World Cup: ‘Ski Racer,’ ‘Karli’ and ‘One for the Money’ on the big screen at the Wheeler Opera House | AspenTimes.com

World Cup: ‘Ski Racer,’ ‘Karli’ and ‘One for the Money’ on the big screen at the Wheeler Opera House

If You Go …

What: Paul Ryan’s ‘Ski Racer,’ ‘Karli’ and ‘One for the Money,’ presented by the Bob Beattie Ski Foundation

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, March 16, 5:30 p.m.

How much: Free

More info: A filmmaker Q&A and reception will follow; http://www.wheeleroperahouse.com

Before going on to a decades-long career working on cinematography for some of the most visually sumptuous feature films of our time, Paul Ryan was ski racing's auteur.

As an ambitious kid, fresh out of film school and racing himself while based out of Aspen in the late 1960s, Ryan made innovative and influential movies about the fast-paced world of downhillers.

Ryan is back in town this week for the World Cup Finals. The Wheeler Opera House is hosting a free screening three of his racing films Thursday night. Ryan will introduce the movies before seeing them on the big screen for the first time in decades.

"I haven't seen them like that in a long time," Ryan said in a recent interview.

His "Ski Racer," a non-narrative chronicle of the 1968-69 World Cup season, is an impressionistic portrait set to a rock soundtrack — with music by the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller Band, Mike Bloomfield and others — that captures the vibrant ski culture of the day in a cinema verité style.

Ryan said he was trying to translate the visceral experience of racing — to portray how it feels to race a downhill, to navigate a slalom course and to free ski just for fun.

"I wanted to make it a composite of the feeling of it," Ryan said.

The film was funded by Lange, which Ryan recalled was flush with cash from sales of its new plastic boots. The company gave him a "blank check" and total creative freedom, letting the talented young filmmaker loose in Europe and North America with Billy Kidd, Jean-Claude Killy, Spider Sabich and the heroes of the moment.

The breakthrough film opened doors for Ryan to make documentaries outside of the ski world — he covered challenging subjects like the Hell's Angels and Salvador Dali.

Upon release, "Ski Racer" got a big screening in Denver, with Colorado Gov. John Arthur Love in attendance. In Aspen, the film had a less splashy opening but a longer cinematic life in the rotation of ski flicks that played at The Slope, a basement ski bum watering hole on Hyman Avenue in the 1970s.

Thursday's presentation by the Bob Beattie Ski Foundation also includes "One for the Money," a short film Ryan made during the World Pro Racing tour. It was produced by Fat City Films, which Ryan started with Aspenites Norm Clasen and Don McKinnon in 1973, chronicling the experiment of dual racing format.

Ryan's "Karli" is a short documentary on the Austrian world champion and Olympic medalist Karl Shranz, following him through the 1970 World Cup season.

"The thing I learned, because it was so early in my career, was to be open with the people that you're filming," he said of the trio of films and their lessons for the young filmmaker. "To have a relationship with the subject, you have to be open to what they're saying and not impose your vision on it."

Ryan first came to Aspen in the winter of 1961-62. Fresh out of college, the Boston native had planned to spend the season ski racing in Stowe, Vermont. The resort was snowless, so he and a group of friends headed west and landed here. He returned for a few winters, bounced between Aspen and San Francisco, worked as a staff photographer for SKI magazine, then headed to film school at San Francisco State University.

After his early days making these ski-race films through the mid-70s, Ryan went on to a distinguished Hollywood career. He's worked on acclaimed, visual stunners like Terrence Malick's masterpiece "Days of Heaven," Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It" and "The Horse Whisperer" (and occasionally he has hopped back into the ski world, serving as the cinematographer on "Hot Dog … The Movie" in 1984 and working on "Ski Patrol" in 1990). Both "Days of Heaven" and "A River Runs Through It" won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

The ski films helped Ryan begin to develop the aesthetic sensibility that he brought to feature films later on, he said, and taught him how to deal with nature's fickle ways.

"You have to be very aware of what's happening in front of you and be able to use that," Ryan explained. "You don't always have control. So you can either be frustrated and say, 'I wish it was this way,' or you can deal with what's happening with the light or whatever and make it work for you."

atravers@aspentimes.com