“Free Solo” is definitely a man vs. nature kind of documentary film, where there’s a mountain (El Capitan at Yosemite National Park) and some crazed warrior-spirited climber (Alex Hannold), who just has to climb it because it’s there – free style – no ropes, with a full camera crew (led by Jimmy Chin) covering every single hand-aching, chilling, breathtaking, toe-gripping tiny edge of a 3000-foot drop. If you have the slightest fear of heights, you will not want to come to this film. If you can overcome those fears, you will see incredible photography of the entire extreme sport event up close and personal, and find out at least three things about yourself: how to face your fears like a warrior, how to keep your love relationships separate from the struggle with your own fears, and how complicated and scary it really is to climb El Capitan, while looking over the beauty of a world below that generates a very unusual kind of high called “pure delight.”
I will yield no spoilers here, but you probably already know that this would be a different film if Hannold died, or if any of the crew filming him had plunged to their own deaths. Several times the cameraman on the ground has to turn away from looking while his camera continues to record on its own. There have been two climbers before who have died trying. They never got to experience the “delight” at the top in conquering this mountain. A film about them was never made.
We will have to grease the hinges on our cinema seats to silence the squirming and squeaking that will no doubt go on during the silent moments of this film, like when Hannold has to karate kick a wall in order to maintain his balance and not fall. My hands started aching from opening to the end, as though I was having an arthritic attack, and they are still aching. I’m with the camera crew on this one. Waiting to see if someone will plunge to their death or climb into heightened delight is a daunting film experience, to say the least.
While “Free Solo” explores the challenges of overcoming fear in a warrior-like way in nature, another kind of documentary, “Tea with the Dames,” directed by Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”), documents a tea party between four film star actresses (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright), who have defined their careers by channeling stage fright into character portrayals that dance somewhere between truth and illusion. This is a documentary where you get to take a seat at the table in the country home of Plowright, who was married to Laurence Olivier, and listen in on the many personal anecdotes and witty exchanges served up like hors d’oeuvres, revealing delectable truths behind illusions that each actress carries. They had all had an experience with playing Cleopatra, or delivering a Shakespearean Juliet, or standing their own against the master Olivier himself. Backstage revelations about who these magnificent women really are and their personal struggles playing roles they have either forgotten or cannot ever forget, keep the tea party conversation delightful, witty, transparent and entertaining. This is a tea party you are sure to enjoy as you get to peak behind the many masks they have worn throughout their careers.
Showtimes Nov. 9-15: “Free Solo”: Friday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 5:45, 8:15 p.m., Sunday, 4:45 p.m., 7:15, Monday, 7:15 p.m., Tuesday, 4:45 p.m., Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, 5 p.m.
“Tea with the Dames”: Friday, 5:15 p.m., Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Monday, 5:00 p.m., Tuesday, 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, 5:15 p.m. For additional films, classes, and events please visit www.plazamac.org, or call the box office (631) 438-0083.