“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” –John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
So what the heck is a movie review doing on my photography blog? Re-read that Muir quote, and there’s your answer. My first visit to Yosemite National Park in 2009, including a few days in the Sierra high country, was the singular experience that made me Get Serious (very, very serious) about photography. I absolutely believe there is something special and life-changing about that place, so when I saw a little video trailer about a group hiking the John Muir Trail linked on Facebook almost two years ago, I had to check it out. I’ve been borderline obsessed–and completely smitten–ever since, and have followed their project closely all the way to completion. And now it’s time for you to see it–their official theatrical premiere is this weekend at the Dances With Films festival in Hollywood (and it should soon be available to purchase, so stay tuned for that–I’ll update as soon as that happens).
What began for The Muir Project as a kind of open-ended project quickly evolved upon their return from the trail into a full-blown (indie) feature documentary. They carried a daunting amount of equipment into the backcountry–something that surely must have been a logistical and (pretty literally) backbreaking challenge. But that effort paid off with a beautifully produced and directed film. The cinematography and editing are pretty much perfect; they capture really well the beauty and grandeur of the high Sierra, something that I know from personal experience can be difficult to fully convey on film. Not only do we see the vast granite landscapes of the Sierra crest and lush high-country meadows and lakes, we’re treated to something most people–even most JMT hikers–will never witness: heavy snow. And water. A LOT of both. The summer of 2011 followed a year of record snowfall, so even in mid-July, the high country still sported massive snowfields, and the streams and rivers roared much higher than usual with the record snowmelt. This presented a whole new set of physical and logistical challenges for the hikers, and the tension (and beauty) of that adds a whole other layer of WOW to the film. The score, created by Los Angeles-based musicians Opus Orange, strikes just the right tone–never obtrusive, always perfectly fitting the mood of the film. And if you’ve seen the trailers, then you’ve already heard the movie’s unofficial theme song, Opus Orange’s irresistibly upbeat single “Almost There.” Two of the group’s members joined them for several days on the trail, so you get to meet them, too. Even the title art is exceptional, and also something that happened as a result of The Muir Project’s journey; a chance meeting with hiker (and artist) Kolby Kirk on the trail led to his eventually doing the illustrated title and chapter art for the film, and what a great addition that is to the film.
The film looks great–but more important, it’s also got great heart. Building a narrative structure from documentary footage of a month-long hike must have been a challenge, but it’s seamlessly organic here. There’s even a plot twist fairly early in the film (which I won’t reveal here) that took me by surprise. We meet all the characters–the hikers, the Muir Project themselves–and get to know them well enough to feel an emotional connection. You genuinely like these people, and their friendship and ability to get along well with each other in the wilderness is a huge part of why this film is successful. This even translates down through the two and a half minute trailers–everyone is instantly likeable, their infectious sense of fun is immediately evident, and I (and I’m sure many others, including my hiking-obsessed nephew Zack) found myself going back and re-watching the trailers over and over–especially on days when I was tied to my desk at work and could only daydream about the mountains.
Their adventures on the trail quickly spread beyond the members of the group–and this, I think, is the key to what makes this such a compelling film. Early in their trip, they meet a married couple, teachers from Colorado, who are spending their summer on the JMT. They decide to join up with the Muir Project members, and we follow their journey on the trail as well. The chemistry, friendship and camaraderie they quickly establish not only adds an unexpected narrative element to the film, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of friendships that can happen on long (LONG) hikes like this. This, too, is an integral part of the experience of a JMT hike.
They meet a brother and sister who aren’t just hiking the JMT, but are doing so with similar artistic goals–only they aren’t filmmakers, they’re en plein air painters. If you think it’s nutty to carry a lot of camera gear into the wilderness, try carrying several stretched canvases and painting supplies in addition to your pack. I found their story–and their motivation for doing what they do–completely fascinating. And perhaps the story that I found most powerful–and moving–is that of a young Japanese woman they met on the trail. She spoke little to no English, and was hiking solo. It’s difficult to get your head around the courage that must have taken, and it’s just one more story among many in this film that shows the countless reasons any one hiker may have for setting foot on that almost 220-mile-long trail. It’s a journey of the heart, soul and mind as much as it is a test of the body.
This film will make you long for the mountains, even if you’ve never stood on top of one. It does precisely what the filmmakers set out to do: inspires. They deserve great credit for not only carrying off such a daunting task in the high country, but also in turning the raw footage and images they brought home into a truly beautiful and wonderful film.
About that quote at the top of this review: it rang especially true for me (as I’m sure it will for anyone else who loves wild places). I finally got to see the full-length movie at a private showing here in LA back in October. As one particularly stormy but stunning sunset flashed on the screen late in the hike, I realized I’d shared that sunset with them. I did some quick math in my head, then checked my photo files when I got home. Sure enough, I’d been in the Alabama Hills at the foot of Mt. Whitney that same evening, surrounded by one of the most beautiful, dramatic sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. How lovely to look at that photo now, and know that The Muir Project members were there, too, somewhere high above me, experiencing that same magnificent sunset. It always makes me smile now to think about that. We really are all connected–and Mile, Mile And A Half does a wonderful job of reminding us of this.
So, want to go see it? (And I HIGHLY recommend you do!) Their two screenings this weekend at Dances With Films have already sold out (thank goodness I already bought my tickets!), but they have screenings scheduled (so far, with more to be added) in Emeryville, Sacramento, and Durango, Colorado. You can find details and links to purchase tickets here. If you’d like to get to know the filmmakers a little better, you can read my interview with them last fall on Dan Bailey’s excellent Adventure Photography blog HERE. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the mountains are calling, and I must go. . . .