Can a ski-porn junkie learn to love Warren Miller?
I've been a hardcore ski-porn junkie for most of my life. When skiing is on your mind 24 hours a day, it's the next best thing to getting the real deal. I used to rent Blizzard of Ahhs about once a week. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about.
The thing is, I was never a big Warren Miller fan. The Hugh Hefner of ski filming was just too tame for me. I mean, my parents watch that stuff! In Miller films, there was always too much goofiness mixed in with what got me really excited -- the shots of towering peaks and deep powder.
One day in the Boulder offices of SKIING, I admitted that I'd never actually been to a Warren Miller screening -- I'd only seen the videos. A month later, I was on a plane to Seattle with photographer Mark Doolittle to catch a showing of Ride, Warren Miller's 2000 release.
Once we arrived, though, it appeared that there might not be anything to see at all. Warren Miller roadies were in a frenzy, jabbering away on cell phones and two-way radios. The company van was missing, along with all the projection and audio equipment for that night's show. The crew had just six hours to find the van, and the equipment, before 2,100 people would pack into the 5th Avenue Theater in downtown Seattle, expecting their skiing fixes.
Mark and I had a few hours to fill, so we amused ourselves at the Pike Place market. While Mark was busy taking photos of the fish throwers, I talked fruit with a cute dreadlocked girl selling mangoes. Christine wasn't a Warren Miller fan; in fact, she wasn't even a skier, but she was attractive in a crunchy Seattle sort of way. I had scammed a few extra movie passes from the roadies, so I slipped her a couple and convinced her to meet me at the show. The trip was suddenly looking up.
When the taxi dropped us off in front of the 5th Avenue, I was surprised to see that it was an ornate, old fine-arts playhouse. I'd been expecting a popcorn-and-snowcaps kind of place. Instead, the 5th Avenue has a small, intimate lobby and a well-stocked bar. Winding staircases lead to the upper balconies.
But what was happening inside the lobby a half-hour before the show started (the road crew had, fortunately, found the van) was even more surprising. Hundreds of people, covered in pins and patches and ski-club jackets and with numbered bibs strapped to their heads, wandered about, bumping into one another and screaming out their respective numbers (as if having it pasted to their foreheads wasn't drawing enough attention). If two people had matching numbers, they both won a T-shirt. It felt like a Trekkie convention minus the toy phasers and unitards.
Then a cute blonde came up and asked me what my number was. Hmm, I thought, such a variety of cheesy pick-up lines to choose from.... "Um, 1-800-HOT-GUYS," I said, and (amazingly) got a laugh. Her boyfriend, standing close by, said, "Nice try," and whisked her away. But the encounter helped me see the crowd differently. I now saw a room filled with attractive young people, with the perfect excuse to mingle. Yuppies and ski bums, skiers and snowboarders, parents and kids, all mixing it up. They were talking about skiing, about last year's epic season, about equipment and cheap passes, and how they smelled winter in the air last week when that cold front blew down from British Columbia. It was almost...cool.
The house lights flickered, and everyone made their way into the grand main hall, where the walls are leafed in gold and the seats are draped in red velvet. The night's emcee was Chris Anthony, a professional skier with more than a dozen appearances in Warren Miller films. Here, Chris is a bona fide star, someone who most people in the theater wish they could be. "Hello Seattle! How you all feelin'?" Chris shouted. The crowd responded with a raucous yell. It was like the beginning of a rock concert. By the time the movie started rolling, adrenaline hhad peaked. At Warren's first words -- "The West is still full of wide-open spaces where you can ride forever" -- the crowd went wild.
And then it hit me. The difference between this movie and other ski films is that a Warren Miller movie isn't just a substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing. It's as much a part of skiing as wearing your ski boots around the house, or waxing your skis for the first time -- all the things we do before the first time we touch snow. For the rest of the night, I just let myself go, basking in anticipation of the coming ski season along with the rest of the audience. My legs pumped up and down as the larger-than-life images on the screen powered through the snow, triggering my muscle memory. Little tears of joy to welled up in my eyes during the inspirational Russia segment. No ski movie had ever done that to me before.
After the show, I bumped into Christine -- she had brought her friend, Beck, who patrols the backcountry on Mount Rainier -- and we hung out for a while, talking about the movie. Even as a nonskier, Christine had quickly understood what had been so hard for me to grasp. "It was beautiful," she said, referring not to just the film, but to the audience as well. There's something about a Warren Miller movie that's accessible to everyone.
For a ski-film fan, watching one of Warren's movies with 2,000 screaming fellow fanatics is all about doing what we love. And that's pretty exciting, even if it isn't porn.
For remaining dates and locations for this year's film, Cold Fusion, head to warrenmiller.com.