Ski movies are killing ski movies. Ski movies are killing skiing, and perhaps outdoor recreation writ large. Valhalla, from Sweetgrass Productions, is a leading example. We saw it last night.
I wrote last year about the spectacular being commodified and its impact lessened by cliched use in outdoor films. Nowhere is that more true than in ski films, where huge pillow lines, voluminous powder shots in well-spaced pines, and bluebird, Suessian spines are now mandatory features, along with uber-saturation and ultra-slowmo. At some point in the near future technology, skier skill, and the finitude of human imagination will slow their progress, and the formulaic heart of ski movies will be laid bare.
The same can be said of the effect on skiing itself. The gap between reality and the screen is growing ever wider, and not just for W. Mitty skiers such as myself. Beyond safety concerns, taking the comic book version of skiing too far will see it loose its aspirational relevance. Which would be, in all seriousness, very sad.
The same can be said for outdoor films generally. Thankfully ski films remain the most craven, though whitewater kayaking is working hard to catch up.
The trailer does not show all.
What it only hints at is the turgidly vapid storyline, about an everyman wandering north (out of a convoluted pastiche of the most scenic roads in SE Utah not in National Parks) to a mythic ski camp, shot through with 60s cultural cliches. The conceit is that modern society robs individuals of their childhood ability to see wonder in things great and small, and that “pure” skiing and ski life is a gateway for recapturing that appreciation and perhaps even cultivating the ability to see with the wonder-ful eyes of a child during the more mundane details of adulthood.
This is a laudable message. It is perhaps even the case that skiing (and other, comparable activities) can help achieve such pedestrian enlightenment.
Unfortunately, this message is delivered in a cloud of sulfurous irony. First, almost all the skiing shown is the hyperbolic sort which, as mentioned above, has become expectable in ski films. Massive slashes contrived for the camera. Fly-in coastal Alaska. Big airs. Many, many frames per second. 360s through the dark forest with fireworks bursting above and below (for real). What was extraordinary skiing has been rendered much less so, both due to context and being post-ed to death. There is also the implicit suggestion that such skiing is real skiing, and thus a necessity for gaining access to the life lessons at the heart of the film. There was a time when exaggeration on screen could be justified as necessary to bring virtual experience in line with the visceral fulfillment of actually being out there. For this to still be the case today, new visual ground will need to be broken. Categorically different, not just variations on a theme. Visually, Valhalla is just any TGR film from the last decade ago repackaged.
Second, Valhalla portrays the rediscovery of a sense of wonder (respect, Rachel Carson) as some manner of totemic achievement which explains, venerates, and justifies the quasi-mystical, thoroughly sophomoric, bro-brah obsession which today does nothing short of justifying the existence of ski culture. Skiing is cool. Cultivating a sense of wonder in our over-explained world is noble. Remaining obsessed with skiing for years or decades so that one might re-discover wonder borrows equally from Sisyphus and Groundhog Day (1993), and is contemptible.
Valhalla, for all its sound and fury, is in the end sadly myopic. Stuck in a seasonal tautology, it says what it has to say well and emphatically, but never for a second considers how much it is worth saying, or whether someone in the next town over has said it before. If the Sweetgrass crew wants to reinvent ski films, they’ll have to look beyond skiing to do it.