Did you have to be there? 21st Century Adventure Cinema

Managing editor Daniel Howe investigates whether adventure cinema offers anything other than vicarious thrills for the armchair abseiler. When do adventure films become art? Given the scope and material that is presented why is it that so many ‘look at me I’m jumping off something’ films fail to ignite the passions of their audience?

You had to be there.

What makes modern commercial cinema so stale and formulaic? Radical ideas are risky ideas, and major studios seem unwilling to do anything but throw money at genre mainstays with big box-office potential. This is hardly helped by the uncritical blindness of the general viewing public. Bolstered by huge publicity campaigns and homogenised cinema chains trawling the crowd is it time to turn off the mainstream and look elsewhere?

There are the obvious alternatives; art-house and independent releases, inspired pieces from certain talented directors and the like. Without question original and captivating cinema exists for those willing to search. However studios and audiences alike have proved unresponsive, often due to the perceived lack of wide appeal. The current popularity of ‘reality’, whether in television or break-through documentaries, implies an area with a potential for real box office draw; namely documentary adventure films. For the adrenaline buff, jaded with the modern reliance on special effects and CGI these stories of courage, endurance and adventure must surely satisfy. Add to this drama peeled raw through context and you’re really onto something. Why then are so many adventure documentary films failing to pass muster?

Trebuchet attended the Adventure Film Festival 2006 showings in London to question whether adventure films can evolve as a genre of quality, whether they offer the viewer more than scenery, bombast, and antipodean accents, and whether they deserve mainstream recognition at all.

Historically, adventure documentaries have mostly relied on education and spectacle to draw viewers and this selection is no exception. They range from extreme sports to wildlife exposés to the exploration of hostile or isolated environments. The intention is generally to give as intimate and accurate a portrayal of the subject matter as possible while still presenting something new and exciting to the audience.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about these adventure documentary film is that’s easy to be awed by the bravery and skill, the symbiosis of man and nature, without the need to buy into generic hero characters and storylines. Happily, of the films on show at the London Adventure Film festival succeed within their own remit. From the high-wire antics of mountain climbers in Masters of Stone to the escapades of South African adventurer Mike Horn in Swimming the Amazon, we were acquainted with some truly fearless individuals.

If we consider how these documentaries are generally filmed, with POV cameras either handheld or attached to people leaping from cliffs, skiing down precipices and surfing through the barrels of waves these films achieve both immediacy and a visceral form of intimacy. We fear, not only for the lives of the participants, but briefly our own and more, we share the participants wonder at the breathtaking scenery and wildlife. All proof enough that adventure film can thrill and exhilarate. The popularity of brain-dead effects-laden blockbusters implies that this is enough to gain wide appeal.  At best what connects what could be a potentially repetitive collection of action shots is a story and dramatically speaking what a key strength of adventure film is the authenticity of the people and the veracity of their actions, consequences and reactions.

The most fundamental rule of cinema is that you must engage the audience. You must bring the audience from their world into yours. Adventure films too often lack a coherent story, central interest, character development or any other transportive hook by which an audience can transport themselves. Poor edited and shoddy camerawork can be used successfully to develop a sense of reality but usually they emphasise the negative answer to the question ‘is this of any interest to anyone but the people jumping off buildings?’

At this stage to find any semblance of art in adventure films you have to look pretty selectively at what’s presented. Are they like bling-bling music videos, presenting a snapshot of an elite group of the unemployable? Is this elitism a key factor in their appeal? The easy healthy bon homie of people jumping from planes, eating rocks, climbing mountains, does this speak to us and if so what does it tell us? If we look at Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man with its puzzling insights into a (possibly fictitious) adventurer/ecologist’s motivations and exploits what really are we to think of these people?

Adventure films generally dress their tendencies toward the spectacular rather than the thought-provoking by alluding to primal human themes of survival (and of course virility). The ideas of freedom and mental and physical conquest are almost ubiquitous and the more successful films seem to facsimile Boys Own Annual notions of comradeship (surfing documentary Step Into Water and BASE jumping exposé Radiks). Why do they avoid going deeper? Is it that these men (largely) are afraid to be seen as emotional by describing the internal mountains they face on the way? Often what we are shown is essentially dull people falling at speed through the air and while not strictly a documentary Touching the Void describes comradeship with an intensity few other films achieve. So much so that one starts to wonder if there wasn’t enough adventure to warrant such depth of feeling amongst the participants why bother making the film in the first place? Simply, for those that live below the obviously thin air of professional adventurers jumps, falls, waves, and mountains are not enough.

It is however encouraging to note that the majority of the films presented at the festival managed to traverse the knife edge between being glorified jackass features and woefully self absorbed soliloquies on the nature of ‘cold (or high, or wet, or sharp toothed etc)’.

Moreover, coming away from five evenings of non-fiction entertainment, there is a sense that these people have the right ideas about life! By that I mean my own routine practices of western consumerist lifestyle™ seem even more unidyllically themselves after witnessing such exuberant fun, challenge and adventure in the most beautifully remote areas of the world. I got sold on the bling-bling of adventure, I became jealous. Perhaps that comparison is where adventure film transcends mere entertainment; perhaps it is the element of reality that reflects our own lives and illustrates just how much world is out there and how many ways there are in which to experience it.

Apart from those which gain publicity through courting controversy it is difficult to see documentaries competing with fiction in mainstream cinemas. There are still plenty of hidden theatres as well as television channels devoted to such fare. Adventure film itself is not the most progressive of sub-genres, and it would be good to see more thought-provoking pieces produced. Yet it does have something fresh to offer, and so we should be grateful there are those individuals willing to keep making their films for us, often at great personal risk.

www.adventurefest.co.uk

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