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180 South [Blu-ray]  [US Import]
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The film follows adventurer Jeff Johnson as he retraces the epic 1968 journey of his heroes Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins to Patagonia. Along the way he gets shipwrecked off Easter Island, surfs the longest wave of his life and prepares himself for a rare ascent of Cerro Corcovado. Jeff's life turns when he meets up in a rainy hut with Chouinard and Tompkins who, once driven purely by a love of climbing and surfing, now value above all the experience of raw nature and have come to Patagonia to help use their influence to help protect it.
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Yvon Chouinard and the Doug Tompkins, real-life protagonists in this documentary film, know all this, even if they don’t articulate it on film. It’s implicit in what they value, in what they call useless things, things of no outward practical value that can’t be marketed and sold. Wandering, for instance, or the freedom that comes with it. Dreaming as well, following its inspiration and bliss just because you can. There was no glory on the remote peaks in Patagonia they climbed, nor will this film about them lead to widespread fame (though Tompkins, killed in a kayaking accident last December in Chile, had achieved some already, along with riches, as the founder of the North Face brand of outdoor wear). Their journey is a celebration of other things. The open road, for instance. Or vast vistas, skies, horizons, mountain peaks. It’s a film about the human spirit and its roots in questing, our deepest nomadic instinct. We often forget how long we existed as nomads on Earth. We wandered for 200,000 years, first in Africa, then later out of it. This way of life is in our ancestral blood and embedded in our DNA, which is why the call of the wild is still so strongly heard by some. The modern way of living — settled, sedentary, immobile, fattening — is recent, just thousands of years old. Chouinard and Tompkins are modern men, but they follow an ancient pattern and way. They want to know and discover, so they embrace the quest. And it’s our joy to go along with them in this wondrous film.
It’s actually a reconstruction of a previous journey. Forty years earlier, in 1968, they set out for Patagonia from California in an old Ford van. Onboard they had surfboards for Mexico, snow skis for the Peruvian Andes, cramp-ons and ice axes for the mountains of Patagonia. They were young, carefree, fearless, adventurous. They were Dharma Bums who followed the call of the wild and the beckoning road. And they did it — travelled the length of the South American continent (as well as through Central America) to reach their destination.
Fast forward, as they say, to the year 2008. A young rock climber/beach-bum/photographer and filmmaker named Jeff Johnson discovered the original 8mm film of the journey Chouinard and Tompkins had made way back in ’68. It was amateurish and grainy but beautiful, the spirit of the adventure sweetly preserved. Johnson became obsessed. He wanted to do what they had done, so he contacted them. Feel like doing it again, retracing your steps? They did, as it transpires. By this time Tompkins was already living in Chile, and had been there for 20 years or more, using his huge wealth to buy up parts of southern Chile to preserve for future generations, making his private lands public. This was revolutionary. No one in South America did that. The land, the continent, its resources, were there to be plundered, not preserved. The entire history of European exploration and conquest of the New World had been that — wholesale theft. Thus it took a while (many years) for Tompkins’ ethic to sink in, to be taken seriously.
So the film is partly about that too. Johnson sails from North America across the Pacific (including to Easter Island) to reach Chile and reunite with Chouinard and Tompkins. Thereupon much of the film is about both adventure (mountain climbing in Patagonia) and conservation efforts in the southern regions of Chile and Argentina.
As such, the film is more than just a good adventure documentary. It’s also a plea for Earth appreciation, a celebration of wild places, a call to conservation, to good stewardship of the natural bounty that has come down to us through the accident or contingency of evolution and history.
The logic of growth is self-defeating and suicidal, the film implies, because a time is rapidly coming when there will be no more room to grow. This should be obvious. The surface of the earth and its resources are not limitless. We know all this, so knowledge is not the problem. So why don’t we change? Because we can’t, apparently. We’re addicted to the junk called greed and we’ll go on feeding our habit till it destroys us and the world around us unless we find the courage and strength to go cold turkey.
The film says we cannot go on ravaging the earth without it responding. In fact, it already is. That’s what climate change fundamentally is, our modern canary in a coal mine, a wake-up call, a call to arms.
The soundtrack is upbeat, quirky, spontaneous, exactly suited to the tenor of the proceedings on the road. Tracks by a band with the paradoxical and ironic name of Ugly Casanova are particularly light and carefree, setting the tone for this beautiful film.
In the end, Chouinard and Tompkins are a reminder to us of who we are and where we come from. This reminder is useful, not useless. What is useless is all the modernity that takes us farther and farther away from our origins and identity.
Social media is the road to nowhere. Walk outside and keep on going.
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