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Climbing Documentary Makes it Easy to Understand Humans' Obsession With Mountains 

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There was a story in Sunday's Plain Dealer, on the front page of the Metro Section, about concerned conservationists in Geauga County and their beef with the parks district there. The conservationists were exercised about "extreme" recreation options now available at a park in Clarion Township. Why sully the precious natural acres with ziplines and a treetop adventure course, they asked, when gyms and amusement parks already provide similar amenities?

Versions of that environmental controversy — recreation versus conservation — have visited the Cleveland Metroparks as well. And it's a controversy that animates portions of Mountain, a magnificently shot documentary that opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.

Directed by Aussie Jennifer Peedom and narrated by Willem Dafoe in all his nasal majesty, the film places the history of mountaineering and extreme outdoor recreation in its proper context: as a brief, in fact almost meaningless, era in the aeon-spanning history of mountains themselves.

Though Mountain can lay claim to some of the most exhilarating HD footage of extreme-sport athletes that I've ever seen — including the jaw-dropping free-solo climbing heroics of Alex Honnold, and a stomach-churning tight-rope walk — the stars of the show, beyond doubt, are the colossal geological beasts that have seduced so many wanderers and explorers for so long.

Captured by a team of athlete-cinematographers, including principal photography by Renan Ozturk (one of the climbers in 2015's Meru, and the cinematographer for Peedom's Sherpa), the high-altitude footage never ceases to amaze. Accompanied by instrumentalists from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the movie makes it easy to understand humans' obsession with and reverence for mountains. Ozturk's work is breathtaking. He and Peedom help us comprehend the larger message: that the mountains are indifferent to human efforts to conquer them.

"They were here before us," Dafoe says. "And they will be here after us."

Once or twice, the film's apparent disdain for popular ski slopes, the commercialization of Everest, and the performance of extreme stunts "for big brands and online clicks" felt inconsonant with many of the athletes' own histories. After all, they once started on bunny hills. And many now travel to the world's remotest corners to experience the luxury of recreation in more rarified air thanks to brand sponsorships. The narration, too, was at times a carbon copy of other climbing-oriented documentaries, e.g., mountainous ascents being as mental as they are physical. But the film feels much more like a visual essay than a traditional documentary, and the power rests in its images, which will leave you agog.

At only 70 minutes, Mountain has the flavor of a documentary commissioned for the Great Lakes Science Center's Omnimax Theatre. But the intro, featuring musicians tuning their instruments and Dafoe readying himself in the recording studio, feels more like a Netflix standup special. Here, though, the planet's natural wonders take center stage.

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