Subtitled "Conquerers of the Useless", the 2010 documentary 180º SOUTH charts the sort of path many a cubicle dweller only dreams of: a months long journey into the heart of the rarely explored, away from the mind numbing repetition of the typical work week. Ever notice how many murals of tropical isles and mountain ranges you see in fluorescent drenched offices?
A guy from California named Jeff Johnson (no relation to singer/surfer Jack, who has a song in this movie) saves enough cash to sail from Mexico to (eventually) Patagonia, Chile, every moment along the way strategizing a Holy Grail quest of sorts for the adventurous: climbing to the top of Cerro Corcovado. There are side trips for other climbs as well as a fair amount of surfing. He's joined by two older guys named Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, who made a similiar trek back in 1968 (some footage of that trip opens this doc), and a young woman named Makohe, who Johnson met while his boat was stranded for several weeks in Rapa Nui, more widely known as Easter Island.
It is while we are with Jeff on Easter Island that we get to the crux of 180º SOUTH's theme: man is killing the environment. Johnson narrates a brief history of the Island, how the famous wooden idols were erected centuries before in fits of unhealthy competition among the Natives, leading to a complete erosion of a harmonious society. Depending on what source you locate, the genesis of this downfall may or may not have been precipitated by British settlers. No matter; Johnson is trying to draw parallels with modern society.
Once we get to South America, we not only take in the beauty of the coastline and rocklands, but also the blight of pulp mills that, yes, provide jobs, but also, according to the locals interviewed in this movie, destroy the character of the town. Their definition of "progress" will be quite different from that of industry types. Earlier on Easter Island, Makohe worried about potential advancements to her tropical idyll, about any changes that may come.
Johnson will latter narrate that navigating through Chile, despite the machinery and black smoke and dams, is like travelling back to a more primitive time. But, while he is in the city of Santiago, he will relay that he felt he was back in Big City, U.S.A., strapped to a job and a routine. The country folk explain that people in the City are increasingly cut off from nature, and each other, by iPods and smart phones. Apathy is rampant, and the environment will reap that harvest, they argue. Depending on your views, invisible audience, you may well argue that it is already happening. Plus, industries continue to build dams to provide energy for the big cities. Think of the rivers devasted by this process, sighs Johnson and director Chris Malloy.
Tompkins, unlike many armchair environmentalists, uses his funds to preserve land in Chile, to keep Big Business at bay. He's a Zen-like fellow, and a real proactive kinda guy. His compadre, Yvon, has similiar views but is also an entertainingly gruff blowhard who bitches about, well, lots of things. My favorite line of his: when describing mountain climbing, real, bona-fide roughing it mountain climbing, he cites how corporations conversely make it too easy and pretty. How packages that schedule climbs up Mt. Everest make those with enough cash very comfortable, such as surgeons and attorneys. He jokes, "they even leave a little chocolate on your sleeping bag. You get nothing out of it, You're an asshole at the beginning of the climb, and you're still an asshole when you return!"
But back to Patagonia and the treacherous Cerra Corcovado. It proves to be a more difficult climb than anyone believed, though it is acknowledged that the Easter Island delay is to blame, as the temperature in Chile got warmer, making the upper reaches of the mountain more apt to hazard. Just 200 feet of the summit, Johnson and a few others (Yvon had bailed earlier) raise the white flag. Too dangerous. So frustrating, but as I watched I felt as if God was chuckling. Why does Man always feel he has to conquer nature? Be it a monstrously cresting wave or a snow capped mountain peak, there are those with adrenaline in their veins who thrive on insane, extreme quests, taunting the wild outdoors. They can't help it. Perhaps it is pathological?
In my efforts to avoid a sermon here, I simply believe we should enjoy nature, respect it. Part of that respect includes knowing when to leave it alone: be it mining, stripping, exploiting. Or even climbing and surfing. I was glad to see these guys have a healthy perspective on it all. 180º SOUTH is different than many outdoorsy/extreme sport/ecological docs, more thoughtful, if imperfect. Decent soundtrack. Worth a look.