So I saw Free Solo again, this time in IMAX.
As much as you’d expect the added volume — both auditory and visual — of an IMAX presentation to amplify the stakes of Alex Honnold’s death-defying climb, it actually isn’t that different, probably due to — as explained last week — the dearth of eye-popping cinematography. The problem goes beyond a sheer numbers game; the framing of a lot of the stomach-churning shots don’t make the most of what’s stomach-churning. The filmmakers were understandably constrained by the limited angles available to them based on the terrain, but even so, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin seem to be more adept at probing the psychology of climbers.
For fear of shortchanging their talent, I should note that Meru, their last climbing-centric documentary, demonstrated their ability to edit together action footage to lucidly convey what it’s like to be up on these mountains with such daredevils. In this way, Meru is more experientially-minded than Free Solo; while still interested in the cognitive realm of its subjects, Meru focuses more on bringing the experience of climbing to life for the audience. It helps that Chin is one of these climbers; when a director doubles as one of a the main characters of a documentary, it tends to result in superior footage.
Chin also appears in Free Solo — albeit peripherally — but understanding the recorder’s relationship to the recorded — even minimally — adds another layer for the audience to contemplate, one that more documentaries should utilize. The genre tends to feign objectivity, as if documentarians simply point their cameras at reality, and that’s exactly what we see. In actuality, they’re intermediaries who participate in the documented events, thus altering them to some degree.
Documentaries that fail to disclose the role they played in what we’re watching simplify the complexity of the form.