Film Review: The Art of Flight

Brain Farm Digital Cinema/Red Bull Media House
Directed by Curt Morgan; produced by Curt Morgan and Travis Rice
Released in 2011

reviewed by Mike Walker

The Art of Flight, within its home-world of snowboarding, has built up more hype than any other snowboarding film ever and probably also cost more to produce and promote than any other snowboarding film. When its trailer was released, a friend who isn’t even a snowboarder was the first to inform me of the trailer, full of excitement, immediately captivated by the sport and wishing to engage in it himself. Trailers and ads for The Art of Flight have been featured on YouTube’s front-page and during the commercials for this year’s MTV Video Awards. Films of this nature—films that showcase the exploits of the best pro athletes outside the arena of contests—are essential to the sports of snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing; they are part of how everyday athletes in our sports learn new tricks and seek inspiration and they are the prime connection between the superstars of our sports and the young kids who dream big. No other film in any of the so-called action sports can I recall having the hype and promotional push visited upon The Art of Flight. Clearly, as big as it already is in its own world, it is setting out to make introductions in other worlds.

There was a time when skateboarding was a fringe sport and we didn’t except our skate videos to be sold outside skate shops or attract attention from anyone but fellow skaters. There was a time when snowboarding was the same way and a new film wouldn’t produce much buzz beyond your own cadre of friends unless you happened to live in a place like Truckee or Jackson Hole where snowboarding is a way of life and, increasingly, a leading industry. Surf films fared a little better, but still would not become blockbusters or even attempt to seek out the type of hype reserved for mainstream movies. Nowadays however, the global market for “action sports” films is obviously growing: you have PacSun and Zumeiz in every mall, you have snowboarders, surfers, and skateboarders on contract as sponsored athletes for energy drink companies like Red Bull when less than a decade ago, the only sponsors interested in most of these athletes were internal industry sponsors that made skate shoes, snowboards, and other gear associated with the sports themselves. For that matter, Red Bull’s media division was one of the co-production companies for The Art of Flight and Red Bull’s helicopters were instrumental in getting the cast into remote snowboarding locations and providing the platform for much of the filming. Snowboarding isn’t just for kids who grew up in the mountains anymore. Between the point when photographer Ari Marcopoulos published his ground-breaking book Transitions and Exits in 2000 and Shaun White becoming not only the Tony Hawk—or Micheal Jordan—of snowboarding but also having his own clothing line at Target, we’ve seen snowboarding expand in ways that no one in the 1990s would have probably predicted.

Ari Marcopoulos’ work is also vastly important to snowboarding because this man, with his unique foresight and nuanced skills as an artist, set the standard for how snowboarding is photographed and filmed. While snowboarding, like its sister boarding sports, has always encouraged creativity, Marcopoulos brought to it the imperative for expertly-crafted, fine art-worthy, images and also an introspection into the lives of snowboarders that owes as much to Corrine Day or even Nan Goldin than to typical sports photography. He shot them not only on the slopes in action but in their hotel rooms, on airplanes—all the everyday aspects of getting to and waiting for the crucial action of an action sport. Industry marketing executives for a long time believed that unlike skateboarding and surfing, snowboarding was far too insular, too cloistered, to be marketed outside its core demographic. It lacked the universal presence of skateboarding in urban environments from New York to Paris to Tokyo to those smallest of backwaters in China, Columbia, or Peru that have enough pavement for a little skating. It lacked the allure of warm beaches and everything the Beach Boys and countless movies have made surfing stand for in the American mind. However, Marcopoulos, Jake Burton Carpenter, J.P. Walker and others who have made snowboarding what it is today didn’t fight that insular nature but instead showed it as a tight-knit, essential, and mysterious—but welcoming—world. Marcopoulos especially learned the tricks of representing the cloistered existence of snowboarding as a place where we’d all like to be and an atmosphere literally colder than that of surfing but also deeper. He laid bare and made real a world and its people and he did it early enough to set the tone for visual representations of the sport for years yet to come.

All of this history is important in understanding The Art of Flight and what it means to snowboarding, plus what it will mean to the rest of the world given the tremendous marketing thrust behind this film. Going for grandness, for something larger and always more jaw-dropping than whatever came before is certainly a goal of The Art of Flight but it seems, refreshingly, that just as crucial to the film-makers is the presentation of the poetry of snowboarding and the sheer, unending, awe snowboarders feel for our natural environment. Moreover, director Curt Morgan and the film’s star, snowboarder, and all-around main man of the movie, Travis Rice, chose to use the very finest and newest of camera technology to film this project, including the majestic ArriFlex 235 camera. The same types of technology and skill was employed on The Art of Flight as would have been for the most high-budget of nature documentaries.

If the results had not been of the highest order, if this had turned out to be a showcase of just the latest and greatest in snowboarding, the money spent and hype behind The Art of Flight might have been seen as overblown and ornate, but the results match up to the hype, especially—perhaps surprisingly—in those scenes where no one is even on a snowboard. Some of the nature and scenic vistas on this film, especially those in Alaska and Chile’s unspoiled, unreachable, Patagonia are breath-taking, eye-opening scenes that challenge the best of nature and wildlife documentaries in quality. When Travis Rice and company make the decision to venture into the Cordillera Darwin in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego, their expedition produces not just stunning snowboarding but a powerful introduction to a very remote, rare, geography of the Earth. The snowboarding in this rustic, remote, place is not only challenging but, alas, not as exceptional in quality as the snowboarders had hoped, yet nothing can detract from the sun-glowing, rock-rough, ice-covered, water-crossed beauty of the land itself. When at the onset of the film Travis Rice laments that we live in a digital age and intones that our connection with nature may be less sincere than it was once, he makes good on his promise to push for a more actual, more intense, understanding of nature during his journeys throughout The Art of Flight. There is a danger though in doing such things as going to the Darwin Range—things that even an affluent tourist cannot easily do—in that these adventures will look like issues of either grasping at the tangible side of heaven with the vise of cash or else simply throwing money at a problem: at certain moments in the film I thought to myself, please, you don’t need a Red Bull helicopter and huge bank account to have fun snowboarding. However, the quality of the videography and obvious impact these exotic locales made on the snowboarders justified the extravagance of some of their exploits.

The Art of Flight begins with silence and humility—at least as much humility as can be expected when given a window to an early morning moment with one of the world’s best pro snowboarders. Pro or not, every snowboarder will relate to Travis Rice selecting which board he desires to take with him on safari and then enduring the routine of post-9/11 airport security and waiting for his airline flight to afar. Snowboarder or not, I suspect every viewer will relate to an extent to Travis’ flying off: who doesn’t like an adventure, who doesn’t dream of their next vacation?

Other scenes brought home the gravitas of not only the pristine nature in which snowboarders practice their sport but also the level of injury possible—the very sincere and ever-present danger of serious bodily harm that is inseparable from the sport. Snowboarder Scotty Lago is badly injured in a jump gone wrong at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and while it composes only a few seconds of the film, the scenes of him in the hospital underscore his comment that trauma is a given in the sport; in fact, even as Lago brushes off the decently severe nature of his injuries, the scenes of his lip being stitched up, his doctors taking diagnostic images of his bones, quickly illustrates in no uncertain terms the risks involved. That said, there is a demonic beauty in even snowboarding accidents—I feel wrong in saying such, but it is true. A skateboarding or BMX accident will produce a hard fall and a sudden splatter of red blood on concrete. Surfing accidents are (sometimes very thankfully) obscured by the waves and water. Snowboarding, on the other hand, provides an often all-too-visible crash transitioning into an explosion of white powder. There is something close to animation in the effect of a snowboard trick gone wrong and the resulting implosion of a snowbank, the scattering of soft snow and hard ice breaking like poorly-crafted glass. I won’t downplay or malign the severity of the falls my friends and I have taken by calling them “lovely”, but for as much as they hurt and as tragic and serious as they are at times, they also underscore the fragile, temporal, world of snow we inhabit in the cold terrain we snowboard.

After snowboarding in Alaska, Chile, and Jackson Hole, Rice and company set off for British Columbia and the cinematic introduction to this geography is long on near-barren land save for conifers, black water cold as ice, overcast skies, stalwart architecture of confident bridges and simple, unadorned, buildings. While these images are not perhaps those a tourism commission would choose, they perfectly represent the reality of British Columbia and how, sans snow, we as snowboarders lodge it in our memories. Morgan and Rice do two very different yet connected things via the cinematography of this film: they provide us with dreamscapes of remote snow-covered mountains and vales the vast majority of us will never even witness in person and, they also provide us with quite commonplace scenes—places and instances most snowboarders of any experience will have also encountered. For the remote absurdity of something like snowboarding the Darwin Range—which really, especially in light of its poor snow conditions in the film, is like eating caviar in Greenland on a ship that’s going down—there are also the more everyday spectacles of Jackson Hole or BC.

From Nelson, BC, the crew takes a helicopter up to nearby mountain terrain—near, yet remote, forbidding, and in the deep fog and snow dangerous. The helicopter pilot has barely enough room to set his bird down and then, with a swift and occluding icy fog setting in, he finds the aircraft both blind of sight and covered with ice—unable to fly. The snowboarders have to literally hang on to the aircraft, in reverse of what one sees in action/adventure movies—not for their own safety but to keep the helicopter from tumbling off its uneasy mountaintop roost into the rocky vale below. Using a backcountry snow shovel designed to build kicker ramps and to dig snowboarders out from avalanches, the team breaks the ice off the helicopter’s blades and finally the pilot can lift off, then circle back from the rest of the group. This scene, though brief, is as harrowing as any climax out of a James Bond movie and yet is matter-of-fact in its reality. (It would also probably be enough to give a heart attack to anyone who sells insurance on helicopters.) Everyone involved seems somberly aware of how badly this could have turned out, yet it also an occupational risk. There is no sense of overstated courage or even out-stated excitement in such situations, just resignation at the weather conditions not being as good as hoped.

Soon, the skyline changes on-screen from wilderness to swiftly-groomed park. The chair-lifts, the sweet, perfect curves of human-directed snowscape. The rough-hewn yet civil curves of the rock-crafted ski lodge. We get to see our intrepid crew of pros hit the type of park terrain we know as more everyday snowboarders ourselves and we’ve seen in contests. Despite this, no sense of spectacle is lost in the atmospheric time-lapse sequence of day turing to night, snow turning to stars, that is provided when we transition from wilderness to park. The sense of cold air at your throat, clear skies at night, every star pristine in the chilly sky—this is what every snowboarder gets during good weather in places like British Columbia and it is profoundly captured here. Some snowboarding journalists when reviewing The Art of Flight have dwelled on the “art film” aspect of the production, claiming that Morgan and Rice set out to make an art film about snowboarding. Instead, I see the results—and also probably the latent concept behind the film—as indicative of a sincere effort to portray how snowboarding as an experience feels to the snowboarder fortunate enough to travel so far and wide.

The only part of The Art of Flight that feels uneasy or out of place at points is the soundtrack: instead of the hard-charging hip-hop or rock of most snowboarding films, The Art of Flight opted for an atmospheric blend of vocal trance and other electronica with some rock-inspired touches here and there. In theory, this would promote the artistic, contemplative, feel about their sport that Morgan and Rice seem to desire to convey, however in most instances the music simply seems subdued and slow compared to the action at hand. In places it works, but in others it feels overwrought and, somewhat touchingly, recalls the high days of the west coast rave scene in the later 1990s. There are some slow-motion sequences filmed at Jackson Hole which really capture this feeling between the music selection and slow-motion replay. That said, the scenes at Revelstoke Resort in Canada feature some fast-pace rock that seems more appropriate for the more rapid action sequences.

While The Art of Flight may have the greatest budget, the greatest expanse of locales, the greatest sheer sense of variety and excitement of any snowboarding film to date, will it appeal to viewers beyond snowboarders and curious fans in other action sports? Yes. I feel it will. In fact, it may be the final jump between snowboarding seeming somewhat ancillary to surfing and skateboarding and instead fully composing a robust trifecta with them. Nike, which had placed its snowboarding athletes under the wing of its general 6.0 action sports division up to this year now has established a specific Nike Snowboarding line. The product boxes are shiny black and sea-foam green. The website is loud and slick. There is no sense of cloistered, down-low, quietness here: it’s all writ very large. Nike, say whatever you wish about the company, when it comes to sports trends, most often knows when it’s on to something. Snowboarding is growing and The Art of Flight will be the key visual experience to push that growth forward, and it deserves this honor: the film is steadfast in its love of the sport and the quality of action here is the very highest. Beyond that though, the incidental nature and scenic cinematography is what really conquers in this film: There is a feeling of being overwhelmed here and it’s a most pleasing sensation, too. This is the film that writes out, draws out, spells out, frame by precious frame, a future very large. Yet it’s also the first snowboarding film to really get at the tranquillity of time on the mountain or even time at the lodge, the way snow and cold air come together to begat one of the most special, most silent, most peaceful feelings you can have; in the bustle of all this expensive film-making and the best pro riders on Earth, we get that feeling now and then.

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