Review: ‘Steep’

David Martin

The extreme-skiing movie "Steep" is less a documentary than a sales pitch -- not for a product or a place, but for a sport,

Like its sister films in the surfing-movie genre, the extreme-skiing movie “Steep” is less a documentary than a sales pitch — not for a product or a place, but for a sport, one its practitioners feel requires pugnacious self-promotion. Spectacular alpine landscapes, suicidal descents on 70-degree mountainsides and skiers with an inflated sense of self (and no sense of self-preservation) will make for a cultish theatrical release and — given that the doc already seems cut for commercial interruptions — a reasonable life on TV and DVD.

Given the risks involved (extreme skiers purposefully choose the most dangerous, inaccessible, sharply pitched and unstable surfaces in the world), “Steep” is willfully blind to the questions it inevitably raises, such as: Why? Why do these men — and except for the heartstopping Ingrid Backstrom, the film is a virtually all-male endeavor — do what they do? There’s a lot of blather about the mountain making them come alive, but considering how many people die on the slopes, the viewer really wants a little less of the gnarly dudes and something closer to a professional diagnosis.

To the strains of Anton Sanko’s often oppressive faux-metal soundtrack, “Steep” doesn’t really advertise skiing so much as skiing films (even though ski-film godfather Warren Miller isn’t mentioned). Very little of what goes on in the sport isn’t recorded and made commercially available, so in a way, pic reps a kind of porn — in which people engage in senseless, life-threatening and therefore obscene acts of titillation for viewers who will be watching it from the less-than-alpine altitude of their couches.

Marking the birth of extreme skiing from Bill Briggs’ seemingly impossible descent of the Grand Tetons in 1971, the film touches on a number of sports luminaries, some crazier than others, much like the stunts: The scariest jump in the movie doesn’t even take place in snow, but rather over a river, as Shane McConkey — who combines skiing and parachuting — leaps off a bridge and plummets for what seems like a mile before opening his chute and gently gliding toward earth.

“Steep” has its moments. Some are exhilarating, others seemingly insane. But the movie also feels like a sermon. The featured skiers protest too much about the value of what they do, sounding as if they’re defending and ultimately trying to ennoble it. But they’re not curing cancer; they’re sliding down hills on two sticks. It should be fun. So should “Steep.”

Production values are phenomenal.

Steep

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Documentary Group presentation, in association with High Ground Prods. Produced by Jordan Kronick, Gabrielle Tenenbaum. Executive producers, Tom Yellin, Mark Obenhaus, J. Stuart Horsfall. Co-producer, William A. Kerig. Directed, written by Mark Obenhaus.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Erich Roland; editor, Peter R. Livingston Jr.; music, Anton Sanko; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Ken Hahn; associate producer, Caitlin Costin; second unit director, Kerig. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (Documentary Showcase), Nov. 10, 2007. (Also in Telluride Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Doug Coombs, Stefano De Benedetti, Shane McConkey, Chris Davenport, Eric Pehota, Ingrid Backstrom. Narrator: Peter Krause.
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