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The Many Faces of Free Solo

This is an essay on the Oscar-winning documentary, Free Solo by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. I'm not putting in spoiler tags because it's been so long since it came out. But if you haven't seen it, this isn't going to ruin it; this is less about plot and more about the utterly original visual stories. Do yourself a favor and play Marco Beltrami's glorious soundtrack while you read this. All the images here are screenshots from the documentary I watched on the National Geographic website. I highly support watching it there and supporting the storytelling that they're doing.

There is so much raw beauty in this film: the beauty of the trees (among my favorite living beings), and of the rock; the beauty of concentration and of being so fully in flow (reminding me in a funny way of seeing Prince in this video -- and the obvious pleasure of Tom Petty and that teenaged-looking guitarist watching Prince).

The thing is, this film, in which nature is so often the star, is especially beautiful at portraiture, showing us faces in all their complexity, sometimes perfectly aligned with and sometimes starkly in contrast with the words spoken.

The first face we see is, fittingly, the beautiful Yosemite granite itself, at an angle most of us will never see in real life-- plunging straight down to the lush valley below:

The next is climber Alex Honnold, in perfect concentration:

And then we're removed from the vast beauty of Yosemite and plopped into the discord of a tv studio, complete with cameras, lights, and cables. And, as someone for whom sound matters a lot, we go from the serenity of ambient sound to sound that both sounds and feels to me like it's indoors, within four walls and a roof. On this jarringly domestic set of what looks like a morning talk show, the interviewer's face is a picture of pure incredulity after Alex affirms that she indeed does understand the very simple, stark, all-or-nothing stakes of free soloing:

And this interviewer, regarding the person who just asked about Alex's dating life, and Alex's answer that climbing has not been good for his dating life. Doesn't her face tell a thousand stories itself? I wonder if this is the first, fifth, five thousandth time she's seen this kind of exchange. Maybe she has a lovelorn teen at home? I feel like she knows things:

I noticed that, more than most, Alex's face almost always fully reflects exactly what he says. I'm using the word "guileless" more than once in this post. Here, he talks about how tired he is and how scary it is to climb El Capitan. I probably could have opened the post with this one; this was the moment I realized how much story the filmmakers were telling by framing faces in these portrait-like shots that instantly capture and communicate specific feelings.

The portrait of Sanni comes and goes in a flash, so quickly it was a little challenging to screenshot, but so impactful I had to try. Who doesn't know this feeling? Is this going to work? I'm not one to contemplate much or infer much about real people's relationships, but it seemed like such an important moment in the film, establishing something about a relationship that would thread through the heart of the film.

This kid who clearly feels like his question asking Alex how much money he has is totally legit (and, in fairness, from a couple interviews I've seen, it sounds like he's not the only one who's asked). I totally loved his face-- he's clearly surprised that his question would meet resistance from some adult in the room:

Tommy Caldwell, another extraordinary climber, does not hide his concern when reviewing the climbers, many of whom are friends and acquaintances, who have died in recent years. Get you a friend who loves you and looks out for you and yet still helps you achieve your most out-there dream like Tommy Caldwell does for his friends.

And of course, there is the inimitable Jimmy Chin, whose words say one thing: "We have to work through that [the fear of inadvertently causing Alex to make an error and fall to his death] and understand that what we're doing is something we can live with even in a worst case scenario," BIG SIGH. And even as he says those words, his face says that maybe it's not entirely possible, to work through that fear and accept that possibility. That he knows that maybe, he will not be able to live with a worst case scenario. That he knows that he doesn't know, really, what he would feel and do. This is the face, to me, of a man whose heart fully holds conflict, even as he chooses to move forward with the project.

This moment created a portrait that struck me as such a terrific perspective for the filmmakers to include. The scene is one of conviviality, of being decidedly not alone in that moment, and a reminder that no life or endeavor is ever entirely solo. It's also lifting up a moment of trust-- handing over your infant to a friend. That infant is clearly as secure as they've ever been; it's a great portrait of a life being "in good hands."

And then there's Mama Diedre, who says she couldn't tell him to not solo. And later in the film, describing their family life, she recounts how they used to toss off little insults to young Alex when he got something wrong, musing about how that must have affected him. I don't know if it's a climbing community ethos, or the talent of Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin as filmmakers, or some combination, but everyone in this film seems exceptionally willing to be ruthlessly honest and disarmingly guileless in front of the camera. This, to me, is the face of a wise mom who has found some peace in accepting her son doing what he does:

The much-discussed face of Mikey Schaefer, the extremely capable and talented photographer and audience proxy. This is so well shot. One look at his face and what more needs to be said?

Until it's finished. The joy of Jimmy Chin is beyond focus. He's radiating relief and happiness:

And, complete.


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