Free Solo a Manipulative Thrill

Free Solo (2018)
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
National Geographic Movies, 100 minutes, PG-13

Free Solo tells the tale of how Alex Honnold scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan freestyle. That means he had no ropes, no harness, and no safety net of any sort. For those keeping score, El Capitain rises slightly more than 3,000 feet from the Yosemite Valley floor–most of it vertical. There was zero margin for error; any misstep, stumble, or missed finger grip would have been fatal. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the most recent Academy Awards. I beg to differ.

As I wrote in a different context last year, though Honnold’s achievement was remarkable, it seemed reckless to give a lot of publicity to such a dangerous and foolhardy pursuit in an age in which even a movie such as Dumb and Dumber invites copycat behavior. For that reason alone, I ducked Free Solo when it was in theatrical release. Now that I’ve seen it, though, I have different reasons for questioning the wisdom of handing it an Oscar.

First, though, here are some good things about it. The film crew consisted of experienced mountain climbers such as Tommy Caldwell, Mikey Schaefer, Peter Croft, and co-director Jimmy Chin. They were anchored, but because they know the climber’s craft, they were able to provide angles, vertigo-inducing shots, and perspectives that no super long lens could duplicate. Their task was nothing less than getting close enough to give us a bird’s eye view, yet remain far enough away to avoid distracting Honnold during his 4-hour Spiderman scale of El Capitan’s sheer face. This and Bob Eisenhardt’s judicious film editing create the illusion of a dance between life and death.

Yet it is an illusion. We know from the onset that Honnold made it. It was in all the papers. And did you really think National Geographic was going to slap its name on a mall film in which the hero is shown plunging to his death and lying bloody and broken on the canyon rocks? This means that Free Solo has to build faux drama and this is where things get dicey. First, Honnold is a rather weird guy. He dropped out of college and lived in his van for several years as a semi-vagabond with a teenaged boy’s hygiene and habits. Second, he is so introverted that one wonders how he ever won the affection of his pretty, perky girlfriend Sanni McCandless. The two barely speak, but McCandless comes across as amazingly nonchalant that the mountain might tear her main squeeze apart life and limb. If these and the furrowed brows of Alex’s friends seem contrived, perhaps they are. If you watch carefully, some of the scenes seem more ‘rehearsed’ than genuine.

Or maybe it only seems that way because the soundtrack is both bland and manipulative. Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts are listed as responsible for the film’s music, though I am unsure how much they scored versus how many canned sounds they simply imported. As I have written before, documentaries often feature ‘neutral’ backing music that is seldom interesting in its own right but contains tonal shifts to signify anxiety, fear, inspiration, or relief. If you wonder why, it’s because when an audience already knows the outcome, it must be tricked into suspending belief. We must believe—even for an instant—that Honnold might actually fall. That’s also why we see footage of Honnold falling from the face when he is harnessed. We are supposed to think, “How can he climb El Capitan without a rope when he can’t do it with one?”

I get it that people do all manner of things for an adrenaline rush: roller coasters, bungie jumping, racing cars, parachuting, surfing…. Alex Honnold is certainly a fit young man who pulled off a remarkable feat. He’s also 34-years-old now and continues to free climb. As the film documents, that’s generally not an occupation that takes one to old age. There are certainly plenty of thrilling shots in Free Solo that give the more cautious of us a look at something we’d see no other way. Were it me, though, I’d pay a whole lot more attention to Sanni and admire El Capitan from its base.

I enjoyed Free Solo for its gorgeous photography. But Best Documentary? Nope.

Rob Weir


Woodstock, Vermont and Quechee: Small Towns

Middle Covered Bridge
Some small towns are off the radar screen and surprise you; some have oversized reputations and underwhelm. Put Woodstock, Vermont into that second category. It was once voted the prettiest small town in America, but that was obviously before the 2007-09 recession. Downtown Woodstock has its upscale artisan galleries, but it also has some boarded-up properties and some decidedly down-market offerings. Mostly it feels like what you’d expect from a town with a declining population. Although Woodstock is the seat of government for Windsor County, its permanent population is now just 2,980.

Woodstock’s reputation rests on its proximity to the Suicide Six and Killington ski resorts and its historical connection to Laurance and Mary Rockefeller. Woodstock is just 50 miles from the New York State border and we saw more New York cars on downtown streets than Vermonters–not that I can complain having driven there bearing Massachusetts plates.

What one can complain about, though, is New York prices for things not worthy of them. We had heard great things about the Mountain Creamery and decided to give it a try for breakfast. It has my vote for the most overrated joint in which I’ve eaten all year. It’s a diner folks, one that looks as if it last redecorated in the late 1950s. But it surely has updated what it charges. This is the land of the $15 breakfast entrée and you won’t get anything you can’t find for half the price elsewhere. I was a bit PO’d to sit in a cracked vinyl booth and be handed a tab for $40 for two. Avoid!

Woodstock Inn
Town library
When people use “pretty” and Woodstock in the same sentence, they are usually talking about The Green, an elegant few blocks of Federalist, Georgian, and Greek Revival homes hard by the Woodstock Inn.  Rooms there start at about $250 per night. We were daytrippers, but I will say that the place has charm. Another building that dazzled was the Norman Williams Library, a handsome Richardsonian Romanesque with pretty cool woodwork throughout. We opted out of going to the Billings Farm Museum, which we had visited many years ago. Mostly we stayed away this time because we live in farming territory and, if like me, your grandparents were farmers, you sort of know about old-time agriculture.

Taftsville bridge
Of more scenic interest are three covered bridges either in or near downtown Woodstock. The Ottauquechee River runs through the town and a relatively new but authentic-looking Middle Covered Bridge is an easy stroll from The Green. More impressive is the Taftsville Covered Bridge just east of the downtown. Woodstock is actually made up of three entities: the town and the villages of Taftsville and South Woodstock. If you’re looking for quaint, the last two better fit the bill.

Gallery window
We spent some time poking in a few galleries in Woodstock. We saw a lot of high- quality crafts that also carried big price tags. This is a fun activity if you treat it as the equivalent of visiting a museum. An easier-on-the-wallet thing to do is visit F. H. Gillingham and Sons, which has been around since 1886. It’s a cross between an authentic throwback meets the ersatz Vermont Country Store. Luckily, it’s more the first than the second. What’s your pleasure? Candy? Overalls? Hardware? Cheese? Socks? You get the picture. While you’re at it, check out the old photos and antique displays throughout the store.
Inside Gillingham & Son

The coolest thing in the area isn’t in Woodstock; it’s in Quechee (population 656) and I’m not talking about the Quechee Gorge. We’ve been to the gorge numerous times and, though it bills itself Vermont’s Little Grand Canyon, that’s the very definition of hyperbole. The gorge is, as it implies, a narrow slot canyon carved by the Ottauquechee River. Unless you’re up for a hike, you park your car by the bridge on Route 4 and walk to its middle and look down 165 feet. In the spring there’s whitewater; by this time of the year it’s mostly a shallow, rocky, thin stream. It’s pleasant, but Grand Canyon? Ummmm… no. You’re over and done in ten minutes.

No, my friends, the coolest thing in the area lies in the rather non-descript Quechee Gorge Village shopping mall: the Vermont Toy Museum. For just $4 you can roam amidst a collector’s obsession that was picked up by others. In all there are more than 100,000 toys, games, and layouts that survey childhood diversions from 1900 on. It’s not as slick as the Strong Museum in Rochester, but it’s more manageable. Like the strip mall in which it sits (and occupies much of the second floor), parts of the collection are vintage in more ways than one. None of the train displays were working, for instance. Still, it doesn’t matter what era you were a kid, you’ll find reminders of your past in nearly every one of its cramped corridors. We loved it. Maybe it had something to do with being underwhelmed by Woodstock, but we like to think it’s because its unpretentious charm struck a chord.


Rob Weir


The Lewis Man a Decent Sequel (despite flaws)

The Lewis Man (2014)
By Peter May
Quercus Books, 2012, 320 pages.
★★★ ½

This sequel to The Blackhouse finds Fin Macleod living on Lewis–sans his wife and his job with the police force. Call it Fin’s midlife crisis. But at least he’s back in a place where he feels comfortable, which he never experienced while living in Edinburgh.

Fin, though, is just not the sort of man who is ever entirely at peace. Nor is he the greatest planner in the world. He’s been living in a tent and puttering around trying to repair his late aunt’s croft house; if you asked him if he and his old girlfriend Marsaili were an item, he really couldn’t tell you for certain. He has certainly bonded with her son Fionnlaigh (Fee-on’-lak), who could use some adult male advice, as he has impregnated his girlfriend Donna. She happens to be the daughter of Fin’s old mate Donald Murray, but the two of them are not exactly on good terms as Donald has gone from former hellraiser to an intolerant hell-fire-and-brimstone minister. If you’ve read the first book, you know that Fin and religion are not bedfellows. Fin sees Donald as a sanctimonious hypocrite, and Donald views Fin as an unrepentant sinner.

Little do Donald and Fin realize that a Lewis mystery is about to pull everyone into closer orbit. DS George Gunn is called when peat bank diggers unearth a mummified male body. This isn’t unheard of in Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps some of you have been to Dublin and have seen the leathery but well-reserved head and torso of Old Croghan Man in the National Museum, a find over 2,000 years old. Peat is an excellent preservative; the acids in peat are similar to vinegar and essentially “pickle” bodies. DS Gunn’s first thought is to call in the archaeologists. That plan is waylaid when the autopsy reveals a sinister detail: the body has an Elvis tattoo and he was murdered.

Fin wheedles his way into the case in an unofficial capacity when DNA  looks as if the body has some connection to Tormod Macdonald, Marsaili’s father. Alas, Tormod is of no help as he is suffering from advanced dementia. One of the book’s central themes is that of what children actually know of their parents’ youth. Marsaili, for instance, knew little of her father’s boyhood, or that he–a Protestant–spent in a Catholic orphanage. Fin tries to piece together Tormod’s past, a journey that will send him island-hopping and eventually back to Edinburgh’s Dean Village, a now-bucolic 19th century mill village within the city that hugs the Water of Leith (a small river), where Tormod’s orphanage once stood.

May tells interweaving tales that touch upon schoolboys, a dare, and a tragedy. It will also lead him into contact with the Kellys, an infamous Edinburgh organized crime family. As he freelances his way through a 50-year-old murder mystery, he inadvertently places Tormod, Fionnlaigh, Marsaili, an actress, and himself in danger. I rather doubt that you will see the resolution coming.

Once again May paints evocative pictures of Scotland’s past and its wild places. Lewis and Harris are part of an island archipelago that includes Uist and Eriskay, both of which factor into the novel. The Outer Hebrides (Hebb’-ri-dees)–as they are collectively known–feature isolated beaches, windswept hills, exposed bedrock, treeless moors, peat banks, low-lying machair (pasture and farm land), marsh, lochs, and abundant bird life. What it lacks is people–it’s 50 islands of which just 15 are inhabited and contain just 26,000 individuals. May’s Lewis is a place in which humans struggle against nature. Many fishermen, for instance, cannot swim—there’s no point as the water is too frigid to survive for long. It’s also one in which social change comes inexorably, but slowly. For every person who wishes to march into the future, there is one (or more) who’d rather flip the calendar backward.

May is at his best when he shows these tensions and places individuals within them. I enjoyed Lewis Man, though it lacks the convincing drama of The Blackhouse. Objectively speaking, one could fault May for building his dénouement around too many potboiler contrivances. Still, the man sure can turn beautiful phrases and he has populated his Lewis trilogy with memorable characters whom we come to know and care about.

Rob Weir