Skiers and snowboarders ritualize the arrival of their favorite season by turning out in droves for the annual crop of action movies. The floaty, slo-mo deep powder segments, the rag-dolling wipeouts, the big mountain majesty, the spine-tingling spine riding – the boys at MSP, TGR, and Warren Miller step up at this time of year to provide endless winter stoke mere weeks before the first snowflakes fall.
For 2011, a new film gang has ridden into town—the Rocky Mountain Sherpas. This trio of Canadian videographers burst onto the scene in 2008 with The Fine Line, an alternately soulful yet terrifying project about avalanches and snow safety that took snow physics out of the classroom and redefined the concept of a mountain ‘safety video’ in the process.
From there, the Sherpas aimed their sights higher. Much, much higher. Their next project— All.I.Can.— is about skiing and the effects of global warming. A huge topic, to be sure.
Two years in the making, the Sherpa released a series of trailers that featured a unique combination of photo and still videography, with creative genius that really technically pushed the envelope in innovative ways. In total, there was about six minutes of trailer footage. Could the Sherpas (who have now relocated to Whistler’s Function Junction creative hothouse and dropped the Rocky Mountain part of their title in the process) concept play out over the course of a ninety minute movie?
Clearly, the sold out crowd at the Whistler Conference Centre thought so. But the sum is greater than these parts. Though a friend of mine who has viewed far more ski movies “wanted more ski porn,” the trailers led me to expect something more – a thought provoking and visually stunning piece of work.
Initially, I was expecting a rather preachy, over the top visual presentation that would slap us upside the head about our wanton consuming ways in the wicked Western world. That message is there, in a manner of speaking, but this is not An Inconvenient Truth. What it is, however, is a pastiche of movie making styles that – unconsciously, I believe, pays homage to some of the best filmmaking of all time. In one long, run-on sentence: All.I.Can. contains the Canadian soulfulness of early Christian Begin flicks with the technical brilliance of TGR and Matchstick, adds a dose of Warren Miller humour with a topping of Jeremy Jones-style self-sufficient big mountain spine riding. Then there was an added element – the obvious debt paid to the industrial photography of Edward Burtynsky, whose haunting, large scale images of the Fort MacMurray oil sands and other resource extraction sites around the world clearly informed a lot of the urban/commercial images spliced through the movie. Freighters, smokestacks, freeways, rail cars —spliced in jarring, jump-cut fashion into the ski sequences—anchored the action sequences filmed primarily in western Canada.
In short, I was hoping to be blown away, to see the best ski movie of all time. And for awhile, I thought that must be the case. As the chapters rolled by, I kept thinking “insane, this is insane.” But there were technical issues. The voiceovers from the skiers and, particularly, environmental activists Auden Schendler and Arthur de Jong, were really difficult to hear. The music was all boom-boom bombast, but if there was a message, I wasn’t quite getting it.
The Sherpas real specialty, however, is special effects and point of view; notably long, time lapse images and aerial shots, along with super close-in macro stuff (Eric Hjorleifson ‘traversing’ Mark Abma’s eyeball). Segments which beg the question: “How the hell did they do that??”
Afterwards, the same aforementioned critic said, “it was good storytelling and filmmaking, but it wasn’t (Sweetgrass Productions) Signatures.”
I hadn’t thought about that movie at all when I was watching All.I.Can. because they are very different projects. But I rather agree; the Zen-like spirit that I go into the mountains to pursue was shoved aside, save for a fabulous sequence filmed at Whitewater of a group of seniors’ skiers playfully sharing their love of deep powder. That was really fine storytelling, and a treat to watch.
Other highlights were: Kye Petersen skiing rugged spine lines in BC’s Tantalus Range, a gritty urban jib segment from original New Schooler JP Auclair, and an utterly rippin’ deep pow sled performance by Dangerous Dan Treadway that I took an enormous guilty pleasure in enjoying, though its response was muted from the Whistler crowd. It was almost as though people were afraid to root for anything that did not agree with All.I.Can.’s enviro ethic. I appreciated the fact that logos and sponsor call-outs were all but non-existent.
In sum: the Sherpas delivered a mind-boggling cinematic treat. Not perfect: maybe fifteen minutes too long, with a few too many repetitive visual sequences. Thankfully it did not guilt us out with a scary environmental message. For the Sherpas know that ski movies are all about stoke, which All.I.Can. delivered that in spades.