‘All.I.Can’: Downhill – without the downer
November 17, 2011
ASPEN – “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary of Al Gore’s slide show about environmental catastrophe in the making, was like necessary medicine. It wasn’t a film anybody craved seeing; we went as civic duty. And the film, even with an ill-fitting optimistic uptick tacked on at the end, was a bummer. Despite its popularity – it is the sixth highest-grossing documentary, and earned Oscars for best documentary and best original song, Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” – it’s hard to imagine many people going to see it a second time.
“All.I.Can,” a new film that addresses environmental matters, isn’t going to approach the $49 million box office achieved by “An Inconvenient Truth.” But it’s easy to see a certain segment of the movie-going audience wearing out their DVD copies of the film. “All.I.Can” was two years in the making, and over that time, even with no big name like Al Gore attached, anticipation built, based on a six-minute trailer that received some 400,000 hits. When the film premiered, in September at the Whistler Conference Center in British Columbia, 1,600 people showed up, and a full-day symposium on the environment was built around the screening.
“It was crazy. It was like a rock concert,” Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of sustainability, who is featured in the film and spoke at the symposium, said. “People were asking for scalped tickets. The auditorium was filled with screaming people.”
“All.I.Can,” it should be noted, isn’t entirely about the environment; most of those thousands of fans shoving their way into the conference center were not attracted by the prospect of learning how many parts per million of carbon dioxide are in the atmosphere now, as compared to the pre-industrial figures. “All.I.Can,” produced by the British Columbia-based Sherpas Cinema, is a ski film, with scenes of big air, big powder, big mountains.
And like a lot of ski films these days, “All.I.Can” is pitched as an alternative to the standard of scene after scene after scene of downhillers making heroic lines and launches on untouched snow in exotic places. Starting with the fact that it’s more than 11 minutes before there is any skiing footage, “All.I.Can” delivers on its promise to be something different.
“I guess we just wanted to provide a new kind of experience for viewers, something to sink their teeth into, not just action shot into action shot, which gets old pretty quick,” Eric Crosland, who co-directed the film with fellow Sherpa Dave Mossop, said from his home in Nelson, B.C.
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“All.I.Can” actually opens with scenes that are neither strictly about skiing nor the environment. It’s about the entirety of the Earth – the planet and mankind, nature and the built landscape, and more significantly, the interaction between those parts. Echoing the 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi,” “All.I.Can” uses time-lapse cinematography to capture the dynamics of our world, the fragility, beauty and mystery. This is part one of the movie – the “All” segment.
“It shows a look at the whole world, all the parts, civilization and humanity and the natural world,” said the 31-year-old Crosland.
Crosland said that the decision to start the 76-minute “All.I.Can” with no skiing sequences was carefully considered, and reconsidered; he estimates that the beginning of the film was edited 50 times in an attempt at balance, message and creating anticipation. Crosland and Mossop used the form of a feature-length film to their advantage, knowing that the audience has an understanding that thrilling ski footage will come in time.
“In a day where everyone is so used to short web clips, the power of longer format cinema is, you have them in their seats for a long time,” Crosland, whose only previous feature-length film was 2008’s “The Fine Line,” an avalanche instructional film, said. “We knew we needed that time to set the stage. That slow-motion stage is meant to slow people down, really put them into the moment and breathe a long, deep breath. When you take your time like that, you get a big pay-off.”
For whatever reason – the context, the apparent thoughtfulness behind the shots, an uncommonly skillful cinematographic touch – the skiing scenes in “All.I.Can” provide a big bang. (The film earned the award for best feature-length mountain film at the highly regarded Banff Mountain Film Festival in Canada.) Sequences of skiers making their way through trees and over boulders has not only a sense of thrill, but of beauty and meaning as well. A medium-close shot of a group of skiers standing on a remote mountain top is cool – but as the camera pulls back and back to reveal the expanse of distance, it becomes breath-taking. (The shot used a gyro-stabilized camera mounted on the nose of a helicopter and controlled from inside the ‘copter, a technique developed by the military.)
“All.I.Can” has its local premiere on Friday, Nov. 18 at the Wheeler Opera House. The screening is a benefit for Alpine Initiatives, an Aspen-based nonprofit whose mission is to connect the snow sports community to efforts for environmental sustainability. The evening opens with a screening of “If You Want to Fly,” a 22-minute film by Roaring Fork Valley residents Matt Hobbs and Cael Jones, that features local athletes on local mountains.
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Just as “All.I.Can” sets up the action sequences with the meditative opening, it also sets up its environmental message with downhill footage. Not until past the midway point of the film – the “Can” section – does the talk about the environment kick in.
“We knew we couldn’t shove it down people’s throats, because you’ll lose them right away. No one wants that,” Crosland said. “And no one knows how to fix the environment, it’s so complex a problem.”
The key first step, Crosland believes, is to create awareness of the environment, and an appreciation for it. “The first step is to create a mental change, to care about it,” he said. “So we let the images do the talking. We went about it honestly and let the power of filmmaking, the juxtaposition of images, do the work for us.”
The result, the connection made between skiing and the environment, is slightly fuzzy, but maybe that’s to the film’s benefit. There’s no preachy quality to “All.I.Can.” (Can a film be environmentally preachy and also feature snowmobiles?) in fact, the “Can” section is explicit in the idea that people need to continue using the Earth’s resources to make environmental and human advances; the overall tone of the film is humility, appreciation, reflection.
“I think a lot of people might come away from the film thinking, ‘That was thought-provoking – but I’m not sure in what way.’ Which is what a lot of thoughtful things do,” Schendler said.
The essential point, though, is hard to miss: There’s a lot of beauty out there, both in the natural world and in human achievement (with skiing being a way to admire both). The world, then, is worthy of our appreciation, attention and effort.
“Humans have such a strong affinity for nature, such a strong connection,” Crosland said. “Showing them these images strikes a chord that can’t be ignored. Little kids see animals and are naturally drawn to them; when you drive out of the city and get out into nature, there’s a sensibility that kicks in.”
“It’s about the beauty of the world, period. In a lot of ways, it’s about that,” Schendler said. “But implicit in that is, What if we lose that? Not just the natural world, but the industrial world. Skiing is an outlet for human joy: What if that is threatened? What is we lose skiing? Wouldn’t that be bad for humanity?”
Perhaps the strongest emotional tone in “All.I.Can” isn’t the thrill of skiing, or the passion to save the planet, but a thankfulness that there is skiing, that man has built ski lifts and helicopters to bring us to the tops of mountains, that there is an environment to care and worry about.
“I always wanted to give back to the environment. Because it’s given me so much,” Crosland said.