True Grit

A pre-screening of 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s new, squirm-inducing film about Aron Ralston’s famed story of self-amputation in the Moab desert, has the audience falling to the floor.

I am pushing myself deeply into a high backed theater chair, when I hear the unmistakable sound of a human body crumpling to the floor. On the screen in front of me is an on-going amputation—described (accurately) as the most realistic ever portrayed on film. Turning from the screen, I see an unconscious woman in the aisle. I quickly spring to her aid—just after the celluloid arm bids body adieu. My mind, on full trauma alert, welcomes the crisis, as here is someone I can help, the guy in the film, well, not so much.

Best Boy: James Franco transforms Aron Ralston’s story into riveting cinema.

In 2003, Aron Ralston stunned the world by auto-amputating his right arm below the elbow after becoming trapped by a falling chock-stone. One spring evening, he clocked out of his job at Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer for a weekend solo of Utah’s Blue John Canyon. Soon, his simple canyoneering adventure turned into an unbelievable ordeal that began with scant hope for rescue and became a wait for death. The international press as well as peers divided, choosing to celebrate or excoriate him for not telling anyone where he was going and for ending up cutting off his arm to survive.

But back to the fainting woman… I was watching Ralston’s story in celluloid at a pre-screening of 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle, of Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire fame.

And Boyle has created an epic tale.

The film opens with an ADD-inspired montage of crosshatched scenes of arms in use, often masses in action, with hectic pacing. It belies the tempo we will soon find ourselves immersed in: a shared pulse, slowed to standstill, with throats parched and brows creased. By the time Ralston, who is expertly portrayed by meat magnet, James Franco, finally severed that last tendon to end almost five days (a.k.a. 127 hours) of imprisonment, the audience and Franco, both surprised and horrified, let out a collective sigh of release. And after watching it, I can attest that following the film’s fall release the general public will convene at water coolers across the nation to chew it over (if not faint reliving it).

But what of those of us in the climbing and outdoor communities? Camps are divided on whether Ralston is a heroic figure and testament to the potency of human endurance or simply a bumbling dolt who cashed in on a major screw up. This film will not sweeten the sour grapes of the haters nor does it necessarily lionize Ralston, but it is an advisory to ensure you tell others of your whereabouts when you head into the wild. But what most of Aron Ralston’s detractors and admirers don’t realize is that behind the stump exists a regular guy. I first met Aron when he was still intact as he bolted down from a summer ascent of Colorado’s Mt Elbert. He was alone. He paused, and introduced himself. We met again that fall and discussed climbing Longs Peak together, but by the next spring, he had became tabloid fodder.

Ralston shrewdly has not made a misstep since his stumble with gravity and a half-ton Mesozoic paperweight—starting with his silence post-helicopter rescue that kept the globe’s press hounds baying to nabbing one of Hollywood’s most coveted directors and a first class actor for his biopic. He has spun gold from misfortune. In 2004, he published the well written and received Between a Rock and Hard Place. He’s hawked by a top speaker’s bureau alongside Bruce Jenner, Neil Armstrong and Ron Palillo, who played Horshack on “Welcome Back,Kotter.” But bigger by far, even more than his cameo in a beer commercial with Burt Reynolds, is this film. 127 Hours will leave you soaked, salt caked and exhausted, thankful to be a two-arm-chair voyeur. It will also elevate Ralston’s celebrity from talk show to morning show—a task he’s well suited to as he’s bright, funny and comfortable in his skin.

After the money scene, as my prone charge regained consciousness I whispered, “Do you know where you are?” To which she responded, “I’m at Aron’s film lying on the floor.” As Ralston made his way out of his predicament on the screen above, I assisted her out the door, past the suited security (they had been hired to keep bootleggers from plying their trade by covertly spying on the audience with night vision goggles, in search of LED luminescence).

In the carpeted hall, I handed off the swooning girl to a sympathetic representative of Fox Searchlight who had couriered the reels to Boulder. As they made their way to the bathroom for a splash of cool water, I overheard her inform “Pass Out Patty” that she “was in good company and shouldn’t’ be embarrassed,” as fainting and wilting had become de rigueur at 127 Hours—out of nine pre-screenings at least nine patrons had done exactly as she did. It was then that I realized that this definitely wasn’t a “date film”— that is unless you are wooing Elvira. •

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