During the fallout from the disappointing Fourth Phase premiere, discussion at WLHQ turned to what makes a good snowboard movie (and conversely, what doesn’t).
It struck yours truly that the longer film crews churn out movies together, the greater the temptation becomes to wax lyrical on the process of making snowboard movies. You know the drill: clichéd voiceovers about chasing the snow and stacking footy. Even the fabled Robot Food trilogy was not immune – the final installment (Afterlame) began with a grumpy Charlie Morace moaning about that “four-second clip that comes from like, a day of work" and included much soul searching from the crew about what drives them and whether it was still fun.
"This might just be the final word in snowboarding documentaries"
The Fourth Phase fell into a similar trap – mistaking the routine challenge of gathering next level material for an engaging narrative in its own right. The thing is: how snowboard films are made is often not that interesting. What the punters usually want to see is either mental, balls-to-the-wall action or creative tricks and high-fives they can at least identify with. In fact these days, in the age of internet micro-clips, just one sharable moment can cut through the noise more powerfully than an entire film. Po-faced chat about getting shut down by the 5-0 numerous times before Johnny finally landed it? That’s what DVD extras were invented for back in the day.
In the long history of snowboard filmmaking, one movie did manage to document the parochial lifestyle of the video crew without boring the tits off us. That movie was 91 Words For Snow. If you ever wanted to show your parents what professional snowboarding is really all about, then the Benedek brothers’ magnum opus was your educational tool of choice…
French photographer-cum-director Jérôme Tanon premiered a film last Thursday that might just be the final word in snowboarding documentaries. After 50 minutes of smiles, cheers and laughter (and in the House of Vans theatre, it was mostly laughter) there is literally nothing left to say about how and why these glorified stuntmen do what they do.
“It’s a warts-and-all exposé of professional snowboarding that is in turns brutal, cynical and hilarious. But above all, it is honest"
The concept was straightforward fly-on-the-wall; the execution, however, was a lesson in commitment. For three years, Jérôme attached a $250 Sony video camera to his main SLR using a pole and some gaffer tape. As he followed some of the world’s best riders around the world, this little camcorder was continuously rolling, filling up card after card with every journey, every takeoff, every landing, every slam, every kicker-build, every angry outburst, every shared joke, every bit of goofballing, every nature poo, every game of UNO (and there were many games of UNO), every booze-filled night; the list goes on.
Tanon condenses this formidable mountain of candid footage into a warts-and-all exposé of professional snowboarding that is in turns brutal, cynical and hilarious. But above all, it is honest.
We see that much of the sponsored shred’s life is not quite how it is portrayed on instagram; that these 20-something young men can be narcissistic fashion victims; that they take money to promote energy drinks they never drink; and that they rarely actually land the tricks they try. At times, we’re encouraged to ask if the whole exercise of filming snowboarding for a living is pointless – the ultimate in privileged, first world self-indulgence. And in truth, it is all these things.
Tanon’s genius, however, is that he is able to see – sifting through three years of digital debris – glimmers of something special. He reveals the talent, passion and camaraderie that binds these multinational gangs together; the endless wonder of the mountain environment; and ultimately, the ‘eternal beauty’ of this thing we call snowboarding.
This stripped back film is raw, and low budget. There are no helis filming helis, and no fancy cameras filming in IMAX mega-mo. And yet judging by the crowd noise at my screening, it connected with every member of the audience in a way that last week’s The Fourth Phase couldn’t get near.
The Eternal Beauty of Snowboarding is, in short, a much needed breath of fresh air in a genre that is often mindlessly formulaic, proving the enduring power of imagination, humour and good old-fashioned storytelling. Be sure to check it out when it drops on YouTube next month.