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Beating Hearts on the Edge of Death

Beating Hearts on the Edge of Death

Author: Reilly Capps/Tuesday, July 28, 2015/Categories: adventure

There is no "Citizen Cane" of rock climbing films; one problem is the plot. It's like: muscly dirtbags tackle a difficult peak. They struggle; they fall, they succeed. But the audience asks themselves -- who cares if muscly dirtbags climb a rock?

This is why "Meru" is such a joy. The basics are like any climbing film: rock, dudes. The rock is the gnarly, deathly Shark Fin of Meru in northern India. The dudes are three: legend Conrad Anker, "Outside" cover stud Jimmy Chin, and young buck Renan Ozturk. Any film with them in it would have made climbing nuts happy. But it was Bob Eisenhardt, the editor, who really helped located another muscle -- the one below the pectorals, the blood-pumper, and made this a movie worthy of the Audience Award for documentary at Sundance, and nationwide distribution, starting in August.

"It's only partly a climbing flim," Eisenhardt told the author. "What's interesting to me is human nature."

Eisenhardt, a three-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, knows story. He located the heart of the Dixie Chicks -- temporary pariahs -- in "Shut Up and Sing." He found the amazing weirdness of a dress designer in "Valentino: The Last Emperor."

"For a story to work, you have to find yourself in a conflict of sorts," Eisenhardt said. "You can't have the success without the hardship." In "Meru," Eisenhardt found conflict and depth not on the heights of the mountain but in the well of the past.

The story of Conrad Anker, as climbing fans know, is Shakespearean, it is Greek, it is Aristotelian: he had a mentor who tried Meru before, and failed. He had a best friend, Alex Lowe, who was his partner. Lowe died, and left him in grief and guilt. Then Anker married Lowe's widow, Jenni; he cares for his friend's kids. He promised Jenni he wouldn't try big peaks like the ones that killed Lowe. But if the story of his life was to have a third act, he felt he had to complete his mentor's mission to climb Meru.

Chin's story, too, was family: he played an unexpectedly fatherly role to his sister's kids after his sister went through a tough divorce. So there's a reason, too, why you could not bear to see Chin die.

The side characters that motivate and restrain the dirtbags -- wife, sister, girlfriend -- motivate good stories; they give feeling; they show that these people do not exist in a vacuum.

The well of Ozturk's story is shallower, but the water's rougher. Before meeting Chin and Anker, the young turk was a dirtbag who slept in his van. Then he met someone. Then he fell -- and was nearly wrecked. After the bitterness of the fall, and the sweat of the rehab, the triumph of the climb is all the sweeter.

"I love them," Eisenhardt said. "They really have a passion -- and no matter what the passion is about, people get that. Most people don't follow their passion if it requires sleeping in a van for seven years. The fact that they do it is a wonderful thing."

Eisenhardt was brought onto the project late. His friend, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is a producer on "Meru." Eisenhardt has never worked on a climbing film. He knew nothing of bolts, belaying, bivouac. His next story is about ballet.

"Whatever you do a film about, it's like a graduate level course in that thing," he said. But no matter what he's doing stories about, he'll help find the heart. 

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