Film Reviews

Mountain-Climbing Doc Meru Is Thrilling When It Gets Around to Climbing

There's steady, scary thrill in the final third of Meru, the latest attempt to conquer the climb-and-tweak-the-nose-of-God mountaineering documentary, a genre that has yet to reach its apex. The terrible beauty of the Shark's Fin point of northern India's Mount Meru is enough to make this worth seeking out on the big screen — how better to appreciate the sickening way that the alpinists' tent, fastened to a ledge 18,000 feet up, flaps in the wind as the sun hauls itself over a ridge behind it? We see clouds in time-lapse twine and billow around Meru's base like the colored skirts of Annabelle the dancer in those earliest 19th-century Edison films.

It's the closest most of us will ever come to the grandeur of scraping against the heavens.

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These late climbing scenes are the closest most of us will ever come to the lightheaded, low-oxygen grandeur of scraping against the heavens, all stone silence and a lush seam of stars, but they also honor the specifics of that scraping, which is hard and dangerous toil. In darkness, the climbers chisel through ice, ascending an overhang that might shatter with their hammering — and, yes, you'll see chunks of granite the crew was counting on plummet to earth. This is a crowd pleaser, and it's no surprise it snagged the audience award for documentaries at Sundance last winter.

Getting to these moments is a bit of a climb itself, though. Such footage is precious, which is both a compliment and an acknowledgment that there's not as much of it as you might prefer. The alpinists — Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk — wear cameras, but they're more worried about their ascent than they are about getting the next shot. The film is filled out with interviews with the climbers, plus some of their other adventures, including skiing accidents and an avalanche. Chin (also a codirector, with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, his wife) speaks with chilling matter-of-factness about the possibility of dying — and how he felt more free to take risks following the death of his mother, whom he had promised would never see him die.

He speaks with chilling matter-of-factness about the possibility of dying.

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Less compelling is author Jon Krakauer, who sells Meru like he's the mountain's press rep: "The test of the master climber," he intones. He sells two-fisted drama too, making pronouncements like this in the middle reels, between the crew's two stabs at conquering the Shark's Fin: "If you die taking a stupid risk, not only are you dead — you've embarrassed yourself." If embarrassment is worse than death, why does he talk so much?

Meru

Featuring Conrad Anker, Grace Chin, and Jimmy Chin. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Opens Friday, September 11, at Bill Cosford Cinema (University of Miami Campus, 1111 Memorial Dr., Coral Gables, 305-284-4861, cosfordcinema.com) and O Cinema Miami Shores at Miami Theater Center (9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores, 305-571-9970, o-cinema.org).

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl