Lines of Flight is an award winning-but little seen-socio
cultural climbing film which came out in 2009/10 and was set in the industrial towns and immediate environs of West Yorkshire. Harold Drasdo-of this particular parish- offers a belated review of sorts and is impressed by the films sense of purpose.
This is a film by Sally Brown and Martin Wood set in Yorkshire and Derbyshire on the eastern side of the Pennines -- the Backbone of England. 'Lines of Flight' might be read as Means of Escape. The focus shifts intermittently. We see the free soloing of extreme rock climbs, those reaching positions in which a fall would probably result in death rather than serious injury. Or we see life in the settlements below the gritstone outcrops, edges and quarries.
It's a marvellous and wildly ambitious production, a work of art. At film festivals it's won prizes on all sides. The sense of place is fixed through establishing shots of the moors and edges to the accompaniment of readings from Daniel Defoe's Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724. They're crisply and expressively delivered by Samuel West, the film's narrator, and they bring out Defoe's restless curiosity. The strategies soon become clear. Topographical writing is looted with passages from the poetry of Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence. Layered underneath is a subdued musical score composed and performed by Robin Garside. It adapts to fit each scene.
Sometimes it's delicately airy as a soloist glides upward. Sometimes it's a tension-building pulse-like beat with heavy breathing as he powers his way through overhangs. Throughout the film one focus of attention segues into another without any jarring sense of dislocation, to this viewer at any rate. The filming and editing is by Richard Heap.
The strategies include the straight interview. The subjects aren't interrogated. They've simply been encouraged to talk freely about their practices, aspirations and felt rewards. I couldn't identify all of the climbers seen in action but the principal performers are named. Amongst those featured Andy Cave went straight from school to become a miner, working the deep coal seams until he saw the light, discovered the gritstone surprisingly close to his home, and qualified eventually as a professional climbing guide.
Andrew Popp is an academic, a historian, and he reflects on the meditative, almost trance-like sense of sustainment, a ritualistic kind of performance art, that hard solo can offer. He resists the suggestion that it's simply thrill-seeking. He also asks himself whether there isn't an essential selfishness in risking one's life since that would impact on others. 'Whatever does not kill us makes us strong', said Nietzche. There's some truth in it but it's an oversimplification. It might cripple us.
Graham Hoey, a teacher, ponders with the disarming modesty of all the soloists the problem of how to get work satisfaction when you're not given enough time to do a job properly. He sees solo as the purest form of the sport with great risks and great rewards. Allan Austin, hero of a bygone era, appears. I was startled and amused to see the A3 5 van in which I accompanied him on his first trips to Derbyshire and Langdale. In typically forthright manner he promotes rock climbing as the best game of all time – as thrilling as sports car racing and a lot cheaper -- and he gives a surprising and entertaining account of his own introduction. Some old footage from Ilkley, from the late forties and early fifties is incorporated in his declaration.
In counterpoise, the settlements beneath the West Riding moors and the new cities of the plain are examined. We see archive film, the hazardous activity of a Victorian steelworks, the huge garment factories, the endless production and assembly lines. Rapidly the distinctive regional character of the mill towns is erased and the camera shifts onto crowds of commuters hurrying back to work or racing around to fit shopping in. We're in a post-modern, post-industrial conurbation of new warehouses and malls which could be anywhere in Britain. "There's a shopping centre there but nobody actually lives there," someone says. Even here, though, we see a rebellious display of street dance by a pavement and railing acrobat running through his repertoire of smart moves.
He's not doing it with cap thrown down like a busker. He's doing it for fun, to release energy, to show that escape is possible anywhere and by all sorts of means.
In sharp contrast to these escapologists another class of expert witnesses is paraded. They're sociologists of a kind, professors who give their take on the world we live in. It's a world of vicious competition in which, they agree, 'we want cash' becomes 'we want more cash', a world in which as much as possible is commodified and put up for sale. Therefore in their literature they can happily use the expression 'Lines of Flight' to describe activities like walking or climbing which escape or resist commodification.
At this point I want to enter a protest at the language they use, the way they talk. It's a developed terminology which critics might attack as sociobabble. It's built from a vocabulary of high-order abstractions. Here I'm quoting from privileged information, a lengthy document supporting the film. The concept of 'lines of flight' was actually first proposed in the 1980s by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a philosopher and a psychoanalyst. "Lines of Flight are ruptures, cuts, cracks and irregular and transverse lines of breakage, as well as folds and crease lines – interruptions without breakage – that divide a surface, landscape or space." The point is that I've taken this sentence absolutely at random from their page-long attempts at a definition. What's really needed is an effort to move down the ladder of orders of abstraction to find a language built on operational definitions.
Presently a man with feet in both action and theory appears and proceeds to interview himself. This is Martin Wood, the dreamer and fixer who directed the film. (Sally Brown is given equal credit and I assume that she is the producer and that Brown Bear Productions is her outfit.) At the time of filming Wood was lecturing at York University but he's now a Professor at Melbourne Institute of Technology. He charms us with his self-effacing manner and then happens to let out that he's soloed some or all of the desperate outings featured. He's a Renaissance Man for our times. He's sweetly reasonable. Nowadays, he points out, we're all in the same boat. The university lecturer shares anxieties about tenure with council workers fearful of cuts and with manufacturers watching rates of exchange. We all need fields for free action, some intensity in an outlet for escape.
The seasoned climber reading Loose Scree might well lose patience with the airy concepts and propositions underlying the film. Yet it stands entirely and easily on its own merits It demanded the collaboration of a very large number of people but everything's come together. Having watched it many times it still grasps me as I re-run it.
Lines of Flight: DVD, 22 mins, 16:9.
Brown Bear Productions in association with Zero Hold: www.brownbearproductions.co.uk