Beyond adventure porn

 

Adventure sport films can be a lot like pornography. Claiming little-to-no real artistic merit, they are produced explicitly for the excitement of the viewer and the ego-gratification of the performers. They have predictable soundtracks. They provide the chance for adrenaline junkies to sit, slack-jawed, and live vicariously through someone else’s physical abandon. Other adventure sport films achieve a higher level, more like erotica, “... in which the sexual element is regarded as part of the larger aesthetic aspect.” In these documentaries, reckless physical acts are seen as serving some larger point or higher purpose.

At the 2nd Annual 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale, CO, organizers did their darndest to show a collection of films that went beyond mindless stimulation. Their mission was lofty and commendable: “to inspire adventure of all kinds, to connect generations through shared experience and respect, to engage passion with a conscience, and to educate through film.”

Not surprisingly, the results were mixed. Some of the films stayed comfortably within the realm of adventure porn: “Faster, steeper, higher, deeper.” The maniacal joy in the eyes of extreme backcountry skiers, gnarly climbers and suicidal base jumpers did inspire the thought, Where oh where is my passion?,  but didn’t make any coherent argument about why you should follow your passion to remote slopes in Alaska by helicopter rather than to, say, Prada, and charge thousands to your husband’s credit card. Depending on your taste, both experiences provide deep aesthetic satisfaction. They are both expensive, potentially risky, and make you look fantastic. But do they make you a better person?

One of the most interesting films to address that question was “20 Seconds of Joy.” The film follows Karina Holkeim, a ridiculously symmetrical, La Femme Nikita-esque Norwegian blond who throws herself off cliffs for fun. Ayn Rand would have wet her pants over Karina, who loves no one and nothing enough to interfere with her passion for BASE jumping. The film gets sidetracked into embarrassing fashion shoots in which Karina glares sulkily at the camera with icy blue eyes and purses her perfect lips, adding exactly nothing to the story. However, it stays interesting by refusing to glorify Karina’s addiction. It shows the beauty of her jumps, the way she writes her own destiny like calligraphy in the air, and her desperate need for control over life and death. After the first three or four jumps, the viewer, like Karina, gets bored, needing a bigger fix. For the plot to remain compelling, Karina needs to get a life so that her risk-taking will actually mean something. Things finally get interesting again when she crashes and you are left wondering how Karina will tackle the ordinary challenge of a less-than-perfect body.

Sitting on the border between adventure porn and erotica was a kayaking gnar-fest called, “The Africa Revolutions Tour.” Directors Tyler Bradt and Rush Sturges are donating every penny of the proceeds of their film to the Sun Catchers Project, a non-profit that installs solar cooking facilities in African orphanages, hospitals and communities. Bravo. They run the White Nile and make big water first descents in Madagascar. Right on, bros. What keeps the film itself on the smutty side of adventure erotica is that when it’s over, few strong impressions remain, beyond the impenetrable glint of wraparound sunglasses that probably cost at least half a typical Malagasy's yearly income. As of 2005, 68 percent of the population of Madagascar made less than $1.25 a day. Although watching impoverished African children crowd around several thousand-dollar candy-colored playboats does raise awareness, it also raises the question of whose interests are promoted by the film. After it's over, you remember the drawling, laconic kayakers, and the height of the waterfalls they launched off of.  The people the film is meant to raise money for, however, remain hazy -- exotic scenery for a wild American adventure.

By far the most moving film of the festival had little to do with adventure sports. However, it did expose the heart of why adventure films, and recreation, can matter, and why they move us:  they celebrate our joyful relationships with mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, and oceans. “Red Gold,"  by Ben Knight, Travis Rummel, and Lauren Oakes, transcends both adventure porn and erotica and moves into the realm of art. With down-to-earth characters and gorgeous cinematography, “Red Gold” tells the human stories behind the controversial Pebble Mine in Alaska.  The proposed open-pit and underground mine is located at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, two of the the last prolific sockeye salmon runs in the world. 

The film finds its inspiration in everyday people.  Watching fishermen haul their nets, flyfishermen -- and women -- perfect their craft, and Alaskan natives sustain millenia-old traditions is even more hypnotic than watching snowboarders sail off precipices when you listen to what those people have to say about their lives, built around hard work and and seasonal bounty.  Their testimonials glow next to those of the mine representatives, who defend the project with a cold, disembodied logic that seems to have little connection to the local way of life. Unlike “The African Revolutions Tour,” which alludes to, but does not show the lives of the people it aims to serve, “Red Gold” treats the stories of the people who may be affected by Pebble Mine with deep and sincere attention. This reflects the spirit of the filmmakers, who went to Alaska not to perform daring feats or conquer wild places, but to listen.