Free Solo (2018)


Films are stories. When the story is in the real world, a different set of narrative engineering principles come in to play.

A default is that somehow the filmmaker and crew present their own story of the quest for what we separately see. But there is a problem in this case; the crew has climbing skill and faces challenges just as great. They don’t take the same chance of death our hero does, but they take a far greater chance: being the ones that encourage a death and exploit it. This would have been a dangerous choice as counterstory and the filmmaker wisely decided to avoid it. But then what to put in its place?

The choice was the girlfriend story. And I have to say it was a brilliant choice. Just look at the comments next to mine here – she diverts, so the documentary is now a real, folded story: a story about a damaged being that we see in part from the eyes of a compliant lover, trying to write his own story by a public achievement.

Within this love story is a drama that I assume is genuine. In addition to the issue of whether the filmmakers are encouraging risk, we have the more powerful story of whether simply being watched ruins it for our climber. He seems not afraid of public failure, rather his Asperger’s fights the idea of having someone else close. Having someone else share the exercise destroys the mechanism he has privately built to process through this mechanical task. So we have a point in the movie where the existence of the movie is questioned on both sides. For someone who understand’s Asperger’s this gets to one core notion of love, life and story: when are urges shared? When can urges make stories that matter?

The end of the thing makes its own judgement: this fellow is a hero, conquering fear and nature. But that’s not the case, he did it because he could not conquer his own compulsion.

The girlfriend is not portrayed fairly here, as the selfish weak groupie who has to be sent away. There are numerous cheats: the camera is there for too many clearly staged episodes. They likely are genuine, but what does it take for us to see him wake on the important day? For us to conveniently be there when the most dramatic dialog between two fragile beings occurs? For us to watch her face as she drives away?

I recommend this highly, because if you are trying to be someone in a shared life, if you are working the balance between satisfaction and display or the challenge of separating desire from physical display.

Stop before the credits. The production is competent, even sometimes spectacular, but the song at the end negates all.

Posted in 2019

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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