The Man Who Loved Face-Dancing (A Review of ‘Stone Monkey’ DVD)added Apr/2006
Reviewed by Marc Chrysanthou
In one of the 'extras' (Romancing the Stone) to Alun Hughes' DVD reissue of Stone Monkey, Alun recounts the amusing story of how, in the early 80s, he was trying to 'sell' an outdoor film to Adrian Metcalf (Sports Commissioning Editor at C4). Metcalf keeps nodding off as Alun shows him videos of kayaking. Desperately seeking to grab Metcalf's attention, he shows footage of Johnny Dawes climbing. Again Metcalf slumbers like a debauched, world-weary Roman emperor. Alun rustles his briefcase to rouse him, Metcalf briefly splutters into life and exclaims, “Hmm..the leaping boy, yes, we'll have the leaping boy!'
Twenty years on, it is still fresh and inspiring. It wouldn't be too outrageous to suggest Stone Monkey transformed the way British climbing was regarded even by those who practised it week in, week out. The dry and deadly serious Rock Athlete era of dour taciturn men in Ron Hills, blown away by an “autistic wild boy” cavorting and grinning to a soundtrack of Zappa, Lloyd Cole & Talking Heads.
We probably all have a favourite sequence of Stone Monkey. For me, it's the falling rather than the leaping that is strangely inspiring. High on The Prow, Johnny dynoing ambitiously for a pathetically gnarly hold, plummeting like a stone from a slingshot and nearly decking out. Even now I still lament the fact that Johnny wasn't the first to climb what came to be known as Parthian Shot.
Accompanying the original Stone Monkey is an 'extra' featuring Johnny's commentary. Some fascinating details are revealed. Johnny explaining how his 'parents' in Stone Monkey were chosen by Alun from a catalogue; how his 'Father' was the Wicked Queen in Rhyl; how the initial dyno on The Prow was seamlessly edited to look as if Johnny had 'caught' it first time; how Bob Drury's bridge-swinging mentality had led him to miscalculate how much slack was at the top; and Johnny's irritation at how certain sections give the impression that the rope was tight. Also accompanying the original film is the extra 'Romancing the Stone' in which Alun recounts how he first encountered Dawes cadging gear below the Grochan for an ascent of Cockblock; Johnny - ever the showman - wearing pink shorts, spinning a karabiner with his knuckles.
To label the new Stone Monkey as a DVD re-issue with 'extras' does it an injustice. For one of those 'extras' - The Story of Indian Face - is a vital counterpart to Stone Monkey. More than an 'extra', it has the effect of situating the original film in a broader historical and biographical context to create a much deeper and more panoramic narrative. If Stone Monkey is about light, youth and leaping for joy, then The Story of Indian Face is sombre, darker in tone, conveying the theme of climbers in middle-age metaphorically falling to earth after their bubble of divine protection has burst. If Stone Monkey is The Hobbit, then The Story of the Indian Face together with another curiosity of an extra, Johnny's Rants (our Frodo-like red-faced hero pontificating upon his climbing philosophy and place in history), is The Lord of the Rings.
The Story of Indian Face is an utterly absorbing film (at 30 minutes, 5 minutes longer than Stone Monkey) showing rare footage of Johnny climbing as a youth (typically leaping like a salmon); his early forays into the Peak; all leading inexorably via Stone Monkey to the quasi-Greek Tragedy that was to become the Great Wall Saga. The stage for this 'tragedy' was the Black Cliff (Clogwyn du'r Arddu), which appropriately has a climb named Mordor upon its steep faces. And in this saga, the two main protagonists are our flawed hero 'Frodo' Dawes and the arch-villain 'Gollum' Redhead. Both are interviewed in an appropriate context – Johnny red-faced from descending Mount Doom, in the evening glow, by turns provocative, jesting, contrary; Gollum-like Redhead angular, tormented and evasive, by the dark brooding waters of Lyn Padarn. The Snowdon Massif looms above and beyond, with the portentous shadow of Cloggy hovering over them (a reminder of their fate to be permanently haunted by the raven-like shades of Clogwyn du'r Arddu)
Other dramatis personae make contributions: A level-headed Nick Dixon, and the Grand Old Man of Cloggy, Joe Brown - Bilbo-esque in his sitting-room. Other 'faces' - Paul Pritchard (now a hemiplegic), Bob Drury (now a para-glider), Jerry Moffat in ankle-socks and Fire boots - whisper to us of the passage of time.
The jewel in the crown of The Story of Indian Face is footage of a thin-faced helmeted, unhappy-with-himself Johnny in 1988 climbing West Indian Face – which takes in the crux moves of Indian Face - with a deceptive lack of effort. He angrily rails at chipped runners and the infamous missing flake (sheepishly held up later to the camera by Redhead). The only disappointment is the limited, non-sensational camera angle chosen to film this ascent.
The continuous thread throughout all of the 'chapters' is Johnny's quasi-mystical philosophy of climbing: the rock is the star; rock is a window through which we gain self-knowledge; rock-climbs contain a unique “sensual template”; only those who tune in to the rock's encrypted musical score will not be rejected; the rock teaches you the precise finger arpeggios and exact body-configurations to succeed.
A painter like John Redhead could perhaps create a Medieval triptych (painted on stone) from the sprawling chapters comprising the Stone Monkey re-issue: Leaping, Mastery, Falling. The three sections (Far East, East & West Canvases?) trace the parabolic curve of a climber's trajectory – through the leap, deadpoint, and fall. The original Stone Monkey chronicles the rising arc of the jumping climber's trajectory (The Leaping Boy's early playful, becoming progressively more serious, adventures). At the other end of the triptych would be The Falling Man depicting the gravity-doomed descent. Like The Falling Man jumping from the World Trade Centre towers, both Dawes and Redhead seem to be looking upwards as they fall – transfixed in space for a few seconds looking tantalisingly backwards at when they were the gods' chosen climbers.
And in the majestic centre of the triptych is the Deadpoint of Destiny: Johnny, at the apex of his upward surge, holding the gleaming jug at the top of Indian Face, with Llanberis, Anglesey, and the Irish Sea behind him. A moment of redemptive ecstasy. John Redhead can only look on in anguished envy (“Why him? Why not me? I loved you, Cloggy, so much. Dawes seduced you with sports-climbing trickery. I was the noble suitor”) but then he blushes when he remembers how he drove a bolt into its heart. And, because no one (not even Chosen Ones) can capture the deadpoint for more than a brief moment of eternity, Johnny descends triumphant to The Shire – a changed man.
Occasionally he revisits the scene of his triumph, allows himself a self-congratulatory moment. Proud that he was the one who listened and bent his body to the rock's secret music – its play of wind and rain. His chest swelling with pride - “I'm much better than people can understand. I'm a much better climber than people realize!” Then, from memory, he re-traces in his imagination the bold delicate step-sequences of Indian Face. And this Fred Astaire of face-dancing sings as he dances, “No they can't take that away from me.”
Dr. Marc Chrysanthou is a regular contributor to the forums and the articles section of UKClimbing.com - in between postings he finds time to lecture in Sociology and to climb obscure gritstone boulders at a standard that would be impressive for someone twice his age. He was co-editor of the UKC-inspired 'The Owl & the Cragrat' poetry anthology.
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