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Our review of Steep, published April 17th, 2008, is also available.
Without risk, there is no adventure.
It was no wonder that, in the wake of Dana Brown's Step Into Liquid and Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants, both of which tackled surfing and at look at big wave riders in the waters, that attentions turned to water of another form; enter Mark Obenhaus. A longtime producer of various documentaries covering music and history, he decided to tackle something he loved, namely skiing, and focus specifically on those who decide to ski large mountains.
Now I'm one that's a bigger fan of surfing, in large part due to my previous tropical home and the fact that the whole "surfing versus skiing" argument is a lot like baseball versus football. To paraphrase Tom Boswell, surfing lets you know that spring and summer is here, while skiing tells you that winter's coming. There is a disadvantage that skiing suffers from a little bit through no fault of its own, and that's the overall lack of kinetic energy that a snowy mountaintop possesses (aside from the occasional avalanche). You're viewing the run of the skier in Steep, rather than perhaps admiring just how much of nature's fury might be bearing down on him in surfing. The other disadvantage that skiing seems to suffer from is that there's no way to really re-invent the wheel when it comes to filming the event itself. The filming of the Bruce and Dana Brown films show that you can go over, under and through the wave, a luxury you don't get with skiing.
But enough about my comparisons between the two extreme sports. Steep looks at extreme skiing on the whole, starting with Bill Briggs and his remembrances of going down Wyoming's Grand Teton in 1971. Narrated by Peter Krause (Six Feet Under), the documentary shows how the sport develops through Europe and specifically France in the mid 80s. Figures like Stefano De Benedetti and Anselme Baud and their death-defying skills through Chamonix France are given some time on display, while Americans like Glen Planke (and his foot-high mohawk) negotiate through the slopes and started an influx of Western influence. Things eventually spread to America and specifically Alaska in the mountains of Valdez, where Doug Coombs showed off his prowess on the slopes. Coombs is one of the centers of the film, and he talks about his love of the sport and climbs mountains in the summer to help pass the time. Ingrid Backstrom represents the estrogen sector of extreme skiing, and Andrew McLean is an engineer who also happens to climb up the hills he plans to ski down, and survives an avalanche that was captured on film that almost took him over a 300 foot cliff. Others, like Coombs ironically, aren't so lucky, as Coombs died in an accident where he attempted to get to a stranded friend. But Doug Coombs, Andrew McLean, and Bill Briggs all share a love and affinity for the sport of extreme skiing, and that love can be read from their interviews, even if the acts themselves don't seem to translate with the kind of awe and wonder that films of other extreme sports have released.
I can't really talk about the film technically too much, as the 1.78:1 AVC encoded feature seems to pull from various dated sources of material, and even when you're watching the modern footage, it's not too hot. I was expecting a little more detail in the snow during the sessions, but maybe I'm just a snob. The Dolby TrueHD track mainly conducts its action in front of you. Surround use is pretty non-existent, though the subwoofer kicks into action on the occasional avalanche scene, but it's far from reference quality.
There are actually quite a few extras associated with the disc, starting with a commentary with Obenhaus, Backstrom and McLean. Obenhaus sounds a lot like NBC's Tim Russert, but he does share some production information from time to time, and answers the questions of the skiers on the footage that appears on the screen. They also discuss where some of the feature's subjects are now and what they're doing, along with some additional stories about those people which serves as an appreciation to those that are no longer with us. An interesting piece was McLean revealing that he hasn't yet told his mother what he does, though after seeing it in the film, it's made for some interesting conversation I'm sure. It's a low key and friendly track. There's a separate question and answer session with the trio that's a little bit drier and more led by Obenhaus, but that can be skipped. A fifteen minute piece on shooting the film follows, but it's less of a featurette and more of a stills gallery with Obenhaus' narration, with the piece including a lot of behind the camera shots that are nice to see. Coombs' interview footage is included separately, and he ruminates on his life, family and passions, all taped three weeks before his untimely death.
All in all, Steep is an interesting look at those who ride their own different sort of giants. While personally I would have enjoyed a little more of a look at the passion behind some of those individuals, those who enjoy the sport should give themselves a chance to check this disc out.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Mark Obenhaus and Skiers Ingrid Backstrom and Andrew McLean
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