Peter Shelton

Vicarious Magic

Posted in At the Movies, Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on November 11, 2010

It works every time. The season’s new ski movie comes to town in November just as snow is starting to fly, and all those dreams and memories built up over the summer come rushing out like a wind between the theater seats and the screen.

It happened last weekend in Telluride with the screening of Matchstick Production’s 2010 offering The Way I See It, starring, along with a host of new-school luminaries, 19-year-old local product Gus Kenworthy.

What Kenworthy did, with Bobby Brown and Colby West and others, on a huge jump in Alaska, requires a special language to describe, a language in which I am not fluent. They were flipping and twisting, grabbing tips and tails and spinning like out-of-control satellites off what Kenworthy called a “120-foot semi-stepdown.” The village of Alyeska and the pink, sunset waters of Cook Inlet looked to be straight down below them, as they were filmed, sometimes in super slo-mo, from a helicopter flying alongside the birdmen.

This is not skiing that most of us can relate to. But that didn’t stop a little voice to my right from shouting again and again, “I’m going to do that! I’m going to do that!” He was maybe six.

Most of us aren’t, of course, going to do that. But the job of the ski movie from the beginning has been to summon awe – of genius athletes in fantasy locales – awe that transports an audience to a place of visceral identification. John Jay did it in the 1940s, when his shots of the world’s best skiers ripping down the glaciers of Mount Rainier inspired upwards of 5,000 American boys and men to join the 10th Mountain Division. Warren Miller continued the tradition in peacetime with his unique brand of ski-bum, chairlift humor. In the 1970s Dick Barrymore made day-glo, psychedelic ski-movie art.

Now Matchstick and their ilk are selling the same vicarious magic, and it might be argued that the boys from Crested Butte do it better than anyone of their generation. They’ve won two Emmys for cinematography and Powder Magazine’s “Movie of the Year” award six times out of 10.

The filmmakers know that they have to give us more than just big air. To that end, on Saturday night we got powder skiing in Japan that was so deep the skiers were disembodied heads and hands. They looked like they were body surfing the perfect storm.

We also got bold lines on big wild mountains, in Alaska mostly, but also in British Columbia and Lake Tahoe. This is skiing on ridiculously steep fluted faces, which the athletes blast down at terrific speeds, sailing over cliff bands and outrunning avalanches of their own making.

At intermission (another ski-movie tradition during which notables take the stage – in this case Kenworthy – and door prizes get handed out) there was a question from the audience. It came from Ben Knight, whose own first film, Mini-Golf in the Chugach, featured one of the most astonishing sequences I’ve ever seen/heard. A skier with a helmet-cam triggers an avalanche and rides it, filming all the while, tumbling and grunting, sometimes inside the choking snow cloud and sometimes out, for what seems like an eternity, before the tumbling stops. Knight asked Kenworthy if the Matchstick crew “are planning on putting you on any big lines in AK” next season? “I think so, yeah,” came the excited, apple-cheeked answer.

The Tahoe/Squaw Valley segments featured 31-year-old Ingrid Backstrom and her 29-year-old brother Arne. Ingrid has been a star of movies and freeskiing competitions for years. Arne was just coming into his own, and displayed a beautiful, almost nonchalant touch on the tricky, rock-strewn lines of their home mountains.

But something was wrong. The interviews with Ingrid appeared to have been shot in the summer. And she was referring to her brother in the past tense. Turned out Arne was killed in a fall on an 18,000 foot peak in Peru in June.

This is when the adrenaline started to wear off. Some of the Alaskan set pieces showed what happens when you take a fall at 50 miles an hour on a 50-degree pitch: bodies pinwheel feet-over-head-over-feet so fast and across such expanses of snow it’s a wonder when they stand up at the end and signal that they are OK. One of them, Mark Abma, was not OK; he’d blown a knee.

For her part, Ingrid Backstrom tore her Achilles tendon on camera right before our eyes. (This was before her brother died.) Hobbling about in the snow, she then accidentally set her snowmobile on fire. The Matchsticks know that humor defuses pathos.

When they needed comic relief in The Way I See It, they brought on Colby West. He’s a legitimate big-air athlete, and he is really funny, a born comic actor. On his website he does a satiric rap on the life of a professional skier: “I just want to go ski/Get all my shit for free/Have fun eternally . . .”

I’m going to do that!


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