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Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com
Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com

9 Facts About Climbing Mount Meru—And Making a Documentary Out of It

Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com
Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com

Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk made history in 2011 by becoming the first people ever to reach the summit of the central peak of Mount Meru, a nearly 22,000-foot-tall mountain in the Gharwal Himalayas. Today, MERU—a documentary about the trio’s experience, filmed by the men as they climbed—is hitting theaters. We sat down with co-directors Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi to talk about what makes the mountain special, why it’s so tough to climb, and how the men went from filming their journey for posterity to making a feature length doc.

1. IT’S THE ANTI-EVEREST.

Outside of serious climbers, few know about Mount Meru, which is the opposite of the most famous Himalayan mountain in many ways. “As a professional climber, everybody’s like, ‘Have you ever climbed Everest?’” says Chin, who has climbed that mountain twice and once skied down from the summit. “It’s what people are familiar with, and it’s created this stereotype of mountain climbing: People with big down suits walking up a big slope.” 

But the Shark's Fin route up the northwest side of Meru’s central peak is a much tougher, and more technical, climb: Those looking to make the 20,700-foot summit need to carry 200 pounds of gear—there are no Sherpas to haul heavy loads at Meru, as there are at Everest—and be very, very experienced in all kinds of climbing, from mixed ice to big wall. There’s 4,000 feet of technical climbing before hitting the route’s most daunting feature, a 1,500-foot stretch of nearly featureless granite. 

“You can show up at Everest having never really climbed before, because it’s like hiking, basically,” Chin says. “You can’t show up on Meru and start up the thing unless you have years and years of experience. Climbing and spending time on the mountains is really the only way you can train.”

2. MANY PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO CLIMB IT—AND FAILED.

Climbers had been trying to conquer the Shark’s Fin route for 30 years before Anker, Chin, and Ozturk made it in October 2011. According to Chin, before the trio’s 2008 ascent (when bad weather delayed their progress up the mountain and, facing food shortages, they were forced to turn back just 300 feet from the peak), “the highest attempt had basically only gotten halfway.” One climber even broke both legs in the attempt. “The top climbers in the world had attempted this climb and couldn’t do it,” Vasarhelyi says. “That history is what makes Meru special.

“If there’s a known route that’s kind of stunning and beautiful and has that aesthetic, just having that many failures on it, in itself, draws more climbers towards it,” Chin says. “Having it go 30 years with that many [unsuccessful] attempts is a long time.”

3. THERE AREN’T MANY OTHER ROUTES LIKE THIS ONE.

Though there are a number of other challenging routes up mountains, including on Meru's other peaks, “I don’t know of many [routes] specifically like the Shark’s Fin because the upper head wall was overhanging, and that just doesn’t happen geologically that much," Chin says. 

4. THREE CLIMBERS IS THE MAGIC NUMBER.

And there are two main reasons why: “One, if somebody gets injured, you have two people to help evacuate him,” Chin says. More than three people, and you’d need more equipment, including two portaledges (hanging tents that are anchored into the rock thousands of feet above the ground) and the weight of all the gear would become too much. But with a three-person team, “you can get everybody in one portaledge, and then you can always have one team climbing, like one person leading, one person belaying, and then the third can either be resting, melting snow, organizing gear,” Chin says. “There’s a certain efficiency to it.”

5. THE FALL IS THE BEST TIME TO CLIMB.

The Himalayas have two main climbing seasons, in the spring and in the fall. “Geographically, one season favors one part of the Himalayas and one season favors another part,” Chin says. “For the Garhwal, the fall is great because supposedly the weather is a little bit more stable.” But there’s a downside to a fall climb: “It does usually mean it’s a lot colder, and the days are getting shorter.”

6. GETTING DOWN TOOK THREE DAYS.

The trio’s 2011 ascent took 11 days, and they made it back down in just three. “It’s a lot easier, but it’s way more dangerous,” Chin says. “Statistically, most accidents happen during the descent.”

7. BRINGING ALONG EQUIPMENT TO FILM MEANT SACRIFICING FOOD.

Chin and Ozturk are both filmmakers, and shot their journeys up Meru in both 2008 and 2011. But bringing along the cameras and batteries to shoot meant making sacrifices. When you’re climbing and dragging gear with you, “weight is a really big deal,” Vasarheyli says. “They cut the labels out of their jackets and the handles off their toothbrushes. The 15 pounds of camera gear is equivalent to two days of food, which they certainly could have used on the first climb. There’s really only two hours of direct sunlight a day, so it made no sense to bring a solar charger, so instead they weighed the charger and said ‘OK, this weight would be equivalent to this many batteries, so we can bring this many extra batteries.’ Those kinds of calculations are stunning to think about.”

There were other challenges presented by filming while climbing, too: No shot could hold up the climb, and whoever was filming had to hold his breath so as to not disrupt the shot. “Because it’s high altitude, breathing is an issue,” Vasarhelyi explains. “The takes are short because otherwise you’re panting, so they’re holding their breath while shooting a shot.” The various restrictions on filming meant there was not a lot of footage when they came off the mountain.

8. THE MEN WERE ORIGINALLY DOCUMENTING FOR POSTERITY, NOT A FILM.

Chin says he never even considered turning the film into a feature-length documentary until after the 2011 climb. “It just seemed very daunting, but it struck me that there was enough going on with all the characters, and there was also this motivation to share some aspects of climbing that have always been really important to me, which I didn’t feel like people understood or got—the friendship, and the mentorship, and kind of the loyalty,” he says. 

He began assembling rough cuts, and showed them to Vasarhelyi in 2012. “I had never seen footage like this, and it was unique to the situation and the particular skill set of the climbers and the fact that there are three of them and they’re filming each other,” she says. “We had this wonderful footage, but the question, I think, when you make a feature-length doc is, are there ways that people who aren’t familiar with climbing can identify with the story?”

So she stepped behind the camera to interview the climbers and their families to flesh the film out. “I’m not a climber, so I was very interested in the human story,” she says. “That’s what happens in feature docs. The more time you spend, the more nuance emerges, the more a story evolves—but it’s different than fiction where you can reshoot something. There’s no reshooting on Meru.” 

9. NO ONE HAS MADE IT TO THE TOP OF THE SHARK’S FIN ROUTE SINCE.

Chin credits the trio’s success where so many others had failed to a few things: better weather; what they learned from their first climb; and, mostly, Anker, for whom the third attempt to climb the mountain was the charm (before the 2008 attempt, he tried his luck in 2003). “Conrad had 30 years of experience climbing,” Chin says. “That type of climbing—alpine, big wall climbing—is his kind of specialty, and he’s also this very innovative character. He’s always open to trying new things. He’s a strategist, and he’s very detail oriented. When it comes to our climbing systems, everything has to be the most efficient. His expectations are very high. He deserves a lot of the credit.”

And though no one has completed the route since he, Anker, and Ozturk did, Chin has a prediction: “There’s a very, very, very small percentage of really hardcore climbers who will watch the movie and be like, ‘I want to go there,’” he says. “But 99.9999 percent of people would never want to go there after they watch [the doc].”

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14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.

1. JACQUELINE SUSANN DIDN'T LIKE THE MOVIE.

To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”

2. BARBARA PARKINS WAS “NERVOUS” TO WORK WITH JUDY GARLAND.

Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”

3. WILLIAM TRAVILLA BASED THE FILM'S COSTUMES ON THE WOMEN’S LIKES.

Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”

4. SUSANN THOUGHT GARLAND “GOT RATTLED.”

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”

5. PATTY DUKE PARTIALLY BLAMES THE DIRECTOR’S BEHAVIOR FOR GARLAND’S EXIT.

During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”

6. DUKE DIDN’T SING NEELY’S SONGS.

All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”

7. GARLAND STOLE ONE OF THE MOVIE'S COSTUMES.

Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”

8. A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE FILM HID THE TITLE.

Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”

9. IT MARKED RICHARD DREYFUSS'S FILM DEBUT.


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”

10. THE DIRECTOR DIDN’T DIG TOO DEEP.

In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”

11. A STAGE ADAPTATION MADE IT TO OFF-BROADWAY.

In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.

12. JACKIE SUSANN BARELY ESCAPED THE MANSON FAMILY.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.

13. PATTY DUKE LEARNED TO EMBRACE THE FILM.

Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”

14. LEE GRANT DOESN’T THINK IT’S THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE.

In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

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6 Tips From Experts on How to Fake Loving a Gift You Hate
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In this season of holiday giving, it's almost inevitable that you're going to get a gift you just don't like—and nobody wants to hurt another person's feelings when they went to the trouble of buying you a gift. So as you struggle to say thanks for that gaudy scarf from a beloved relative, or that stinky perfume from a well-meaning coworker, we bring you these tips from Jack Brown, a physician and body language expert from New York, and Alicia Sanders, a California-based acting coach with the conservatory program Starting Arts, for how to fake enjoyment—at least until you can exchange your gift at the store.

1. FIND ONE TRUE THING YOU CAN SAY.

Your inner voice may be saying "No!" the moment you peel pack that paper, but there may be a hidden yes inside you somewhere that you can mine for.

Sanders explains that the key to successful acting "is finding the truth in your scene." She encourages her students to tap into a moment when they felt the emotion they are trying to convey, for authenticity. "So you get an ugly sweater with a hideous shape and a terrible image, but you think the color blue is not so bad. You can say, ‘This color blue is so beautiful,' because it's truthful," she explains. The more you can find a real truth to speak from, "the more convincing you can be."

By opening with a grain of truth, you don't set yourself off on a chain of lies. "When you have to start to lie, that's when it's going to show through that you're an inexperienced actor, because you'll be more transparent," Sanders says.

2. WATCH YOUR HAND GESTURES.

However, faking joy runs deeper than just the words you speak. Sanders reminds us to think of what our hands are doing. "If you sit there statically, it feels like you're working too hard," she says.

Your hands can be a telltale giveaway that you don't really like a gift, according to Brown. People experiencing unhappy emotions tend to ball their hands into fists, tuck them against their bodies, or put them in their pockets. "If a person likes what they are getting, their arms and hands are going to go further out from the body, and tend to be more loose and relaxed," he says.

Similarly, we can reveal falsehood by touching our face or head, which often signals lying, anxiety, or discomfort, Brown says. People in these emotional states "tend to touch their face with one hand, and slowly. They might scratch near their eye, right in front of their ear, or their forehead."

Sanders suggests you put a hand on your chest or bring the gift closer to your body as a way of showing that you can stand to have it near you.

3. AVOID GIVING A FAKE SMILE …

Indeed, the gift-giver is most likely going to be looking at your face when they assess your reaction, so this is the canvas upon which you must work your most convincing efforts at false gratitude.

While you may think a bright smile is the perfect way to fake joy, Brown says smiling convincingly when you're feeling the opposite is not as easy. "Most people aren't good at it," he says.

A fake smile is obvious to the onlooker. These usually start at the corners of the mouth—often showing both top and bottom teeth, he points out. A sincere smile almost always just shows your top teeth, and begins more from the mid-mouth. Another giveaway of a fake smile is tension in the mid-face: "If you see someone with mouth tension, where the mouth opening gets smaller, the person's got some anxiety there."

4. … AND USE YOUR EYES.

Smile with your eyes first, Brown advises. "Completely forget about your mouth," Brown instructs. "If you smile with your mouth first, you're absolutely going to mess up."

And be sure to make eye contact, which Sanders says is "crucial to convince someone that you like their present."

But keep in mind that there are degrees of appropriate eye contact if you want to look natural. "If the eye contact is too little or too much, it'll feel like it's not sincere," Brown says. You want to be sure to avoid a stare—which can feel "predatory or romantic," he explains. Instead, make "a kind of little zig-zagging motion that people have when they look around a face."

5. SKIP THE CLICHÉS.

As you unwrap your unwanted gift and have a moment of unpleasant surprise, you may be tempted to reach for the simplest phrase, such as "awesome," which Brown calls "a one-word cliché" that tries to convey a happiness you don't really feel. Brown says this is a no-no, too: "If you use a cliché, your body language will parallel that."

Instead, eliminate canned words and phrases from your repertoire, he urges, "because then you'll think more about what you're going to say."

Aunt Suzie will also notice if your voice is strained or you have to clear your throat before choking out a "thanks." But how do you convincingly soften your tone of voice so that your words sound as authentic as they can?

Back to acting. Sanders suggests mining your own personal happy experiences for honest emotional content; you may be seeing an ugly sweater you'll never wear but thinking of those prized theater tickets you received another year.

Brown, meanwhile, recommends you think of your favorite comedians; they're good at improvisation, and are often laughing or smiling. "When you do that, you're getting yourself in a better emotional state," Brown says. "Or you can think about a funny time in your own personal life."

A mental rehearsal before you get a gift is a good idea too. Brown says you can imagine a gift that this person could realistically have gotten you and draw on the joy of that imagined gift instead.

6. NOW, DO ALL OF THIS AT ONCE.

If you aren't completely overwhelmed yet, keep in mind you must try to get these small communications by your eyes, mouth, hands, language, and tone in alignment with one another. Brown calls this "paralanguage."

"If they're not congruent, if they don't all line up, then you're not going to come across as sincere," Brown says.

If all of this advice has you contorting yourself into a state of confusion, Brown says that if you remember nothing else, just smile with your eyes. You might just fake it until you make it.

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