Over the past few weeks, friends increasingly have been asking me, "You watched Fifty yet?" The question usually comes after a few pints at the Kettlehouse, and the answer is always the same. "Dude, I watched Fifty three months ago. And five months ago. And six..."
It's been 12 years since Warren Miller's 50th ski film debuted for shredders nationwide. And it's been 11 years since that fateful Boy Scout ski trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, when my dad first introduced me and a pack of teen powder hounds to the joys of ski porn. There we were, a mash-up of Midwestern skiers and snowboarders, watching the likes of Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley and freestyle pioneer JP Auclair lap peaks in Alaska via helicopter. I'm willing to bet a church basement never heard the word "dude" so many times. And here I am again, on a Sunday night, watching Fifty for what must be the hundredth time.
But as I keep telling folks when they inquire about my annual re-viewing of a classic, when the snow starts falling, no one film—no matter how memorable—will suffice. Skiers, like college kids with vodka, pre-game for an epic season. We do this by kicking back and watching the pros do their thing, and with a glut of pros and amateurs pushing the limit on camera, there's no shortage of viewing options these days.
Most releases still cater to the generic crowd, offering a fairly even blend of on-area, backcountry, freestyle and international destination segments. Such is the case with Warren Miller's 61st film, last fall's aptly named Wintervention. With Moseley once again narrating on Miller's behalf (Miller passed the torch after 2004's Journey), this readily available DVD staple travels from the frigid shores of Antarctica to the glacial vistas of Norway. It's really no surprise that a Miller film spans two poles and five continents. They seem to do that on an annual basis now. And while Moseley's cheese-tastic voiceover begins to wear thin, cast-off clips like one of Andrew McLean skiing down an iceberg punctuate every segment. If I weren't too busy seething with jealousy over the sick lines these heli-borne athletes get to shred, I'd probably ponder further the size of the expense account involved.
But Wintervention relegates the freestyle, park-skiing aspect of the sport to a smattering of mere minutes. Countless skiing pros these days have taken to rails, boxes, half-pipes and picnic tables, putting a gravity-defying spin on an otherwise gravity-dependent sport. It's a bit disappointing to see their efforts played down, even if it means a few extra minutes in Austria, Georgia and Utah. Thankfully ski porn has followed the diversification of the sport lockstep. If Wintervention isn't enough to get you pumped for the terrain park, choice flicks like Level 1's After Dark, which screened at the Roxy last weekend and is available on iTunes, are the answer to your snow-god prayers.
After Dark gleefully shrugs the generic all-mountain appeal of your average ski film for 60 adrenaline-fueled minutes in urban playground after urban playground. If you've ever wondered how jib-friendly urban Moscow is—that's Russia, not Idaho—here's your answer. You won't find long lines down towering peaks here; the Level 1 crew only teases an attempt at Mount Fuji before hopping over powder-crushed snow fences on a Japanese roadside. What you will find is an increasing desire to finally stick that 360-cross this season.
Despite the ever-increasing audacity of athletes captured by Matchstick Productions, Teton Gravity Research and scores of other ski film companies, I keep coming back, every season, to Fifty. It's an almost slavish devotion to the same tricks, the same lines and the same pro idols I've turned to since middle school. From the South American leg of the film's journey to the clips of freestyle hopefuls Luke and Adam Schrab throwing 360s off a homemade ramp in a Wisconsin cornfield, Fifty is the ski porn equivalent of a favorite run at Big Mountain. I've even learned to cope with the Warren Miller groan factor, that constant voice of cheese-ball wit spinning cracks about "nine-donut drives" and filming Marilyn Monroe on skis during his early days with a camera. If I had a dime for every time my dad twisted the line "If you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do," I'd be heli-skiing right now.
But the first snow of 2011 brought with it a new contender. This fall Sherpas Cinema debuted an incredible two-year hi-def endeavor in ski film production. I've sat through All.I.Can three times in four days, completely enthralled. The film brings to the table two powerful elements: a stunningly artistic and innovative visual style and a central question of where skiers fit in in the broader issue of a changing climate. It's at once generic and bold, fusing boilerplate ski clips with sheer cinematic brilliance. Point-of-view shots of skiers free-climbing a gnarly peak in British Columbia prompt the kind of nail-biting normally reserved for horror movies and first dates. Even the renowned Auclair makes a cameo—undeniably the film's highlight—showing that getting to a bus stop in suburban Canada can be both exhilarating and carbon-free. If only residential Missoula had more hills.