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I went to the Banff film festival a few days ago, which this year seems to be having a debate with itself.  A big-picture debate, one of those “what’s the point of it all” kind of affairs, at the heart of which were two films with diametrically opposing viewpoints.

1.  “The Last Great Climb”:  Our world is infinite!  There is always another peak to climb!  We must go forth and conquer!

2.  “North of the Sun“:  Um, no.

I presume you know the story of the race to the South Pole?  Scott vs Amundsen, snowmobiles vs dog sleds, England vs Norway and all that?  If not, never a better time to get your Masterpiece Theater on than right now!  (Spoiler alert:  Amundsen wins.)

Well, the Brits and Norwegians are at it again.  Except this time, while the UK is busy sending its most badass climbing team to Antarctica to seek out and conquer one of the last great unclimbed peaks, the Norwegian rebuttal was offered by a pair of kids in their twenties, who journeyed to a remote beach on an island north of the Arctic circle, to see whether they could build a shelter from the trash that washes up there, live on free food that had passed its expiry date (scavenged from the island’s one grocery store), and learn something about themselves in the process.

For an entire year.

The contrast couldn’t have been more striking, and as the days have gone by and I’ve sat with the experience of seeing these movies back-to-back, I find myself increasingly inspired by the latter, and at the same time growing more resentful that the first was even made.

Put bluntly, “The Last Great Climb” is one of the most self-indulgent adventure films I’ve ever seen.  A friend of mine called it masturbatory; I’m inclined to agree.  Even while I was watching it I was rooting for one of those famous Antarctic storms to weather those fools right off that peak, so they’d at least be a bit humbled by the experience.  Because honestly, as far as my own psyche is concerned, all that film left me with was a vague sense of depression that these guys, with all their money and gear, managed to make the world just that much smaller.

And after all was said and done, watching the conquering heroes stare at the camera, and tell us there will always be another peak to go find and conquer – and another, and another after that?  Pity’s sake, even the name of the film puts the truth to that lie, and you could tell they didn’t even believe it.  If anything, I think the experience left them flat; like a month later, they were right back home, and now what?  I hope so, anyway.

(In fairness:  the one saving grace of the film is the peak itself, the real hero of the story.  Its name translates to “Wolf’s Fang”, and it looks like something Lovecraft had in mind when he wrote “At the Mountains of Madness”.  I can’t guarantee there are shoggoths living in caves at its base, but if not there then nowhere, y’know?)

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$6 to rent it online. Mocha and a tip. Well worth it.

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I’ll take the mocha, thanks.

By comparison – and there really isn’t one –  “North of the Sun” is a truly post-modern adventure story.  One that throughout acknowledges that our link with the natural world has changed, but the essential need to find and explore that connection remains the same.  The characters build a house from washed up palettes and plastic bottles, an oven from an old oil drum, even a wheelbarrow from the flotsam and jetsam washed up on their beach.  They clean up trash, and they surf.  Theirs is not a macho survival challenge, their goal is not to break a record, or be first somewhere; hell, one of them climbs the nearby peak so he can get cellphone reception and talk to his girlfriend in New Zealand, and they even go home for Christmas.

No, theirs is a voyage of self-discovery, pure and simple.  Which just happens to be the same reason all the rest of us mortals who are drawn to the natural world take that first step out our front doors, over and over again.

“Chasing time.”  “Few, but strong impressions.”  “How was the surf?  Cold, but good.”  This is the language of the film, sparse as the landscape that surrounds them, and as profound.

See this movie.  Six bucks and forty minutes of your time, and I bet it changes you too, just a bit.