More is less - Dosage V
by Peter Thomas
This review is based on watching the latest edition of the Dosage series just once; perhaps that tells its own story.
I own everything that the Lowell brothers BigUp Productions have published over the years from Rampage onwards. Their films have been a major part of my journey into climbing and some of the best footage I have seen is contained in Dosage I - IV. The images that the Lowells projected, the stories that they told and the personalities that they helped us to get to know better have always made me want to get out and go climbing (I will except the ill-judged Ivan Greene section from Dosage II from this praise of course). So I was looking forward to watching Dosage V immensely.
The basics of the previous format are still there. The idea is to offer a number of short sections "doses" - each focusing on a particular area, a style of climbing and a group of climbers. The regular actors over the series have been the likes of David Graham, Beth Rodden, Tommy Caldwell, Lisa Rands, Jason Kehl, and Klem Loskot; supported by a range of others including Brits such as Ben Moon and Tim Emmett. But the biggest name is missing from this list. Above all, BigUp Productions have been about Sharma. This long standing personal and professional relationship culminated in their last DVD, King Lines, which was essentially a homage to the Santa Cruz climbing demi-god; and none the worse for that in my opinion.
Sharma is in Dosage V, but to a lesser extent than in any previous BigUp film. Some of this is no doubt because of King Lines, but it also maybe reflects the Lowells' attempt to acknowledge a wider climbing community and perhaps the passing of the baton of hard climbing to a new generation. Dosage V features some of the bigger names in sport climbing such as Patxi Usobiaga, Dani Andrada and Michael Fuselier. Also showcased are some of the young-guns of bouldering; Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson and Tyler Landman. In King Lines, Sharma muses about the next generation of climbers and you get glimpses of some of its members in Dosage V. Graham, Kehl, Rodden and Caldwell also play their parts as normal.
This leads to the observation that the biggest weakness of Dosage V is the number of climbers, routes and problems that are thrown at you. Some people have argued that the series built up the featured group of climbers to the detriment of other, equally gifted exponents. However, a strength was the time we spent with people like Graham and Sharma, getting to know them as people, what motivates them, what they think about climbing and life in general. Many sections of previous Dosages had voice-overs from the climbers explaining about holds, what made particular moves difficult, the history of the climb, or even just what was on their mind at that moment. This all made things more accessible to the viewer.
The sheer volume of climbers and climbs in Dosage V is a bit overwhelming; there are also more doses than ever before. If the film was not to become a 3 hour epic, something had to give and accordingly we have no portraits of the climbers; less background information about the areas, routes or problems; and many climbs topped and tailed with just the crux moves featured. In a typical section from 'Alpine Blocs' featuring serious test pieces from Rocky Mountain National Park we have Daniel Woods, the man who succeeded on Jade (V15) where so many before him failed, introducing both himself and RMNP with the crisp 'We are so far up here in the mountains. This is where we come to train, send, do our thing basically'. Not the greatest insight into one of today's best climbers and an enormous contrast to the even-paced way in which others, Sharma and Rands in particular, were introduced to us in earlier films.
The first ascent of Jade should have been a centre-piece of Dosage V, but the footage has been on the Internet for a long time and seemed stale in this setting. Of course the near darkness doesn't help, but the magic of the achievement is somehow dissipated. Elsewhere, Rodden's FA of Meltdown, yet another claimant to the title of world's hardest trad climb, is covered in a way that seems detached and clinical; particularly in comparison to the more human treatment of her FA of The Optimist in Dosage III. Meltdown should have been the coda of Dosage V, but somehow leaves you feeling unsatisfied.
Of course, as is apparent from my constant referral to its predecessors, one of the big problems facing Dosage V is that of all sequels; is it as good as what went before? There are some excellent sections. Extended footage of Paul Robinson climbing in New England, which is strangely relegated to the extras section, is more engaging than much of the other bouldering. It is interesting to see some of the giants of sport climbing interacting on what might prove to be the next level of climbs in Spain. The first dose, 'The Valley' set in Yosemite, with Caldwell and Randy Puro on photogenic high-ball granite problems is beautifully filmed, despite some criticisms that the ascents are not cutting edge.
This is balanced by sections that didn't work for me. These included a return to the Ozzark Mountains in Arkansas with a posse of boulders lead by David Graham. The Ozzarks dose in Dosage III is one of my all-time favourite sequences, so perhaps it is unsurprising that this suffered in comparison. A French expedition to the limestone crags of Yangshuo, China also left me wondering why the BigUp team had bothered.
Perhaps it is the advent of HD but some of the cinematography in Dosage V seems focused on the landscape surrounding climbs rather than the climbs themselves. There are less close-ups of hands crimping non-existent edges or faces contorted with effort. Instead we get panoramic wide-shots. While this can produce beautiful images, it also can make the film seem more like the sort of video that many of us would shoot from a fixed point and with little editing. I am sure that enormous technical prowess is on display, but the result can seem a little empty.
I think that the Lowells have tried to do something different with Dosage V. There is less biography and more short bursts of climbing. The pace is more frenetic. There are fewer explanatory voice-overs. There are lots of new faces. Perhaps after King Lines, probably BigUp's most human film, they wanted to change gear.
Whatever the motivations, it was certainly brave to strike out in a new direction and maybe if they had stuck slavishly to the tried and tested formula of the series, they would have attracted criticism for this as well. Overall I think their efforts fell a little flat. Dosage V is not a bad film, it is just not as good as we have come to expect. The Lowells can do better and have done on many previous occasions.
Maybe it will improve on a second viewing, but to date Dosage V has remained in its cover after its first outing.
Dosage V. BigUp Productions. Retail price £19.99. Running time 1 hour 20 min. Extras 30 mins.
Doses / Climbing Style / Locations / Climbers
The Valley / Yosemite, California / Bouldering / Tommy Caldwell and Randy Puro
Yangshuo / Sport / Yangshuo, China / Michael Fuselier and Axel Ballay
On The Fringe / Bouldering / Ozzark Mountains, Arkansas / David Graham, Tyler Landman, Chad Greedy, Jason Kehl, and Jon Cardwell
A Muerte / Sport / Spain / Chris Sharma, Dani Andrada, Patxi Usobiaga, and Daila Ojeda
Secrets Of The East / Bouldering / New England / Paul Robinson, Matt Bosley, John Kuphal and Andy Salo
Mission: Albarracin / Bouldering / Albarracin, Spain / Jason Kehl and Chris Lindner
Alpine Blocs / Bouldering / RMNP, Colorado / Daniel Woods and Paul Robinson
Meltdown / Trad / Yosemite, California / Beth Rodden
Extras: 30 minutes of additional climbing action.