Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Go That Way Really Fast... If Something Gets in Your Way, Turn

Editor's Note: We don't normally feature a lot of travel movie reviews on Exploitation Retrospect but when the back-country ski documentary INTREPID DESCENT landed in our mailbox it seemed like a good fit. One, I'm sure some of our readers occasionally put down the remote and enjoy skiing or other outdoor winter activities. And, two, good pal Bryan Senn – author of A Year of Fear, Drums of Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema and Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931-1939 – is an avid skier who I knew would give this doc the proper look-see. For more from Bryan, check out his writings in The Hungover Gourmet #10 and 11, both available from THG's on-line store.

Full disclosure time: I've been a hardcore skier for nearly four decades, and I've no time for that newfangled "sport" of snowboarding, even though I do realize it has come a long way from its obnoxious "Dude-itude" beginnings, and that even grounded adults partake these days (one of my best ski-buddies is actually a boarder, and my own teenage son has gone to the Dark Side by abandoning the grace and beauty of twin boards for the dubious "thrills" of skateboard-on-ice). Hell, I've even tried it myself (though by noon I'd tired of boarding the blues and strapped my skis back on for some serious fun). So you'll forgive me if I've become hyper-aware of the fact that nowadays any "ski" movie seemingly devotes at least half its running time to snowboarding party tricks. Consequently, the inner skier in me was immensely gratified that this INTREPID DESCENT was taken solely by skiers, with the infrequent boarder seen only as background filler.

Ok, now on to the movie. Having logged my fair share of back-country hikes to score that elusive perfect powder field or tree run (from Crystal Mountain, Washington, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to St. Johann, Austria), I can certainly relate to a movie subtitled Exploring Tuckerman Ravine, the Mecca of Backcountry Extreme Skiing. What took me totally by surprise was the fact that this film detailed the history, subculture and thrills of a particular extreme skiers' mecca in New Hampshire! Located just below the summit of the tallest peak in New England, the Tuckerman Ravine area has been drawing "extreme" skiers to its steep slopes since the 1920s.

Without glossing over the dangers (people have died on this mountain), the film refreshingly focuses more on the dedicated skier out to challenge him or herself rather than on the handful of elite cliff-jumping thrillseekers who populate Warren Miller highlight reels. Consequently, it's a movie that becomes far more identifiable – and real – for the viewer. We witness the initial uncertainty, hesitation, and outright anxiety of skiers unsure of just what's below them, followed by the "aw hell, let's just go" spring-into-action moment that all backcountry skiers know – and love – so well. Filmmakers Erik Osterholm and Zander Hartung find just the right mix of talking heads to punctuate their beautiful photography of the sometimes breathtaking and sometimes daunting mountain, mingling the thoughts of the "average joe" skier there to pursue their personal best with the comments of several "experts" (one of whom candidly admits to experiencing real fear). But perhaps the jewels in this cinematic crown are the fascinating snippets of archival footage of skiers from decades long past who accepted this challenge equipped with nothing more than edgeless boards and bear-trap bindings!

I have only two complaints. First, while watching, I rarely felt I was actually there. Missing are shots looking down the mountain to bring home the adrenaline rush of standing on – and descending – a 55-degree slope. And there's no "ski-cam" footage that would have brought home the immediacy – and thrill – of the descent. But given the low-budget, labor-of-love nature of the project, this criticism may be on the unfair side. Second, at 26 minutes long, the movie is simply too short. I wanted to see and learn more about this fascinating little corner of the skiing world that comes complete with its own local subculture.

Still, INTREPID DESECENT remains a tasty appetizer that, for me, serves its purpose by 1) making me ache to hit the slopes again; and 2) causing me – a native West-Coaster – to consider for the first time that there might actually be some real skiing to be had on the East Coast. Amazing. — Bryan Senn

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