All.I.Can – Ski Stoke With a Message

Christian Begin Meets Edward Burtynsky – A review of All. I. Can.

Skiers and snowboarders anticipate the arrival of winter by attending ski and snowboard movies. The deep powder segments, the ragdolling falls, the big mountain scenery, the spine riding – the boys at MSP, TGR, and even Warren Miller step up at this time of year to provide endless winter stoke mere weeks before the first snowflakes fall.

For 2011, there’s a new film gang who has ridden into town—the Rocky Mountain Sherpas. This trio of Alberta videographers burst onto the scene in 2008 with The Fine Line, an alternately soulful yet terrifying project about avalanches and snow safety. The Fine Line redefined the concept of a mountain ‘safety video’ in a fresh way that made it look like you’d actually never seen a movie in this genre before.

From there, the Sherpas aimed their sights higher. Much, much higher. Their next project was called All.I.Can. and it was going to be a movie about skiing and the effects of global warming on our mountain environment. A huge topic, to be sure.

The first thing they did was release a series of trailers that featured stunning photo and still videography, with creative genius that really technically pushed the envelope in innovative ways. The closest thing to it might be Stance Studios Life Cycles, a mountain biking movie, or That’s It, That’s All from Jackson Hole based Brain Farm Cinema.

So, in total, there was about six minutes of trailer footage. Could the Sherpas (which 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.

Initially, I was expecting an incredibly preachy, over the top visual presentation that would slap us upside the head about our wanton consumption habits 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.

But the sum is greater than these parts. Though a friend of mine who has viewed far more ski movies complained that “I wanted more ski porn, and the skiing was mediocre at best” – I did not want, nor expect – ski porn. I wanted something more – a thought provoking and visually stunning piece of work.

In short, I expected 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 voice overs from the skiers and, particularly, environmental activists like Auden Schendler and Arthur de Jong were really difficult to make out. The music was all boom-boom bombast, but I needed to hear the narrative. I got some of it, but not all.

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) – stuff the non-technical amongst us go: “How the hell did they do that??” Digital magic, of the highest order.

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 kind of 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 in the Tantalus Range, the gritty urban jib seggy courtesy of the great 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 quite muted throughout the Whistler crowd. It was almost as though people were afraid to root for anything that did not agree with All.I.Can.’s 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.

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