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Fifty by Warren Miller Films

Warren Miller Films
The premiere marquee
The 50th Annual Premiere in Portland
For the fiftieth year in a row, Warren Miller walked on stage this week in Portland, OR, to welcome a hungry audience to his latest ski show. They came in droves to watch the world's best skiers ripping, wiping out and hamming it up from exotic winter locations around the world. The culmination of 15 months of filming, along with 50 year's worth of footage, yielded the latest project from Warren Miller Films, aptly titled Fifty.

For many skiers, going to a Warren Miller film is part of the transition from fall to winter. Just like putting away your shorts and taking out your sweaters, getting your skis tuned (or getting a new pair if you're lucky), it's an annual rite of passage. We reminisce about last season as we look toward the next, just hoping it's going to be big.

"It makes you realize that over the past five decades, somebody, somewhere, was always testing the limits, questioning boundaries or inventing a new trick..."

In his opening speech, Miller said that after 50 years of filmmaking, he learned that the only thing he could count on was change. Only Warren Miller Films can pull from 50 years of archives to show just how far skiing has evolved while at the same time has stayed the same. The film depicts everything from swanky turns on wood skis in old-fashioned leather lace-ups to new school expression sessions on fat, twin tipped skis. It makes you realize that over the past five decades, somebody, somewhere, was always testing the limits, questioning boundaries or inventing a new trick. It didn't always look pretty, and sometimes the equipment was crap, but it never stopped anybody.

The movie opened to a packed house of 2600 fans at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. Miller told the story of how it all started back in 1946 when he hit the road with a newly-purchased 8mm camera and an 8x4ft trailer. That summer, he taught himself the ropes by making surf movies in Malibu. He then took those movies from the coast to the Midwest and beyond, to places like Omaha and Chicago, to show it to people who had never surfed. After that, he and partner Ward Baker lived in practically every ski resort parking lot in US in order to apply their new-found filmmaking skills to skiing. Miller then returned to LA to show his new ski films to surfers who had never seen snow.

Warren Miller
Warren Miller
Those were the good old days, and Miller became infamous for his ski films and slapstick humor. And after 50 years, he hasn't lost it. His opening dialogue was as deadpan as it gets. "We worked for macaroni and cheese," said Miller. "Truman was president, the Korean War was going on, and Clinton was three... now he's four."

The lobby was complete chaos as fans walked from booth to booth assessing the swag: free lift tickets for nearby Mt. Bachelor, free hats, free T-shirts, free snacks and an opportunity to win bigger prizes such as new boards and dream ski vacations.

This year's jackpot prize is the heli-trip of a lifetime that most people would sell their soul for. Dubbed the "Helibration", it's a one week trip to Blue River, BC to fly at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing (which happens to be celebrating its 30th anniversary, and 30 years flying Warren Miller crews around its back yard). The lucky winner also gets all the gear you could possibly need, so even if you can't ski like a pro, you'll look like one.

The film opens with a time-warp of scenes from pivotal events over the last 50 years, including Vietnam war protests, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Beatlemania, the Hoola-Hoop and Nixon, just to name a few. But the first freeride shots are unmistakably current, and the film takes viewers on exciting journeys on which they witness ski mountaineering expeditions, heli trips, terrain parks, and even a story about building kickers in the middle of a Wisconsin cornfield.

Warren Miller Films
The hungry crowd
The first segment takes place in none other than the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, which have often been referred to as the "North Shore" of big-mountain freeriding. Snowboarders Johan Olafsson, Nate Cole and Noah Salasnek pull of huge feats, and even though practically every snow film for the past decade has its token Chugach shots, I never get sick of watching these awesome, steep descents.

In another heli sequence, J.P. Auclair and Jonny Mosely go off in the backcountry powder of Blue River, throwing 720s (big deal) and inverted mute grabs (not a problem) off natural terrain features. Of course there's the mandatory yard sale, and Auclair is the victim caught on film. In Warren Miller Films, big crashes definitely make the cut.

I wondered if Auclair knew, as he was sliding down the steep run, losing piece after piece of equipment, that this would be the money shot of his second Warren Miller Film. Adding insult to injury, he had to walk up and retrieve his gear while the cameramen ate lunch. Poor guy. But how much sympathy can you really have for someone who gets seven days of free heliskiing?

One of my favorite scenes didn't even have any skiing in it. It was of Brant Moles and Dean Conway, posing as Mormons, knocking on an unsuspecting habitant's door in order to evangelize. Invited in, they sat on the sofa, and explained their religious message by holding up flashcards that said: blower, pow + huck = face shots.

According to Rogue Edwards of Warren Miller Films, this scene was originally shot for last year's film, Freeriders, and never made it in the movie. But they still wanted to use it, so for Fifty, they cut out the scene with Moles and Conway riding bikes through the neighborhood in suits, ties and ski boots, but left the punchline intact.

The hands down best scene, however, is "about as far away from a big mountain ski resort as you can get and still be somewhere in America." In Juneau, Wisconsin, Luke and Adam Schrab, with their grandfather's tractor, build two huge camelback jumps out of 400 bales of hay in the middle of a flat cornfield. Topped off with a little snow, they use a snowmobile to execute their attack, launching double backflips off one kicker and landing on the other. This is a true huck fest, about as far away from a terrain park, much less a mountain, as anybody could possibly get.

For hardcores to weekend warriors, Fifty is a ski film for everyone. Add up the crashes (the longest face-first slide through miles of moguls), the powder (from early resort trams to heli-rides), the adventures (ski mountaineering expedition to Cotopaxi), the flips and twists (Canadian Airforce), the spins (farm boy Adam Schrab throws a 1440) and the history (Marilyn Monroe doing a face plant), and you have a quintessential Warren Miller film.

Fifty is an amazing big-screen experience, especially if your favorite season is white. And if you just can't get enough, check out the behind-the-scenes look at the making of Fifty.

Michelle Quigley, melting the wax for

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