There are certain people in this world who just can’t “get with the program,” as one extreme skier puts it in this documentary on the boundary-pushing sport. Like Into the Wild ’s Christopher McCandless, they’re repelled by normal lives with normal jobs, many of them seeking an alternative in the wilderness. The branch of athletes who appear in Steep chafe against the groomed trails of resorts, instead seeking ever-higher peaks in ever-more-remote areas of the world for stronger lines, faster speeds and wickeder acrobatics.
Their feats weren’t always the stuff of Warren Miller movies. With no cameras present, the first descent from the summit of the Grand Teton on skis in 1972 couldn’t be proved until the next morning, when Bill Briggs’ tracks were still visible in the snow from the viewpoint of a helicopter. Also in the ’70s, the first forays into the mountains above Chamonix, France, were painfully awkward and slow. But the sport and its stunts have evolved, captured beautifully and thrillingly here by director Mark Obenhaus and cinematographer Erich Roland.
What Steep does really well, accompanied by lyrical string music rather than the propulsive soundtrack one would expect, is capture the attraction of the sport and its lifestyle. The profilees are not naturally articulate—they express themselves physically rather than through words. But Obenhaus, a long-time collaborator of Peter Jennings’, draws from his subjects eloquent allegories.
Yes, they talk fomulaically about how if there’s no risk there’s no adventure and how their dalliances with death make them feel more alive. But they also talk about the mountain as a living, breathing, moody thing that can be friendly or mean. They talk about the vertical world in which they reside, the pull of gravity and how it changes their vision. They talk about expressing themselves and accumulating a body of work, like an artist or musician or writer would. They talk about the sensation of flying and even admit to feeling like “a little Superman.”
But there’s a selfish aspect to all of this, isn’t there? Risking one’s life not for war or exploration (at least not the kind that opens new frontiers or yields new resources to the benefit of all humankind) but for what is essentially sport or recreation. Indeed, one of the main characters featured in Steep suffers a fatal accident days after discussing this very issue. The best the community can come up with is “At least when they were falling off the mountain, they loved what they were doing.” Tell that to the spouses, children, parents, and siblings left behind. Some still can’t understand—and probably never will.
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Ingrid Backstrom, Anselme Baud, Bill Briggs, Doug Coombs, Chris Davenport, Stefano De Benedetti, Shane McConkey, Andrew McLean, Seth Morrison, Eric Pehota and Glen Plake
Director/Screenwriter: Mark Obenhaus
Producers: Jordan Kronick and Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Rating: PG for extreme sports action and brief language
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: December 21, 2007 NY/LA
Reviewed: AFI Fest 2007