‘Snow Blind’ explores boarding culture
January 11, 2007
Chris Scott describes himself as a New York City filmmaker first and a “recreational snowboarder” somewhere far behind. He has been skiing since he was 8, when his father took the family to the 1980 Olympic games in Lake Placid, N.Y., and didn’t take up snowboarding till 1997. The majority of his snow-sliding experiences were weekend excursions to upstate New York; Scott had never lived in ski country.So he was bound to have some surprises while making “Snow Blind,” a documentary about the history, culture and thrills of snowboarding.”I was really clueless about this,” said the 34-year-old Scott, whose film, his first feature-length work, shows Sunday, Jan. 14, at the Wheeler Opera House. “I was a New York City filmmaker, New York-born and raised. I came in purposely not knowing much.”From that perspective, Scott had imagined snowboarding as firmly part of the counterculture. He saw the sport as a spin-off of skateboarding – teenagers and 20-somethings looking for a way to blast their music, wear baggy clothes and rebel. Snowboarding seemed to be a perfect vehicle for all that, and it provoked the ideal, pissed-off response from skiers. That may have been the case in the earliest years of snowboarding, in the mid-1980s, and that alternative edge may have even survived into the time when Scott first strapped on his board. But the picture he saw in the early 2000s, when he researched and filmed “Snow Blind,” was far different.”When I researched the money being made here, the marketing – I saw that this was part of the mainstream,” said Scott, by phone while walking the noisy sidewalks of Manhattan. “That was part of the discovery, and I switched gears a little bit. I had to show it wasn’t this flaky, fluky thing. There’s a real culture behind it. It’s here to stay; it’s legitimate.”The point really got hammered home when Scott attended the 2005 U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in Stratton, Vt. Scott was aware, of course, that snowboarding had been added as an Olympic sport at the 1998 Winter Games at Nagano, Japan. But the buzz then was over the novelty, especially of the halfpipe competitions, snowboarding’s signature event. The U.S. Open showed him something else.
“There were 10,000 people there, way more than I expected,” said Scott. “It just continued to grow. That was very surprising to me.” Further research led to the discovery that the snow-sliding industry was embracing snowboarders with hard cash. “Ski areas are putting millions of dollars into snowboard parks. Forty- to 50-foot jumps in the parks are common now.”Of course, Scott might have recognized how much mainstream weight snowboarding pulls these days even before he got into the production of the film. Red Sky Pictures, a company owned by Scott and his brother, had specialized in commercials and marketing campaigns. Among their clients was Snow Country, an online store specializing in outdoor and winter gear. Snow Country was itching to do something beyond the normal commercial spot. Scott had just watched “Step Into Liquid,” the acclaimed documentary about the surfing culture, when he stepped into a meeting with his client. A spontaneous light clicked on, and Scott found himself selling Snow Country on a feature-length film.”It was a two-second pitch,” he marveled. “I told them they had to do a picture like this on snowboarding. A week later, they got back to me and said they had some financing for the project.”They wanted to do something different – the depth of all this, not that it’s just this goofy lifestyle.””Snow Blind” includes a good bit of what might be considered the goofiness of snowboarding culture. What else to call those who specialize in “jibbing” – defined in the film as snowboarding anywhere other than on actual snow? That includes riding on handrails in cities and suburban parking lots – places where a fall ends not in a pillow of powder, but on concrete. “Snow Blind” features plenty of such escapades, both successfully executed and cringe-inducing.To Scott, jibbing is an indication of the core philosophy behind snowboarding, to do something radical. “I thought that was pretty wild stuff,” he said. “You know you’ll see some twists on this. But this is a culture based on thinking outside the box. The people who make it big in this are always thinking, ‘What’s the next thing? Where can we take this next?’ And for some of them, it’s taking it out of the mountains and into the cities.”A different kind of radical is “Banana” George Blair. Blair isn’t much of a snowboarder; he is a far better water-skier. Nor does Blair venture into the backcountry, or onto the urban terrain. But Blair gets his own segment in “Snow Blind,” thanks to the fact that he took up snowboarding in his 80s – more than a decade ago.
Snowboarding, it turns out, didn’t stem from a teenage desire to torture skiers. Sherman Poppen, credited with originating the earliest form of the sport, was a father himself when he invented the “snurfer,” a primitive device that allowed something akin to surfing on snow. Poppen wasn’t thinking rebellion; he was looking for a way for his kids to have fun on Michigan’s hills.
“That shows where the core of this is,” said Scott, who visited Poppen in his shop, where a pair of original snurfers are displayed. “It was for his kids to have fun, so they could go in the backyard and have fun, do something different.”
“Snow Blind” then traces the history of snowboarding through Jake Burton, in Vermont, and Tom Sims, in California, racing rivals who spread their enthusiasm for the sport by founding snowboard companies. Another segment focuses on the adaptive snowboarders, a handful of physically challenged people who find snowboarding the ideal outlet for their bodies and spirits. Another short segment is a series of spills onto staircases, rails and rocks.”You have to show the danger aspect of this stuff,” explained Scott. “The first time I did it, I felt like I was being beat up with a baseball bat – and that wasn’t anything compared to what some of these people do.”Plus, it’s fun to see someone crash.”The heart of the film focuses on Colorado backcountry hounds Brent Meyer and Jeff Meyer. “Snow Blind” follows the two out into the backcountry, where they find their bliss. Most impressive is not the piles of powder or how they jump into it – Scott is happy to leave that to Warren Miller films. Instead, it is the hard-core preparation for getting into the backcountry and for building jumps.
“The guys in the backcountry – they’d go out in the summer to measure things out, see what the lengths are and what’s beneath the surface,” said Scott, who filmed in Colorado, California, Oregon and New York. “I thought they just went out there in winter and did these jumps. It’s not that way at all.”Scott came to the conclusion that snowboarding offers a different attraction than skiing, and that different cultures have developed around the two sports. Snowboarding may have lost much of its rebel status, but its origins as an rebellious act have created a particular path.”It’s a real counterculture,” he said. “It’s not a ski/snowboard culture – it’s a snowboard culture, like a surf culture or a skate culture. It’s a lifestyle, built on this very specific recreation. There’s not the same kind of glue that holds these two sports together.”A lot of people come together based on that word, snowboarding.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org