First, a hearty “hello” to Jeff Lowe (for those of you unfamiliar with the climbing world, renowned alpinist of the 1970s-80s). He and I are Colorado climber boys of the same generation. We did some ski mountaineering together back in the day, but I can’t remember if we ever got on the same rope. In any case, while Jeff’s body is compromised with ALS his thought processes are unaffected. While writing this I constantly thought about him reading it. I wanted to be honest with my take on his film, but at the same time sensitive to his plight. On the other hand, this is Jeff Lowe, one of the toughest men on the planet. So I didn’t pull too many punches. I would say one thing to Jeff directly, however: I’m still ticked you beat us to Bridal Veil Falls.
I’ve begun calling them “wheelchair movies.” Yes, I know, not exactly PC, so should I call them disability flicks? Someone, help… Whatever the naming of the genre, one has to admit that the phenomenon of “adventure” flicks with a component of extreme physical disability has become a cliche. Adventure film festivals are rife with such content, some tedious, some excellent.
Over the years at 5Point film festival the “disability flicks” have usually been on the excellent side of the equation (due in no small part to the efforts of the 5Point staff during the lengthy selection process). Some of these flicks are short and light, providing quick smiles (or tears), an inspirational hit that’s clearly the goal of the film maker. See “Duct Tape Surfer” embedded below. Some films involving physical challenges have deeper plots, resembling classic tragedy. That’s where Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia fits in.
Metanoia is indeed a “disability flick,” and classic tragedy. But with a few twists.
If you like climbing history, you’ll enjoy part one. For about 45 minutes the film serves as a Jeff Lowe biopic, tracking his start with adventurer father Ralph and covering sport-shattering climbs such as his 1979 1st ascent of Ama Dablam’s South Face, solo. Famed and still unrepeated North Ridge of Latok 1 is included as well. That’s the 1978 climb Jeff did with Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini in the gigantic Karakoram — it took about 90 rappels to descend. There have been something like 40 attempts on the route.
The twist here is the biopic part could be a film in of itself. It shifts from decades old heroics into Jeff’s current predicament with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, only with about half the film to go. What will the second half bring us? That’s where the tragedy plot kicks in and it’s got nothing to do with Jeff’s being ill.
The nearly worshipful biographical content makes a sudden shift. Realities of business and relationships intrude. We discover Jeff is not as successful as his climbing triumphs would indicate. “His life had become a soap opera…he was so broke he had to sell off his gear,” is how one narrator puts it. “He had begun to believe in his own myth,” is another’s take. Topping it all off, he makes an obvious series of blunders with women, the most egregious being blowing off his wife (mother of his child) for a very public fling with famous (and steamy) French climber Catherine Destivelle. The film footage of Jeff climbing into a tent with Catherine must have broken his wife’s heart.
Thus, the stage is set for classic tension. How will our hero win out, be healed, survive? In turn, will those he’s wronged along the way experience him as a changed man? In Jeff’s case, at 40 years old he does the only thing that’s ever given him any clarity: He embarks on a climb so tough, he will either die or, he hopes, be transformed.
The route is Metanoia, a direct line up the North Face of the Eiger. During the ascent, Lowe finally “meets himself” in a transcendental experience he experiences at a bivouac. After this, the film implies he returned changed. “A better person, a deepened man,” is how one narrator says it.
Here the film becomes weaker. While Lowe’s Metanoia experience is presented with compelling reenactments and narration, I didn’t get an authentic impression that Jeff changed all that much. More testimony from friends and family would have helped — especially those he abused emotionally or financially. As it is, I’m going to assume Jeff did come back from the Eiger somewhat restored. It appears he did make more of an effort to give back, and tried to heal his relationships. But could he have gone farther?
“I’d finally met myself,” he says in describing his experience on the Eiger. That still sounds rather self centered. How about the next stage, when you meet your “god” or “universe” or at least something external and larger than yourself. That’s probably a much better cure for narcissism than enhanced navel gazing. Though at least when you get an honest inward gaze you’re going to see the beauty, and the beast, which is I assume what Jeff is talking about in meeting himself.
In any case, the tragedy plot tightens up in the movie’s final part. The catharsis process begins on the Eiger, but doesn’t culminate until Jeff comes to terms with his illness, presented in the film as a series of interview and speech snips displaying how Jeff has reached a place of acceptance — even joy. The impression I got here is that while Jeff’s experience on the Eiger is compelling, what is making the man is the work forced by his illness. This to me is born out by what appears to be a very special relationship Jeff has with his partner and caregiver Connie Self. Hats off to a woman who glows with inner beauty, and obviously sees something exceptional in Jeff.
The final part of the film isn’t really a twist, but rather the overtly symbolic retrieval of the backpack Lowe left on the Metanoia route more than two decades ago. Dropping the cord to his pack so obviously signifies his leaving his former self behind on the climb. Retrieving the pack later demonstrates he’s grown to the point of dealing with old baggage. It could all be too heavy, just like the soggy frozen rucksack Jeff’s friend chips out of the ice and hauls off the climb. Thankfully, the overall positive spirit of Jeff’s film balances out the weight.
Metanoia most certainly deserves our thumbs up. It not only goes beyond the “disabled” genre, but exceeds most adventure films in many ways (most importantly with sometimes brutal honesty about success and failure). WildSnowers, I’ll be interested in your impressions. They’ll be screening Metanoia here in our old coal mining town at our 5Point film festival. This coming weekend!