The Stoke of Annual Ski Movie Tradition

 

Every year as the air gets colder, skies turn gray, and snow is so close to falling you can smell it, a tradition spanning generations is carried out in mountain country. This important ritual involves hundreds of people gathering together in a large room filled with rows of chairs that face a giant, white screen. A low buzz of excitement travels from person to person like intangible proof of something big about to happen. These waves of anticipation are usually accentuated by an underlying rumble of bass notes floating from hidden speakers, and the sound of glossy pages being flipped courtesy of free ski magazines distributed at the door. Conversation ranges from how everyone’s summer went, to hopeful expectation that the upcoming ski season will be better than ever. This gathering is the annual viewing of a preseason ski movie, and it’s among our most sacred traditions.

Tradition! Attending a ski movie screening gets me so amped up that I want to dance along the theater isles like a Jewish milkman belting out songs in a Broadway musical. As skiers, the ritual is known, yet needs not be spoken, as watching new ski movies in dark theaters every autumn is downright mandatory. It’s in our DNA. To deny our tradition is equivalent to denial of religion, only in the case of skiers, skipping the ski movie would be like turning our backs on Ullr – and we all know how poor our snowfall can be when Ullr is displeased.

Ski movie viewing takes its place alongside “pray for snow rituals” as an important step to insure a full winter of neck-deep powder and arctic air masses. In a sense, the movie theater or community center becomes a vision of a mountain town’s near future, as teenage jibbers intermingle with the old guard, and groms with moms sit hip-to-hip with crunchy free-heelers as if they’re sharing a chairlift on a bluebird day. They all come together and hold court before a hyper-active MC over-enunciating into a microphone as he gives away ski swag and gear. Then when the lights go down, the entire room erupts into cheers as the first vision of winter seen in months flickers on the screen.

Being amongst my brothers and sisters of the snow to celebrate our collective love of skiing and snowboarding is almost as much a thrill as skiing itself. Sitting in a packed theater filled with other jazzed skiers warms the blood. And when bigger than life pros on screen crush impossible lines on insane peaks and the place goes nuts, I get chills. Plus, if I happen to snag a knit cap or t-shirt thrown into the crowd by a hot girl wearing an exactly-too-small energy-drink logo tank top, or I tear one away from a RayBan-wearing dude-in-dreads, then the night scores a double bonus.

For anyone attending a fall ski movie and dutifully observing our tradition, the rest of the evening should read like this: the audience watches an awesome ski flick, they enjoy it, and then they go home chomping at the bit for cold winds to blow and flakes to fly so they too can imitate the lucky skiers on screen. Unfortunately, the story these days goes more like this: the audience watches a Japanamation version of a ski flick given crack and a healthy dose of meth for good measure, and they go home with brains totally numb or melted thanks to strobe light editing and constant hero worship of ski celebutards.

That may sound a bit harsh, but as I get older, ski movies seem to have undergone a transformation from the classic Warren Miller-style narratives of real people skiing powder on their home mountains, to the flash-bang and gee-whiz tomfoolery of rock-stars-on-planks performing an assembly line of cliff jumps and park tricks set to floor-shaking hip-hop soundtracks. Maybe the attention span of the current young generation demands their ski movies to be of the caffeine-through-an-IV, spastic variety, and so each year ski filmmakers try to outdo each other with even more visual excess than the year before. In any case, following our hallowed skier tradition has become a lot harder to endure.

Ski movies should tell the story of skiing. People like to hear a good story. From the beginning of civilization, ancient skiers would gather around campfires to hear a fantastic yarn about how Grogg got face shots while escaping an especially angry wooly mammoth that tried to snake his line. An engaging narrative with characters, plot, a strong sense of place, and a bit of humor are the foundation of a good story, but modern ski movies instead choose random images of skiers shredding lines from around the globe intercut with inane sound bites and “lifestyle” segments lousy with product placements.

Overall, ski movies are in a sad state these days. I long for times past when flicks by Greg Stump and Warren Miller made me laugh out loud and instilled a sense of camaraderie with my fellow riders of the snow. But Warren Miller movies are now “Warren Miller” in name only, and the last time I shelled out $20 to see one I felt like Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” forced to watch hundreds of T.V. screens filled with incomprehensible images while my eyelids were kept open by metal contraptions. While the talent of today’s pro skiers are beyond incredible, and it’s always a rush to watch them nail sick Alaskan lines and flip themselves off cliffs that would otherwise be deadly to us mere mortals, the films themselves are nothing but flash, loud music and effects-heavy editing for no purpose but to look cool.

Unfortunately, I think I’m in the minority on this subject. Big ski movies sell out multiple screenings in giant theaters based on brand name only, while the small, lesser known films are lucky to have 20 people show up. But what gives me hope for the future of ski movies is those small companies are making films the likes we haven’t seen in decades – they’re making movies and documentaries that actually tell a story about sliding on snow.

For example, documentaries from local filmmaker Bill Kerig like “The Edge of Never,” which tells the story of skier Kye Petersen saying goodbye to his father at the place of a tragic avalanche, and this year’s “Ready to Fly,” about the struggle of women ski jumpers being accepted into the Olympics, feature characters struggling with real-life issues in the context of the skiing world. Another good example is “Swift. Silent. Deep.” – a hilarious documentary about the genesis of the motley Jackson Hole Air Force.

It’s not just ski documentaries telling stories either. Lesser-known companies like Sweetgrass Productions and Utah’s own Powderwhore Productions shoot films featuring a single group of skiers in one place over the course of a season. This allows the filmmakers to totally immerse themselves in a skiing sub-culture, and truly bring that community’s unique perspective on skiing to the big screen. It’s ironic how small production companies are the ones making ski films more cinematic, while corporate household names are still churning out video only worthy of direct-to-DVD status.

So as the flutter of ski excitement starts to kindle in your belly and propels you to check out a ski movie, give big films the finger and check out a small filmmaker’s work. You may just find that this time, you’ll walk away from the theater with more than just fleeting ski-porn images that are soon forgotten. Instead, you’ll rush to your garage and fondle your skis while your mind replays that killer story on screen. May it be a narrative about the one thing in life all mountain dwellers love most – the narrative of skiing.

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