Steep (2007) dir. Mark Obenhaus
I’m not a skier, but I’m fascinated by the awesome talents of extreme skiers. The proper term is actually “Big Mountain Skiing” and “Steep” traces the history and evolution of the subculture of skiers who risk their lives to traverse and ski these treacherous uncharted mountains. Though it doesn’t reach the bar set by the Stacey Peralta films ("Dogtown and Z Boys"), it’s a great mainstream showcase for the artistic beauty of these amazing feats of athletic wonder.
“Steep” attempts to mythologize the history of ‘sport’ of big mountain skiing the way “Z-Boys” and “Riding Giants” did for skateboarding and surfing. I use quotes around ‘sport’, because every one of these skiers will tell you it’s a lifestyle, not a sport. They don’t ski to compete, or to get adulation or glory, they ski to feel the adrenaline and exhilaration of pushing their bodies to the limit.
By tracing the history of the 'sport' from it’s beginnings we also get to see the evolution of the ‘art’. The skier credited with invented the notion of Big Mountain skiing is Bill Briggs who first traversed the Grand Tetons on skis in the mid 60’s. Then there’s the crazy Frenchmen who climbed all the way up and skied down the mountains at Chamonix. In the 80’s and 90’s the “North Shore” of big mountain skiing was discovered in Alaska. Skiers like Scot Schmid and Glen Plake were even faster and crazier. Now, it’s “heli-skiing” which allows skiers via helicopter to access mountain peaks previously unattainable to hikers. But the most death-defying and visually breathtaking form of skiing is a combination of heli-skiing and basejumping. The footage of Shane McConkey literally flying off the mountain and into empty air is phenomenal.
Skiing has a long cinematic history. There’s a whole subculture of ski films which are rarely ever seen outside of the skiing community. Within this world a cinema language exists which best showcases the sport. The skiers and cameramen and women who shoot the footage in the film have made true art. Beyond the near impossible feats of athleticism is an immensely beautiful aesthetic of watching a solitary skier navigate a giant white mountain. Over the course of their run, when seen on film, the patterns created in the snow, the choreography of movement over hills, snow and rocks becomes performance art.
Of course, “Steep” isn’t just a bunch of skiing footage, there’s characters, theme, and story. The film attempts to mythologize the lifestyle, making a spiritual connection. Unlike “Dogtown and Z Boys” it’s all so very serious and contemplative – none of the freewheeling fun I’ve seen in other skiing videos. So the framework is functional at best to tell the history and introduce the characters, but it never betters the skiing footage. Maybe that’s good, but it never comes close to “Dogtown” in terms of developing an intriguing narrative that stands alone as a story.
I suspect there’s dozens of other skiing films that show Big Mountain action just as well "Steep" and it’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t show us the ‘fun’ – but I would still recommend the film because watching 90mins of big mountain skiing still had my eyes glued to the screen. I will definitely watch it again very soon. Enjoy.
"Steep" is available on DVD from Sony Picture Home Entertainment