On screen in Aspen: Ski film shows what makes us go ‘Aahhh’
November 24, 2010
ASPEN – By 1988, Greg Stump had made a handful of ski films, none of which established him alongside the likes of Warren Miller and John Jay, who were considered the greats in ski filmdom.
But in 1988, Stump completed a film that he knew would not only make his reputation, but would alter the course of ski films. He was so convinced he had something special that upon his return from Chamonix, France, where much of the essential footage was made, Stump took his best friend, David Farrar, and mapped out in precise detail his vision for the film.
“In case something happened to me … . If Kurt Miller hit me with a bus … . I wanted to know this would get made,” the 50-year-old Stump said from Los Angeles. “I was sure it was a paradigm shift.”
That film, “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s,” did indeed become a landmark. “Steep,” a 2007 movie that had a theatrical release, referenced it as a signpost in the advent of extreme skiing. Which means “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” has a significant place in Stump’s latest work. “The Legend of Aahhh’s,” which has its first public screening Friday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, is a history of ski movies, tracing the genre back to Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker who made the world’s first ski film before turning to propaganda pieces for the Nazi party. “The Legend of Aahhh’s” features a handful of local residents: skiwear pioneer Klaus Obermeyer, the late skier/filmmaker Dick Durrance, big-mountain skier Chris Davenport, and Aspen Skiing Company senior vice president David Perry, who has hired Stump for several projects. (The Skico is the film’s only sponsor.) Also making appearances are ski film pioneers Warren Miller, Otto Lang and Dick Barrymore.
While the 90-minute film presents a history of ski movies, and simultaneously tracks the evolution of skiing itself, from skinny skis to fat skis and snowboards, Stump hesitates to call “The Legend of Aahhh’s” a history project. In fact, he doesn’t know what to call it.
“People who have looked at it say, ‘It’s not a ski movie; it’s not a Greg Stump movie,'” said Stump, who was still working on the final edit – and predicted he would continue to do so until a day or two before Friday’s screening. “It’s a rock opera version of ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ and ‘Riding Giants'” – acclaimed documentaries about skateboarding and surfing, respectively. “There’s nothing I’ve ever seen that’s like it.”
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Even if Stump can’t say exactly what kind of film it is, he knows what it is about: “‘Legend’ is about personal freedom. That’s the theme,” said Stump, who will be in Aspen for the screening. “And for many people, personal freedom is found in skiing, and in gradually scarier and scarier skiing situations.”
Ironically, Stump exercised his personal freedom by walking away from making ski films. “The Legend of Aahhh’s” is his first such film in a decade; in the interim, he has made music videos for the likes of the Beach Boys and Dinosaur Jr., commercials, and promotional films, including the “Power of Four” videos for the Aspen Skiing Company in 2004.
Thickening the irony, it was the increased risk-taking – an aspect of the sport ushered in by Stump’s own films – that prompted the break from ski films. “Someone was going to get hurt or killed in front of my camera. And I wasn’t up for that,” said Stump, who recently lived on Maui, but now resides mainly in Victor, Idaho. “I wanted to get into things that didn’t involve near-certain death.”
Stump can’t escape some responsibility for skiing’s danger factor. “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” featured skiers like Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt on the near-vertical slopes of Chamonix, taking the sport literally to the edge.
But Stump says that, while “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” represented something new in film, there were other factors that made it iconic. The release coincided roughly with the popularity of the VHS player, which was perfect for a niche product like a ski film. The extreme sports scene was just beginning to boom. And the mass media was ready to give extreme sports some exposure: Following the release of “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s,” Stump was featured on “The Today Show” and on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
But the content of Stump’s film was compelling on its own. Along with the remarkable footage and focus on characters, Stump introduced a musical element in a way it had not been used in ski films before. A lot of viewers had the same reaction as David Farrar, the friend whom Stump instructed to complete the film, when he first saw it.
“He went, ‘Ohmigod!'” Stump recalled. “Then it just took off. The genie was out of the bottle.”