Telluride Mountain Film falls off cliff

When Mike Lewis, representative of the Telluride MountainFilm Festival, stood in the front of Bronfman Auditorium on Feb. 22 to introduce the collection of real-life adventure films, he might as well have been announcing a cinematic study on aberrant psychological behavior. The annual film festival, co-sponsored by the Student Activities Council (SAC), the Williams Outing Club (WOC) and the Mountain Goat, traditionally features approximately eight short movies portraying death-defying acts.

Yet unlike any Hollywood reproductions, the activities shown in MountainFilm are all real – no blue screens, no computerized enhancement, no tricks. All the people in these movies seem to have little or no regard for their own lives: they skirt the edges of death and return for another round, subsisting on little more than fear and adrenaline.

The presentation began with a short montage sequence highlighting the subjects contained in the two-hour compilation. Slow-motion shots of mountain biking, skydivers dropping into Devil’s Sinkhole, Tibetan monks, Native American hieroglyphics, men climbing with lit joints hanging from their mouths and bald eagles with outstretched wings floating on the wind were accompanied by the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” verifying the environmentally conscious, hippie-cultured, liberal identity so fostered in idyllic Western mountain communities like Telluride, Colo., home of the Rockies-based film festival. Lewis insisted that MountainFilm was concerned with cultural and environmental activism as much as it is with portraying these amazing stories of adventure and perilous feats of strength and courage.

Some of the more frightening displays of machismo were found in “First Base: Angels of Gravity,” a film about BASE jumping (Building, Antennae, Span and Earth being the 4 “objects” from which participants jump and parachute). The movie showed men and women hurling themselves off of mountainsides and antennas, twisting and somersaulting in a brief free-fall before ripping the parachute out of their pack just hundreds of feet before reaching the ground. Some jumpers would skim the side of cliffs, barely 20 feet off the walls, before maneuvering themselves far enough away from the rock face to safely open their parachute. “Angels” also featured a sequence of jumps from skyscrapers in Shanghai and a section of extraordinarily short jumps (less than 150 meters), including one in which a man used a sled to propel himself off of a cliff. Near the end of the film, a self-proclaimed “adrenaline junkie” remarked that at the end of every jump he thought, “Hey, I’m alive. Bonus.”

Slightly less alarming was “Skilletto,” a five-minute short exhibiting the notable (if not bizarre) skills of Kris Holm, an extreme unicyclist. Throughout the production he seemed determined to prove that unicycles were not only to be used in the circus, but also out in the worlds of both street and downhill mountain biking. He rode on handrails, steep mountain bike trails and slick rock precipices just inches away from massive drop-offs. Perhaps the most impressive film shown at the festival was “Berserk in the Antarctic,” shot by a 19-year-old Norwegian named Jarle Andhøy. Andhøy set out to sail the Drake passage from Cape Horn to Antarctica in a 27-foot skiff accompanied by two men he befriended in the Chilean port. Made on a budget of less than $10,000, the movie portrays a mixture of adventure and endurance in the barest states. The men managed to survive the treacherous ocean passage and massive icebergs, eventually discovering untouched beauty on the coast of Antarctica. “Berserk” successfully mixed comedy with awe-inspiring images of nature, showing the tensions of living in close quarters and the wonder of watching whales swim just feet away from the tiny boat. Unlike the daredevil tactics shown in a good portion of MountainFilm, this movie managed to convey to the audience amazement with an act that required more fortitude than skill, more guts and brains than blind intrepidity. Lewis amusingly quipped at the end of the film that Holm’s instrument of adventure would perhaps be more appropriately named a “eunuch-cycle.”

Despite the unreal assault of images, MountainFilm ultimately left something to be desired. Following its dedication to environmental activism, MountainFilm threw in some interpolated animations regarding the power of individuals to change the world. One in particular, “The Man Who Planted Trees,” lasted more than half an hour, boring the audience with its detailed parable about a French man who managed to create a forest in a wasteland by planting hundreds of seeds every day. While I can understand that these movies were designed to allow respite from the constant barrage of stunts depicted in the adventure films, there were too many of them and they lasted too long.

Everyone who came to see MountainFilm seemed to want more footage of fearless men and women risking their lives in the name of fun and excitement. We needed to see skiers dropping off of 60-foot cliffs, climbers scaling Yosemite faces without ropes, snowboarders completing 180-degree rotations, hang gliders snaking in and out of mountain passes and paddlers kayaking down three-story waterfalls.

MountainFilm, however, only gave us a small taste of adventure and spread it out over a tiresome two hours. When the festival was over, I craved sleep instead of wanting to grab my backpack and boots to go experience adventure first-hand.