Let’s Talk ‘Free Solo’ And The Editorial Spin Put on Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless’ Relationship

“Why do you want to do this? It’s a Totally. Crazy. Goal.” — Sanni McCandless

Today I saw Free Solo for the umpteenth time. I use the word “umpteenth,” because the actual number is somewhat embarrassing. I have seen this film many, many, times, so many times it may be the hallmark of a mild addiction.

I’m not sure what it is that grabs me so much about this movie, except it seems to be something a bit different every time. It’s the extraordinary landscapes (yes, it’s not quite as affecting on a small screen, say on a laptop, than it is in the movie theatre), the incredible score, the story, Honnold’s personality, and the way it moves slowly, but unwaveringly, from a fun little romp about a rock climber living in a van to a treatise about death, and how our passions affect those around us.

It’s that latter point that is, perhaps, the filmmaker’s justification for making Alex Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, such a key part of the narrative. And in so doing, ends up painting a somewhat slanted portrait of a woman who, we can assume, in real life, was just trying her best to have a relationship with this guy obsessed with a death-defying feat with no clear payoff.

There’s no way any girlfriend of Alex Honnold, in this context, in this highly edited film of events that took place over a year or more, could come off looking good. If she was fully supportive of his dedication to climbing, she would come across as dim-witted and lacking backbone. If she was supportive but still expressed concerns, as she does in the movie, she would come across as a hinderance to his ability to “achieve his highest potential,” or, as Honnold says in the film — describing the time he wanted to break up with her — as “bad for his climbing.”

Today, when I left the theatre (after having seen Free Solo for the umpteenth time), I heard two men talking behind me. “I just wanted him to break up with her! Just break up with her!” Other things I’ve heard coming out of the theatre: “He reminds me of… with that morose outlook on life… I’m glad he found a nice girlfriend.” Or, “I don’t think his girlfriend gets it.” Once, a man said, “that guy is crazy!”

(Crazy, well, crazy is a matter of context and perception. There’s one thing for sure — he looks beautiful climbing El Capitan. El Cap looks beautiful supporting that climber in the red shirt. It’s stunning, visceral, and inspiring.)

My own response, the first time, was that Sanni was trying to make Alex into something that he wasn’t. That he had been very blunt with her, and he’d never lied to her. But if she wanted to stick around, well, that was her choice. My feeling was that she would just keep banging her head against a wall, because — as the film chose to spin it — she was trying to get him to communicate with her in a way that he wasn’t prepared to do, and was trying to get him to make life choices that he was not prepared to make.

It was the second or third screening before I found a lot more compassion for Sanni, the character, and by then I was really more interested in the climbing part of Free Solo than the relationship.

Let’s Remember, Even Documentaries Are Edited to Form a Narrative

But it also took a couple of viewings to become fully cognizant of the editing at play, especially when it came to Alex and Sanni’s relationship. There’s one key example that makes Sanni look particularly bad, (or Alex particularly bad, depending on your perspective) but brilliantly moves ahead the story of Free Solo. In other words, it may not be chronologically truthful, but it reveals something meaningful about Alex’s personality in this context, and it makes the struggle in their relationship glaringly obvious.

When Alex decides to make the first free solo attempt of El Capitan, he declines to tell Sanni. He’s cagey about who he’s climbing with the next day, until she finally asks, as they are seated in the front of his van, “Are you thinking of soloing it tomorrow? Is that why you’re not telling me who you’re climbing with?”

“I’m not not telling you, but yeah.”

“Whoa, Alex.”

“Whoa.”

Then, the scene cuts away, and comes back. The two are seated in the same positions in the van, except now Sanni is saying she would like him to “take her into the equation” when he decides to go soloing. Eventually he says he feels “no obligation” to maximize his lifespan for her.

At first, you’re left with the impression that she sprung this conversation on him the night before he was about to attempt an extremely dangerous feat which required extreme mental preparation.

But if you are paying attention, you notice they are wearing different clothes. It’s not the same day. The conversation may have taken place days, weeks, even months before. But in that quick moment, a casual moviegoer could be left with the impression that she chose to indulge her own insecurities about the relationship at risk of getting in his head and damaging his ability to fully prepare for the climb. It seems selfish.

It’s a great scene, for a movie. For real people engaged in a relationship off screen, it’s unfair. For both of them. Because of course, during the press tour for Free Solo Honnold has had to defend his seemingly unkind response to McCandless in that moment. As if it’s any of our business, which it is not.

In this interview from September 2018, Honnold says that he was in that conversation weighing his life dream of soloing El Capitan against a “new” relationship, and maybe now the balance would be a bit different.

(In another interview, I believe he said the “new” relationship was “just” a year old, which, to me, does not qualify as “new,” but that goes to the point that it’s not for me, or any moviegoer, or anyone else, to say.)

No One Else’s Relationship is For Us to Judge

It’s easy to forget, when you’re watching a movie, that no one of us really have any right to say anything about anyone else’s relationship. That goes for us, in real life, as well. Because… well, it’s none of our business. With few exceptions, like if either partner is unsafe in the relationship, you just really have to stay out of it. It’s none of our damn business.

Because no one — I repeat, no one — lands into a perfect relationship and stays there. It just doesn’t happen. The whole point in life is to learn through situations and circumstances that are imperfect. That includes two good people being romantically involved, when they don’t quite communicate the same way or have the same interests or goals in life. Finding common ground — or finding your own limits and dealbreakers — is the very point of human engagement. And as it’s being worked out, it is no one else’s business, at all.

But when you are watching a movie, it’s easy to make judgments. The movie seems to invite it. The movie asks us to assume that Sanni is no fan of the ambitious part of Honnold that wants a continuously bigger, better climb. If that’s even true about Alex. Who knows. But it’s why the movie ends on a big laugh: we’re supposed to smile at that look on Sanni’s face, when really, we have no idea what she was actually thinking in that last scene.

The Movie Is About Alex Honnold, Not Sanni McCandless, So She Doesn’t Get to Tell Her Own Story

It is easy to leave Free Solo thinking that Sanni and Alex are wrong for each other. But it is easy to forget that the film centres around Honnold, and how everyone else fits into his life. There’s no attention paid to McCandless, which makes sense, but also means she’s at a serious disadvantage when it comes to analyzing their relationship objectively. We know about Honnold and his family background, but nothing about her and why she feels so compelled to fight for this relationship in the first place.

It’s easy to dismiss Sanni McCandless as a woman who saw Alex Honnold at a bookstore event, thought he was cute, and became his starry-eyed companion. Because that’s all Free Solo tells us about her. But it turns out she used to work at a startup dedicated to energy efficiency and runs a personal coaching business for outdoor-minded people. So, it’s not like Sanni and Alex don’t have anything in common, and the fact that their relationship has lasted this long might not be a fluke.

So, let’s leave her alone, shall we? Free Solo is an extraordinary, beautiful film, which makes me feel inspired and happy. But every aspect of it is angled. Even the 3 hours and 56 minutes of his El Capitan free solo ascent is edited down to approximately 15 minutes. So it probably wasn’t all beautiful, his movements probably weren’t all so elegant, and he may have made some unpleasant grunting sounds that were picked up by that mic that was hidden in his chalk bag. As for Alex and Sanni, since they are still together, I wish them nothing but happiness.

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‘Free Solo’ Shows Alex Honnold’s Extreme Difference

Yosemite

There’s a scene in Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold’s phenomenal feat of scaling El Capitan without the aid of climbing ropes, where the audience gets a telling glimpse of his difference.

It is a scene that seems to have nothing to do with climbing. Honnold and his girlfriend have just bought a new home in Las Vegas. It’s a new kind of permanence for Honnold, who’s been living out of his van for a decade, spending much — if not all — of his time climbing.

In the new home, Honnold calmly tries to figure out how to make coffee. The shot is intercut with a sequence where he uses a screwdriver to patiently unscrew the freezer door from the top half of the fridge. Apparently having heated something on the stove, he proceeds to consume it directly from the pot, without a hint of hesitation or self-consciousness. 

It leaves the impression not that he didn’t bother transfering the dish to a plate or bowl, but that the extra step hadn’t even occured to him. 

There are many ways to read this; if it were a fictional character study, it might signal someone who’s largely dropped out of society, unburdened by the accepted norms of how to handle day-to-day tasks. In the context of Honnold, it says something striking about his physicality, and perhaps his perception of the world. There’s extraordinary attention to dexterity, functionality, and the way matter moves in space.

(Of course, this is Honnold in the context of a documentary, which is a step removed from how he may actually perceive the world as a real-life human being). 

It’s the kind of precise analysis you would have to have if you were a climber whose very life depended on a correct judgment call of where to place your body on a sheer face of rock that offered little to no footholds upon which to climb. El Capitan, when it was created out of the earth, did not make it convenient for creatures of any species to traverse its edges. 

Perhaps I see it as a message about physicality because I’ve never been someone with a talent for dexterity, or for moving with ease and grace through space. I have mild scoliosis, and a childhood knee injury means I sometimes walk with a limp. Watching Free Solo led me to recall, almost reflexively, the number of times I’ve done a slight stumble just walking down the street — with exactly zero gradient. Scaling a rock face is simply out of my range of experience. 

Honnold said in at least one interview he was never a gifted climber. There were those much stronger than he when he was younger, but he just kept doing it and got better. But it’s obvious in the film he has some structural benefits; the bones on his feet, the lanky skeleton. Of course, there’s the vegetarian diet, the constant movement that add to the athleticism. But climbing seems to fit him, and fit his body. 

In one scene, he gets MRI results from researchers studying the amygdala part of the brain. He was analyzed, it appears, by his responses to a series of images. His amygdala showed far less — if any — activity compared to the average person. So what others would normally find stimulating, to him, had no or little effect.

This is what McGill University has to say about the amygdala:

“[T]he amygdala seems to modulate all of our reactions to events that are very important for our survival. Events that warn us of imminent danger are therefore very important stimuli for the amygdala, but so are events that signal the presence of food, sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and so on.”

It is easy to assume researchers only know so much about the brain, and only so much about how it may work in the case of a professional free solo climber. Alex Honnold has said repeatedly he was afraid of the daunting task of El Capitan. He did not attempt the feat without significant preparation. Much of Free Solo is taken up with his diligent recording of each part of the rock face, and the choreographed movements across challenging sections.

In a TED talk in the Spring of 2018, he discussed the need for his movements to be mechanical. It was crucial that he be very well-rehearsed before doing the climb without ropes. He had already scaled El Capitan more than 50 times, by his own account, before doing so without equipment.

To say he had little activity in the amygdala that one day in the MRI room is not to say he is reckless; he may in fact be just the opposite.

That is if you can put aside the significant risk of the task itself, which spells certain death in the event of an unpredicted move or condition. It’s an unglamorous sport, free solo climbing. You have to perceive the world differently in order to try it. But for some, maybe they are encouraged on their path by the ability to successfully move through space.  

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Is Film School Material. It’s A Piece To Be Studied.

New movie Bad Times at the El Royale

I almost didn’t see Bad Times at the El Royale because I heard it was violent. And a bit creepy. Those are two elements that don’t sit well with me — and it was enough to make me hedge a bit at the theater, where I opted for the safer — although undoubtably more boring — First Man instead. It only took a few minutes of Ryan Gosling mourning his toddler’s serious illness, and her death, for me to ditch that film and duck into El Royale, which was just starting in the theatre next door.

(I don’t know why the daughter sub-plot bothered me so much, especially in those early scenes, but perhaps I had an intuitive hunch of what was to come and how it might not be completely grounded in reality. When it comes to dramatic license for emotional effect, it was a particularly low blow.)

It was Dakota Johnson’s interview with Jimmy Kimmel that made me particularly interested to see El Royale — she said it was original, unlike anything you’d seen. A quick search revealed that Drew Goddard, the writer-director, was also behind some of my most favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was put off by the idea of violence, but it turned out to be less grotesque than I expected.

There’s an element to Buffy, one of the things that makes it such an enduring piece of fiction, that seems to be at the heart of El Royale, and to me it’s why the new movie works so well. It’s perhaps true that the movie borrows genres, maybe it’s Tarrantino-like (I’ve never been a fan, which means I’m not up on his catalogue), but for me it just works. Because, like with Buffy, the movie seems to have a memory, and it unfolds appropriately.

In one of the Buffy commentaries — on a DVD, I assume, although I’m running completely from memory (speaking of which) here — Marti Noxon said that they didn’t lose information on the show. In other words, there’s no important detail that is just forgotten or deliberately omitted if it doesn’t neatly fit into a future plotline. Also, there were always consequences in Buffy. Everything that happened had an effect.

Buffy, therefore, was inherently, or subconsciously, karmic. Cause and effect was the rhythm of the entire series. Faith and Willow were good, then bad, then good again, but they had to work towards redemption. Their forgiveness and welcome back into the Scooby fold had to be earned, and even after that process things were never quite the same as they had been before.

That, in my estimation, is the central idea behind Bad Times at the El Royale. There are always consequences, and opportunities for redemption. Power is short-lived, especially when it’s fear-based power, which collapses as soon as the subjects find an escape. At the end of this movie, the two who make it out alive are 1) blameless and 2) almost blameless, respectively, and the one who has something for which they must atone gets a kind of absolution through a kind act.

It takes awhile for this movie to get going, but the build-up is essential for the climatic scenes when the group finally comes together, almost all experiencing trauma at the hands of Chris Hemsworth, whose cult-leader villain is terrifying in his ability to simultaneously disarm and perform brutal acts of violence. Dakota Johnson’s Emily is too hardened, and her ability to inflict damage too pronounced, that her apparently well-intentioned reason for being at the El Royale quickly loses its luster. It’s tough to be sympathetic towards her, even if she ostensibly has good intentions. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges’ aged crook has an unexpected vulnerability that, true to that claim of originality,  is of the type that has never been shown on-screen in this particular context before, as far as I know. His vulnerability is a daring and poignant choice.

And the hotel manager. He’s at once the most, and least, responsible for his moral burdens, which turn out to be perhaps the baddest of the bunch. It’s a challenging human analysis, which doesn’t shy away from complexity.

Someone wrote somewhere, or posed in an interview to Goddard, that the El Royale is a kind of purgatory. Indeed, I expected the place to have supernatural elements, if only to explain the strange coincidence of this combination of characters meeting in this deserted place all at once, and none of them being able to leave (cue my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually not written by Drew Goddard). It turns out not to have anything spooky going on (spoiler alert) except what could be pulled out of the depths of the human psyche. But it nonetheless is a kind of metaphoric purgatory, where the characters have to face death and, in so doing, the checks and balances of their own moral codes.

It was in that roulette wheel scene where Bad Times at the El Royale reminded me of something that could be analyzed in a film class. It suddenly pieced together so well, really without warning. It’s a study of filmmaking that actually says something, or forces the audience to question their assumptions about who’s right and wrong in this scenario. Because at the end of the day, even the blameless one decides to partner with a bank robber to get the cash. But then, after what she’s experienced, she sort of deserves it, too.

I plan to see this movie again, because I missed the first few minutes. I had been in the theatre next door, after all, getting upset at the spectacle of Ryan Gosling’s moon-trotting hero going through a family crisis. The rest of that one I think I’ll forego, because unlike El Royale, it’s just a cheap movie trick designed to make us feel without making us think.