Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Grace under pressure

Leave it to the Germans to make a great Hemingway movie without Hemingway (which is the best way). It is best to get the spoiler out of the way-- North Face (2008) is about the failed effort to scale the north face of the Eiger (the Ogre) in Switzerland on the eve of the Second World War. The people of the time wanted to make this a nationalist phenomenon, but neither the protagonists nor the film are having any part of that claptrap. They want to climb because they want to climb; the film wants to follow them because that's what film wants to do.

Much has been made in the reviews of the authenticity of this film, and it certainly appears that way, but the special features on the DVD reveal just how extensively greenscreen and indoor sets were used ; most probably this is the only way such a brutally physically demanding story could have been told. The mountain has done away with more people than your average serial killer, and it would be inconceivable to work at the actual site, not least because it is always in shadow (hence the constant ice and snow). Nonetheless, almost none of the digital trickery is apparent on first viewing of the film--in fact, the film is too engrossing for the question of how it was accomplished to arise. Perhaps this marks a small moment in the maturity of digital effects--here is a film for which digital effects are a sine qua non, and yet they do not appear to be evident, so thoroughly convincing is the film. Nor would it be termed an "effects film" and yet they are more pervasive here than in many an action film.

Because it's never about the effects. It's about man versus mountain, and mountain wins decisively, but not without man giving a hell of a fight. Admittedly, the men look much the worse for wear, and if they had all survived, one harbors doubts about the quality of each of their lives thereafter. The point is, the film remains gripping and convincing in a way literally impossible just a few years ago. I wonder if we will become more sophisticated about such things, and in time the CGI in this film will look as fake as cheesy rear-projection from the 1940s looks to us now. Better not to wait to find out and appreciate these films now.

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