Sony // 2003 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // February 21st, 2005
It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.
Everyone should own at least one movie by Warren Miller -- and one is all you need, really. Basically, he has made the exact same film every single year since 1949. Single-handedly, with a handheld camera, Miller popularized downhill skiing to the world on a global scale (well, theatrically at least), creating documentary after documentary on the sport. His films played a key role in the popularity of skiing spreading like a plague across the planet. Ever seen a slow-motion shot of a skier leaping through the air like a majestic eagle? Odds are good that you have Warren Miller to thank for it in some shape or form.
Once skiing caught on with the population, Miller upped the ante in his films and began to follow more daring athletes around on their winter activities, taking helicopters up to the highest of snow-capped mountain peaks, rappelling down treacherous ledges in order to jump off said ledge with skis, and so on -- the man practically invented the extreme sport documentary.
In Warren Miller's Journey, Miller gives us more of the same. We are taken to exotic locations across the entire planet, documenting some of the most daring, talented, and mentally unbalanced athletes doing things on icy mountains that would make seasoned Nepalese Sherpas wet themselves uncontrollably.
According to Miller's own tally, Warren Miller's Journey is his fifty-fourth film, and like its predecessors, Journey features dozens of professional snowboarders, skiers and athletes doing everything from kayaking in frozen rivers in Morocco to barefoot water-skiing behind a snowmobile in Montana. The film shoots on-site at numerous resorts and mountains across the world, listed in chronological order below:
* Portillo, Chile
* Heavenly, California
* Aspen, Colorado
* Breckenridge, Colorado
* Copper Mountains, Colorado
* Points North, Alaska
* Chamonix, France
* Chugach Ranch in Alaska
* Bella Coola, British Columbia
* Morocco, Africa
* Helena, Montana
* Valbrunta, Italy
* The Canyons Resort, Utah
* Helena, Montana
* Girdwood & Winterlake Lodge, Alaska
"There's two theories about arguing with women; neither one of them
"Can we say that?"
"I don't know why not...I just said it."
"You're the boss."
Warren Miller's films have lost some of their originality over the years as the "snowboard video" format has gained in popularity. In recent years, rather than develop into legitimate art forms, the skiing and snowboarding film have become mass-marketing promotional tools used to hype athletes and equipment manufacturers alike. Nowadays, every snowboard manufacturer puts up money to shoot shaky amateur footage of 16-year-old snowboarders hitting the slopes interjected with frat-boy antics and practical jokes, like Jackass on skis. As fun as these films are, such films lack the sophistication of a Warren Miller production. He makes snow-sport videos for adults, not for the MTV-generation. His cuts are elegant, not spasmodic, and while the music is always cutting-edge and modern in his films, it never overwhelms the elegance of the on-screen material. His narration is sycophantic yet measured, with a sardonic wit that borders on Saharan in dryness. He makes the kind of films that three generations of sport enthusiasts can sit down together and watch, as opposed to just the youngest and most attention-deficient ones.
Journey is Warren Miller at the top of his game, with a lifetime of experience framing, choreographing, and filming snowboarders and skiers doing the most insane stunts imaginable. The cinematography alone is the work of a genius; Miller's camera gets into places and captures jaw-dropping camera angles that border on the unimaginable. Miller's films are candy for the eyes above all else, and the sheer spectacle of seeing a man climb up a mountain using hooks and ropes with cross-country skis attached to his back, only to ski directly down the face of an icy mountain and jump a ravine...these are unrivaled experiences. Journey is the kind of film that makes you wish you had a bigger television set -- say, thirty or forty feet wide.
Journey is pure exploitation cinema; there is almost nothing in the way of plot or structure. Miller simply takes us from exotic location to exotic location, briefly introduces us to each athlete, and spends a thrilling ten minutes filming slow-motion shot after slow-motion shot of fantastic athleticism, before moving onto the next, even more exotic location to perform even more thrilling stunts -- you get the idea. Miller's deadpan narration keeps the film on-target, occasionally offering wry observation about some of the funnier moments. As any Miller fan knows, he has a taste for the bloopers, and enjoys reeling out some of the most groin-grabbingly painful accidents and spectacular yard sale wipeouts imaginable. One of my favorite parts in Journey comes from a female boarder relating how she told her brother she was going to be in a Warren Miller film. The brother's response? "No matter what you do, make sure you don't fall, because that's the footage that he'll use in the movie." This is undoubtedly true.
Some of the most incredible footage in Journey has nothing to do with awesome mountain skiing. In one segment, Miller appears onscreen with an old Bell & Howell hand-winding camera he used to shoot his first movie in 1949. The film cuts to old footage of Miller as a young man (still surprisingly bald) shooting the early days of mass-marketed skiing, including that of a young Marilyn Monroe skiing somewhat gracefully, and falling on her rear somewhat gracefully -- heck, she was just plain graceful. But you know you've been around when you shot Marilyn skiing on a hand-held camera, and can tell the tale about it today, with the same camera in your hand.
The other incredible sequence of note is so astounding, I actually rewound it four or five times just to make sure my eyes didn't have something crazy stuck in them. A man jumps out of a plane plummeting towards the peaks of some very tall, very jagged mountains. A mere fifteen feet before impact, he opens his webbed arms and legs and soars straight down the mountain like a flying squirrel. On a plateau of flat land, a camera crew films the flying man as he rushes by at over 100 miles an hour -- he literally soars straight by, almost at a completely horizontal angle, riding the air currents as a human glider, roaring past the camera like a race car. Can you picture it? The man flies in a straight line, a few meters off the ground, in a demonstration that is probably the closest to actual, honest flying a human being has ever accomplished. I have never seen anything like this in my life, and this DVD is worth the cost of a rental (hell, a purchase) just to see this spectacular stunt with your own eyes.
Journey looks quite lavish, with exceptionally vibrant colors and deep black levels. Presented in a peculiar aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (basically full screen), the high contrast between the stark white snowy background and the multicolored skiers and snowboarders cutting a swath down the mountain looks nothing short of spectacular. The extraordinarily high film speed utilized to capture the awesome slow-motion stunts throughout the film give certain sequences an unpleasant grit and graininess, but certainly within tolerable limits considering the inherent awesomeness of the material being captured. However, despite the general handsomeness of the transfer, the image is too digital-looking for my tastes; on closer examination, the film seems to suffer from a jaggedness that belies the organic tone of the movie itself. You have to go looking pretty hard to see it, but hey, that's my job.
The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, featuring excellent bass response, clear dialogue and good clarity -- a solid performer. The rear channels do not perform as dynamically and actively as I would have hoped, but they certainly do a fine enough job. The soundtrack for Journey features a disproportionate amount of Ninja Tune bands like Mr. Scruff and Amon Tobin, as well as a moderately mainstream mix of pop-punk tunes, classic rock and hip-hop. Roughly fifty percent of the soundtrack is simply music, and the surround tracks have been geared with this in mind; the music comes through powerful, balanced, and with excellent clarity and definition.
The DVD includes four featurettes available by either selecting a pop-up icon on the screen during key scenes in the film, or from the main menu. The feature, "Aspen: Back In The Day," takes us into the early days of the prestigious Aspen ski area in Colorado, back when cabins could be purchased for a few hundred dollars (as opposed to the upward-of-two-million they fetch today). "You Can Ski There?" is a Warren Miller retrospective, offering archive footage from Miller's earlier works skiing in exotic locations like India and China. "Winter Olympians" takes a look at some of the famous Olympic athletes that have filmed with Miller over the years, and "Craig Kenny: The Godfather of Snowboarding" offers a short retrospective look at one of the first snowboarding pioneers. All four play like product infomercials, but offer interesting enough subject matter to hold the attention. Rounding out the extra content are six athlete profiles, which amount to short clips of the athlete introducing him/herself and talking briefly about his/her career, how much fun they had making the film, and so on.
If you have seen multiple Warren Miller films in the past -- or worse, own more than one Warren Miller film -- there is hardly any incentive to go out and add Journey to your collection. It is certainly a fine example of his work, but then again, he never really makes bad films, does he? To be frank, 95 percent of the film could be interchanged with footage from previous films and you would never notice the difference. After a while, all the high-flying slow motion shots of skiers jumping off cliffs just start to blur into one another. The hegemony of his work makes it easy for everyone to like Warren Miller films, but make it hard for the same people to own more than one Warren Miller film.
"It's not about the destination, it's about the journey." So says Miller in the closing of his latest film, and it is a sentence that can sum up his career quite nicely. Despite the ethereal beauty of each exotic locale in Journey, the physical location indeed becomes irrelevant. More than anything, his films simply express an overwhelming adoration of all things snow, from skiing to telemarking to snowboarding to...well, just about anything you can imagine. And in Journey-like in all his films-his enthusiasm is simply infectious.
Warren Miller's Journey on DVD is another check in the "not guilty" box. Plus, the DVD is cheap as bones. Go check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Athlete Profiles: Barrett Christy, Ben Dolenc, Jessica Sobolowski, Rob Kingwell, Seth Morrison, and Glen Plake
* Featurette: "Aspen: Back In The Day"
* Featurette: "You Can Ski There?"
* Featurette: "Winter Olympians"
* Featurette: "Craig Kenny: The Godfather of Snowboarding"
* Warren Miller's Official Site