and the film’s most interesting character. When the yacht is finally sea-worthy again, she tags along to share the adventure, despite having no prior mountaineering experience.

Frankly, it would be far more interesting to learn more about how the skipper jury-rigged a new mast out of a tree trunk then to sit through the endless pontificating from Chouinard. To give credit where it is due, he and Tompkins put their money where their mouths are, buying huge tracts of Patagonia to put into conservation. However, the film frequently mentions their supposed critics, without talking to any directly or even explaining their complaints. As a result, 180 often appears to be building them up through the use of straw men. After all, what’s to debate? It is their money and their land. They can do with it as they see fit.

Indeed, the constant sermonizing in 180 frequently undercuts the inherent drama of Johnson’s expedition. It also ignores rather obvious questions that will be going through viewers’ heads, like is there anything between Johnson and Ika and if not, did he get shot down or what? Instead, we get dubious object lessons in “sustainability,” like an animated sequence attributing the near collapse of the Rapa Nui society in the 1860’s to over-consumption, rather than the wholesale slave-raiding that devastated the population.

Still, 180 is certainly pretty to look at. Daniel Moder’s cinematography conveys a sense of the breadth and majesty of Patagonia while also capturing some intense climbing and surfing sequences. It is accompanied by a surprisingly effective moody indie rock soundtrack that is likely to appeal to the film’s target demographic. However, without a stronger human story to follow, the film largely feels like a series of motion postcards, interrupted by polemical green PSA’s.

Despite the general likability of Johnson and Ika, 180 is a frustrating film that sabotages its message with its heavy-handedness. The scenery is striking though. Some may start streaming it on Netflix with the sound off, just as a screen saver. Yet, as a work of cinema, 180 is pretty thin. Now available on DVD, it also has select one-night only theatrical screenings scheduled in the coming weeks.