Pure escapism

When I was a teenager I was addicted to a ski film called P-Tex, Lies & Duct Tape, directed by Greg Stump. For me it captured the essence of skiing: the hedonistic pursuit of forsaking all else just to live in the mountains and follow the snow. Sleeping where you can, climbing to the peaks when you can’t afford the lift pass, living for life itself.

The guys the film followed were self-confessed ski-bums. They’d opted out of mundane modern life, said: “screw you,” to the 9-5, the mortgage and the fancy car. And, my god, were they happy.

Stump, a former skier himself, was known for his narrative and I think P-Tex was where he expressed what he really thought about life. At one point after a mash-up of old footage showing people toiling in factories and offices, with Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” providing the soundtrack, Stump quietly says,

“Jobs: The bane of our existence, trade your life for wages.”

I’ve always remembered that quote. In a supremely concise way, it sums up the dilemma of western capitalism. In order to maintain the (supposedly) luxurious and highly advanced lives we’ve created for ourselves, most of us have to give up our lives to generate the wealth necessary to sustain it. The problem, as we’re seeing now, is that no matter how hard everyone works, it’s not sustainable.

So maybe it’s time to forsake all else, move to the mountains and just play in the snow.

Watching this season’s film by Matchstick Productions: “Attack of La Nina,” has made me think it would be a pretty good idea.

So many ski flicks in the last few years have focused on the ever-increasing technical ability of the “athletes” they feature. It’s impressive, for sure. What these young guys can now do in the half pipe, on the slopestyle course or in big air comps is pretty mind-boggling: Double, even triple flips, 1620s for god’s sake – I remember when a 360 was the holy grail.

But, the thing is – these guys are, indeed, “athletes.” In fact they’re gymnasts or acrobats. They train on trampolines and into foam pits. If they tightened up their techniques a little and pulled their trousers up a little higher – they’d be pretty useful on the vault or across the floor.

I like watching them twirling around and it definitely looks cool. But I can’t really relate to it. I’ve skied since I was a nipper and am reasonably proficient, but I’m not going to attempt a corked 720 next time I’m up at Glenshee.

What I can relate to are the segments when these young guys, and some of the older generation, head for the big mountains. Not because I can huck giant cliffs and straight-line 45 degree couloirs, but because I love being up in the alpine or in the trees, picking lines and looking for the best snow. That’s what the people I know who ski a bit enjoy to do.

Attack of La Nina charts a winter of skiing in North America (2010-2011) over which they enjoyed inordinate amounts of snow in the US and Canada – thanks to the effects of atmospheric phenomenon La Nina – get it?

The film follows a few key members of the Matchstick team, principally through the Canadian Rockies. Mark Abma, James Heim, Eric Hjorleifson, Ingrid Backstrom, Callum and Sean Pettit and others, go from Whistler to Roger’s Pass, the Selkirks and further into the mountains. They stay at remote lodges, they camp by hot springs and they ski powder. It’s all pretty idyllic and inspiring.

And, as ever with Matchstick films, there’s an eclectic, old and new-school, soundtrack featuring tracks from: Tricky, La Roux, 70’s hardrockers Captain Beyond and a host of others. There’s a couple of nice tunes from acts I’ve never heard of like Electric Owls and The Naked and Famous – I think the latter are from New Zealand.

My favourite use of a tune though is ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” – the backing to Sean Pettit’s segment in Whistler. ELO are so un-cool that they go full circle and are, in fact, cool. And the incongruous nature of using this quirky old track to accompany one of the best young talents in freeskiing works so well.

Pettit is probably the standout performer, flawlessly taking his park skills onto some pretty big terrain. He skis with an amazing energy and fluidity, bouncing off ledges, landing from huge heights like a butterfly with sore feet. His infectious personality comes through as he larks about with Frenchman Richard Permin and just camps it up a little on and off the snow.

Eric Hjorleifson nails it as well. The speed he skis incredibly dangerous lines through trees or down technical steeps is insane. Mark Abma says at one point that he thinks “Hoji” is breaking new ground. The shots of him belting down a steep, pillowed face, covered in trees and rocks without bothering to scope it first, confirms Abma’s sentiment.

There’s a nice bit of history as the team visit the Selkirk Wilderness skiing operation, founded by the, late legendary “hot-dogger” Allan Drury. They meet his wife and daughter and then huck off some cliffs Drury once flew from, on narrow two metre skis back in the day. Interspersed with old footage of Drury, it nods a head to back-country skiing’s spiritual past – it reminded me of P-Tex.

The cinematography is amazing throughout. After more than a decade of releases, the Matchstick filming and production team has become increasingly skilled and artistically aware. With time-lapse footage, crazy angles, soft blurring, atmospheric lighting, there’s a real aesthetic beauty to this film.

My favourite segment is probably the one filmed at Meager hot springs in British Colombia. These can only be accessed by helicopter and the group spends something like 20 days camping there, skiing in the mountains above on the good days, chilling out on the bad days. Sped up footage of the skiers relaxing in the hot spring as a tray covered in snow and beer bottles floats between them pretty much says all that this film is about.

Attack of La Nina is not about great skiers showing off how good they are. It’s about great skiers enjoying the mountains, the snow, the company of like-minded people and just living the dream. It’s pretty hedonistic and unrealistic for most, but it’s great escapism and would certainly beat trading your life for wages.


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