Everything in life follows a progression, even if it isn’t visible to the naked eye. While Aristotle was a clever lad, he was wrong about spontaneous generation; worms don’t just pop out of logs, ex nihilo. (Aristotle had some disadvantages, one being that the progression of the microscope would take another 2,000 years to get anywhere.) And, if you’ll forgive an abrupt segue, skateboarders didn’t just start jumping over the Great Wall of China, despite appearances. People, like worm larvae, need to observe a process before arriving at a mature state, except for most men, who never really mature at all.
Swerving back to the point, we live in an age when testing the boundaries of possibility seems so routine we barely notice when a motorcyclist throws a double back flip holding onto the seat by just a pinkie, because any idiot can flip a Suzuki for the asking. Why, people will soon be jumping out of airplanes without a chute – never mind, this is now a commonplace event over the Alps, where they seem to encourage such things. The local officials probably have to issue forecasts so visitors won’t be alarmed: “Expect mild showers today, with occasional clusters of American tourists falling out of the sky wearing nothing more than a poncho.”
How did we get to this juncture in the human narrative? How did people get comfy with the idea that parachutes and parapentes were for pussies? If you follow the trail through time, there is but one inescapable conclusion: skiing is what got us here, more specifically, showcasing skiing to the general public through the lens of the ski film maker.
The measure of daring has become so ludicrously high that we forget that when skiing was first revealed to the public the mere act of sliding downhill on snow was (correctly) considered lunacy. It is a given of modern science that the act of observation alters the object or action observed; putting skiing up on a big screen altered both the sport and the public’s perception of it. The medium for this co-influencing exchange was the film maker, a magician who gathered stunning, impossible images of the alpine environment, populated them with ultra-attractive risk-takers and funneled all these bits into a kaleidoscope that became the ski movie.
If we swim far enough up the stream of time, we discover the first siren of the slopes to turn the world’s eyeballs was the young and yummy Leni Riefenstahl. (Please forgive the “yummy” bit: this was before the virulent anti-Semite became the Third Reich’s most potent propagandist and she was indeed camera-worthy, both as an athlete and a beauty.) The man who froze the young Leni in time was the German director Arnold Fanck, whose fame has faded into the shadows cast by his ambitious protégé. But it was Fanck whose legacy would prove greater, in a sense. While the world hailed Riefenstahl as a film-making genius, she only produced two works that earned wide acclaim, both despicable celebrations of evil unleashed that mercifully have few, if any, notable descendents. The laurel of genius may sit uneasily on Fanck’s noble Teutonic brow, but as the founding father of the ski movie he set off an evolutionary slide that is now an avalanche. Charting a direct link between Fanck and Tony Hawk may seem a stretch, but in fact if one tests each link in said chain it is solid as steel.
I hesitate to allow my readers to think that I am so awash in erudition that I can summon such facts from the ether, shedding intriguing insights as insouciantly as a Persian sheds its fur; alas, not so. This column also has its antecedents, principally the work-in-progress titled, The Legend of Aahhhs. Drippings from the brain pan of the celebrated ski cineaste Greg Stump, Legend traces the arc of all things extreme back to its origins. Anchored in part by revelatory interviews with the seminal ski film makers of the 20th century – Otto Lang, John Jay, Warren Miller, Dick Barrymore, with a nod to Roger Brown – Legend provides a prism through which we see the boundary of daring shift from the mundane (“look, he made a turn!”) to the spectacular (“Frank ‘Air’ Baer will attempt the world’s first triple-twisting quad…”) to the insane (cooking 50mph backwards over a 120-foot gap jump, unfolding like origami in the sky).
In Legend, Otto Lang properly protests that he wasn’t a ski-film maker; he was a film-maker who made a few ski movies. What Lang brought to the party was enough cachet to get a short black-and-white film to debut at Radio City Music Hall, for the first time exposing a mainstream American audience to images of skiing. You’d have thought they were pictures from the moon, so foreign they seemed and so startling that they lingered in the American consciousness until a quirky storyteller named John Jay picked up a camera, summoned the courage to go broke and set about filming. In the epoch before color TV or integrated sound tracks, Jay’s color movies drew a national audience who filled auditoriums across America to hear his tales of skiing around the world narrated in person.
John Jay was a glib and humorous presenter, a style that was not lost on the next to take the baton, Warren Miller. Miller was possessed of a marvelous fireside familiarity, a resonant, distinctive voice and a stand-up comic’s humor and timing. In over 50 features he entertained a huge and loyal following, setting the benchmark for all who aspired to his throne. There were some worthy pretenders, notably Dick Barrymore, who also wove humor, spectacular skiing and travel into more-or-less coherent stories, and the off-the-wall, acid-influenced sagas of Roger Brown. And along came Stumpy.
Before slathering Mr. Stump with encomiums, allow me a brief digression. In writing about the evolution of all things extreme, including the role of ski film making in that process, it is criminal negligence to omit the French, the looniest population on earth when it comes to using the mountains as a perverse playground for the Id. Legends perforce edits out the Gallic contribution in order to help keep the running time below that of The Sorrow and the Pity. In truth, the French deserve their own filmic paean, for nowhere is loopy behavior pursued with such determination. Jumping out of a plane without a chute is mother’s milk to them. Most skiers, upon seeing the Mer de Glace for the first time, think of sliding over its endless expanse; the French think of donning wet suits and seeing how long they can ride the frigid water flowing under it. Never mind that there might be a blockage somewhere between here and Chamonix, many miles below; what’s the fun in life if one doesn’t take the occasional chance? And so, with a tip of the hat to Le Skier du L’Impossible, Sylvain Saudan, and Alain Gaillard, who first thought of putting someone in a transparent globe and pushing it off a mountain, I return you to our regularly scheduled program.
Aahhh, Mr. Stump. As Legend takes pains to point out, Stump stood on the shoulders of the giants who came before him. But it was Stump and the notorious cast of Blizzard of Aahhhs – Scot Schmidt, Glen Plake and Mike Hattrup – who pried open America’s consciousness and deftly inserted therein the whole notion of extreme skiing. (Schmidt had first surfaced in a couple of Miller vehicles, but it was under Stump’s direction that his legend was cemented.) Stump’s movies combined charismatic personalities, cliff-jumping heroics, indie-band music and enough of a story line to hold the amalgam together. NBC’s Today show took notice, and the genie was out of the bottle for good.
Ironically, just as new-fangled extreme sports were exploding around it, skiing lost its position as the movement’s avatar, shoved to the sidelines by its spawn. (About the same time, Stump was abandoning ski movies for rock videos.) When in the late 1990’s ESPN was looking for events to populate its new franchise, the Winter X Games - an event that would not have been possible without skiing - skiing was completely overlooked in favor of snowboarding and even skiboarding. Oy. Now, thank goodness, skiers are getting more recognition and are back on even terms with snowboarding while competitive skiboarding resides in the retirement home along with long thongs and 8-track stereo.
Of course ski movies didn’t end with Stumpy’s oeuvre; MSP, TGR, Poor Boyz and others have continued the progression. Athletes now strive to push the envelope so hard that stationery seems too feeble a metaphor; it’s more like they are pushing against armor, as it grows harder and harder to amaze a jaded public. (The lucky ones who miss their trick and don’t die wake up in the same wing as Wiley Coyote.) If you think the next step is athletes setting themselves on fire before launching into the firmament, you’re way behind the curve. I have friends who did that in the 1970’s, unbalanced friends, but evidence nonetheless that the past is prologue.
One day they will find in the human genome where the urge resides that spurs us to investigate our origins. (We probably share the gene with salmon.) It is that stirring that led Stump on his quest upstream where he found in the work of Arnold Fanck a trickle of inspiration that began modestly and over time cut a deep ravine in the national consciousness. The Legend of Aahhhs follows this history with the respect and love of an auteur who knows that the genealogy he traces is his own.
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