The hauntingly desolate summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire is the main character of this beautiful, near-silent portrait of a remote weather station where wind speeds and temperature have been recorded for decades. The two women who work as the station’s summer and winter observers go about their routines (which are similar, except that one does it in completely frozen conditions), silently taking readings and measurements, walking across a striking, barren landscape that seems to grudgingly tolerate their presence. The observatory’s own website bills it as the place with the “world’s worst weather”, if that’s any indication of the difficult conditions these observers must face daily. Their total alone-ness would almost feel claustrophobic if they weren’t in the vastest looking place on earth, complete with floor to ceiling windows overlooking an endless sky.When, at least halfway through the film, the silence is broken and we actually hear one of the women’s voices, it sounds almost like an intrusion into the idyllic solitude and total quiet of the location. Quiet except for the omnipresent sound of the wind, that is.
While the titular observers from The Observers undoubtedly don’t spend their stints at the weather station completely in isolation and without a single other human being present, but that is how they are shown in the film. Or perhaps they do go about their business totally alone (which makes it all the more incredible that they don’t go insane, especially during the long winter months). The film doesn’t explain the circumstances of their lives, only selectively shows moments – a woman doing sit-ups, walking across an icy hill, looking at computer readouts of the data they’re collecting, and so on.
There is an incredible sense of stillness and yes, even of nearly self-annihilating boredom, in The Observers , which director Jackie Goss somehow manages to make seem alluring. At some point during the “summer” sequences, a scene that shows families visiting the summit makes the vacationers seem like they’re intruding, like rowdy kids racing through a monastic retreat. There is a poignant futility to the job these weather observers do, a point that Goss makes while keeping her camera’s trained eye as unobtrusive as possible, always in the room, but never in anyone’s way. If you’ve ever wondered whether the hermit’s life was for you, how watching The Observers makes you feel might yield a true answer to the question.
The Observers screens as part of the Images Festival on April 14th 2012 at 7:00 pm at the AGO’s Jackman Hall. For more information, visit the Images website.