From out of nowhere, buzzwords appear like a menace and descend on our lexicon to lay waste to meaning and substance. They latch onto our brains and empty them out. Soon we find ourselves using buzzwords for our own grim purposes.
“Warm when wet” and “Light and fast” are two of my “favorite” buzzwords from the outdoor industry, emerging sometime in the late 1990s/early aughts but staying strong to this day. I’ve heard everything from an anorak to a headlamp described as being “light and fast.”
Of course there are also words like “adventure” and “epic” that are so overused that Homer wouldn’t recognize them.
Sometimes, buzzwords come in the form of grandiose self-description.
You’re not an “Alpinist.” You are a mountaineer.
You’re not a “Writer.” You have a blog.
And you’re not a “Storyteller.” You have an expensive camera that shoots slow motion and makes one too many time lapses.
Indeed, Storyteller is the newest buzzword to appear among industry creatives.
A storyteller, of course, is someone who tells stories. Lately, though, many filmmakers are describing themselves as “storytellers” in order to instill a grand idea about the content they are producing, even if that content is as bereft of Story as it is chock full of beautiful but otherwise meaningless motion imagery.
In my opinion, a few (not most) supposed “storytellers” are conflating overwrought visual gimmicks with Story—to the detriment of the sacred latter. It’s purple prose transformed onto the big screen.
Knowing how to capture a bunch of time lapses to include in your video about your climbing expedition, as beautiful as those time lapses may be, doesn’t make you a storyteller.
Capturing a skier carving through powder at 240 fps and rendering it in sweet slow motion—or as I call it, “soul motion,” because slow motion is just so soulful—doesn’t necessarily mean that an actually story is being told.
In this admittedly over-the-top rant, I’m likely not giving enough credence to what unspoken messages and ideas can be conveyed through the visual image. Still, I see a lot of outdoor adventure films … and not many of them are fully realized Stories.
Last month I attended the riotous 5 Point Film Festival, here in Carbondale, Colorado. I found it interesting to see what were the audience favorites.
There seemed to be a pretty solid consensus—at least among the people I spoke to—that two of the best films of the festival included Kyle Dempster’s bike ride across Kyrgyzstan and “Crossing the Ice,” a film about two Australians completing the first unsupported there-and-back mission to the South Pole.
I found it affirming that these films were not shot with fancy cameras. They did not contain a single time lapse that I can recall. They were shot with cheap hand-held DSLRs and/or point-and-shoots. But the reason these films worked so well was that they were fully-realized Stories—the plot, structure and character arcs all worked, all the story beats were hit and we saw all the right emotional turns at appropriate moments throughout the film.
This is something we’ve known ever since Aristotle wrote the Poetics: Story trumps all.
Also, the characters in these two particular films had genuine goals—primal goals—that we could relate to and root for. Their inherent desires to be emotionally and spiritually changed through their own chosen adventures (not ones offered to them by their sponsors, for example) resonated with the audience. In a nutshell: their experiences were authentic, their passions genuine, and it was all told in such a way that we could believe in the authenticity of their desires and experiences.
I’ve been thinking about why these films worked better than the other, more professionally produced films that I watched at the film fest. I’ve bounced off my ideas to a few people, too.
Matt Segal said to me that he believes “Crossing the Ice” is actually one of the best adventure films ever made, not because it’s a good film but because it’s a great adventure. What Cas and Jonsey, the films’ lovable and determined heroes, accomplish is such a rare adventure that that is where the film derives its power.
I saw his point, but it was really just another way of saying my point: which is that Story trumps all.
Michael Kennedy pointed out that it actually might be impossible to have an authentic, meaningful experience or adventure with a film crew in tow. The two are irreconcilable.
I think he might be right: You can have a genuine experience … or you can go on a trip and have some people make a movie about you. But can you do both?
There are maybe only one or two examples.
I think that this idea brings me to the crux of the issue. In today’s world of adventure and climbing, are people genuinely seeking adventures in order to test and change themselves in some meaningful ways?
Or are they doing trips just to do trips, and making movies about the trips in order to provide worth and value to their sponsors?
It seems to me that there are increasingly more people out there who fall into the latter category than the former.
I always laugh when bloggers come to the conclusion that the soul of some sport is dead or diminished—and I’ll spare you the hyperbole of doing that here and now—but I think that it’s worth questioning our motives as climbers and adventurers in this day and age when media is regarded necessary to fund our trips, and we expect to see a new, beautiful but ultimately vapid Vimeo vid of some heavily sponsored far-flung trip almost every other day.
The question that we as storytellers, climbers and adventurers really need to ask is: What is the real story we’re trying to tell? Are we doing something we want to do, or are we doing something we think people want to see?
And perhaps the way to figure that out is for the people who go on these trips to ask themselves: What do they really want and why do they want it? Because whether you’re writing a book or making a movie, figuring out the answers to those questions are the first steps to telling a good story.