Into No Air, Into Thin Air
Before the several channels for living-room viewing, before F/X, CGI, HD and resuscitated 3-D, Thor Heyerdahl (Kon-Tiki), Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary (The Conquest of Everest), and film aspirant Jacques-Yves Cousteau were global green super-celebrities, media cynosures, authors, explorers and filmmakers in advance of today’s non-fiction flood.
Included in the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Oscar’s Docs: Nature and Humanity,” conveniently alongside its retrospective of Karen Cooper’s forty years’ selection of documentaries that premièred at Film Forum, is Captain Cousteau’s World Without Sun/Le monde sans soleil, whose Oscar in 1964 twinned that of his eight-years-earlier The Silent World/Le monde du silence (co-director Louis Malle’s first film). Not a screen adaptation of his best-seller of that title, the latter is among The New York Times’s best 1,000 movies ever made, though there is little to choose between the two, either or both worthy of inclusion.
Thirty-six thousand vertical feet higher, a commercial jet’s cruising altitude, the following evening’s feature was the less famous but no less excellent The Man Who Skied Down Everest, incredibly just what the title says. Directors Bruce Nyznik and Lawrence Schiller document the 1970 attempt that, seventeen years to the month after the Hillary-Tenzing Coronation-gift feat -- the New Zealander appears, wistful but too old to accompany Japan’s former world speed skiing record-holder Yuichiro Miura -- outdistances extreme sports of the twenty-first century.
Both these documentaries offer striking hand-held photography done on the spot as opposed to post-production gussying up. Real rather than virtual, they dwarf the earnest, dated Disney-Buena Vista “People and Places” shorts accompanying each, not the least of advantages being unobtrusive, no-nonsense narrative, Cousteau’s and, from the skier’s diaries, Douglas Rain’s (the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Calm Cousteau and spiritual Miura are two among many brave men, humbly human and allowed to admit to physical limitations and open fear. Along with wonder and admiration in the moment, and outside awareness of achievement to follow -- e.g., thirty-three years later, at seventy Miura became the oldest person to summit the Nepal-Tibet Goddess Mother of the Universe, Sagarmatha/Chomolangma -- there is also sadness: the “oceanaut” envisions “further adventures which await us” on the vast Continental Shelf of which the Red Sea Somalia locale is but a fraction; the skier of Fuji and Everest is exhilarated at “the end of one thing, the beginning of another, a pilgrim again.” The confidence, respectful “vigah,” awe at and reverence for our surroundings and the quest to coexist with them, is hard to come by post-Viet Nam. In the Shadow of the Moon and Sputnik Mania recently pictured those film-frozen lost times of youthful optimism, while today priorities cut programs for exploring sea and space.
The creatures and air-pocket caves of the deeps, the Himalayas and their Sherpa society, are presented side by side with the films’ explorers-worshipers, men pushing back boundaries but aware they do so on the sufferance of forces capricious and beyond control. Vulnerable outside a narrow range of conditions, they must rely on protective covering and equipment -- bottled air in both cases, surface eyes and ears and delivery divers, eight hundred porters bearing twenty-seven tons of supplies -- and penetrate in slow stages for acclimatization and to test the (liquid or frozen) waters, at three submarine levels and five alpine ones.
Perils are enormous. But, sweaty, cigarette- or pipe-smoking, and claustrophobic inside pressurized structures or in silver suits resembling B-sci fi monsters, Calypso’s underwater explorers remain intact and unharmed. In contrast, six Sherpas are crushed in an ice-face collapse only feet away from others who are untouched. Comforting Little Elephant for the loss of his father, the skier questions his own goal but, at the funerary cairns, knows that true homage lies in continuing the group effort to place him to plunge down a forty-five-degree sixty-six-hundred-foot ice-rock face, trailing a barely tested parachute brake while accelerating from zero to one hundred mph in six seconds.
“There was a place I was supposed to be. . . . I can go there now.” The seekers at one with their near-airless environments, the fact of being “alive must be the will of some higher power.” The insistence on meeting challenge is the will of mere man, and among his most admirable qualities.
(Released by Columbia Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)