Sportsflicks: The Great Alan Thicke/Werner Herzog Ski Movie Double Bill

In which two of the great entertainers of their time explore the filmic possibilities of skiing. Sadly, not in the same film.
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I have never been keen on skiing. It may be a class thing: my high school’s annual ski trip always seemed entirely too expensive and pointless to attend. It could be a safety issue, although when I was thirteen Rick Reilly assured me I wouldn’t get killed unless I made dumb decisions like Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono did. Most likely, though, it was just that winters in southern New Jersey were horrible enough without having it snow more than three or four times.

That lifelong lack of interest aside, though, I was interested in hearing about two ski movies that, when taken together, last about an hour and 45 minutes, and score a combined 9.8 on IMDB. One has star power in front of the camera, although that power was years from achieving its potential. Another has an established genius in charge, though his best and craziest work was still ahead of him. The lunky titles of The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner and Copper Mountain: A Club Med Experience don’t do much to make a potential miniature film festival sound more appealing, either. But, as ski season gives way to baseball season, there’s a case to be made for a double bill of these two, if only because one is so good, and one is so bad. You may or may not be surprised to learn that it’s the Werner Herzog one and not the Alan Thicke one.

***

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (Die Grosse Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner) was produced for (West) German television in 1974, and was directed by a young, if not appreciably less intense, Werner Herzog.  By then, Herzog already had Aguirre, The Wrath Of God to his credit; Kaspar Hauser would be released later that year. But while Herzog was an increasingly known quantity at that point, he was not quite the unknowable elder statesman of chaos that he is today. By the time he made this early documentary, though, Herzog already had  a cool mustache and a Big Bird hairdo. He had quite a story to tell in this case, as well.

Herzog uses a minimalist score by regular collaborator Popol Vuh, a striking hybrid of classical music and motorik krautrock, to evoke the great joys and equally great danger involved with “ski flying.” That’s not a Herzog-invented bit of terminology, although it certainly sounds like it; instead, it’s a sort of outsized version of ski jumping. For Herzog and his protagonist, Walter Steiner, ski flying seems to be a state of mind as much as it is a sport, for reasons metaphorical and non-. Then as now, there are only a handful of ramps in the world long enough to allow for ski flying’s necessary velocity and distance, and at the time of this documentary’s filming, the sport was at its nascent stage. As little as ten years after Great Ecstasy was filmed, common sense came to ski-fliers, who finally started to wear more protective headgear than a mere toque.

Steiner was among the first generation of ski-fliers, and had already gained notoriety for winning the silver medal in large hill ski jumping at the 1972 Winter Olympics.  He followed this by winning the FIS Ski-Flying World Championship later that year, and by placing second in 1973. This second contest is where Herzog becomes interested in Steiner, as a later-disqualified jump approaches a record-smashing 179 meters. Herzog, idly intense on camera as ever, stands by the mark where Steiner lands, only a few meters from flat land, and declares it to be “the point where ski-flying starts to be inhuman.”

The definition of “inhuman” has changed a lot in 40 years, at least in terms of ski-flying; Herzog has done a good deal to expand the definition more generally in his later films. Herzog and his crew are there at Planica, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) when Steiner ties the official world record of 169 meters. As of 2013, Johan Remen Evensen of Norway holds the record, his 246.5 meter jump in 2011 making him the first skier to clear 800 feet. The ski jump itself is now tracked, making the landing more important than the execution on the hill. Also, Norwegian commentary seems to help these skiers, though it doesn’t have the majesty of our documentary’s soundtrack.

Importantly, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is as much about the mindset of ski-fliers as it is about the sport itself. There is little actual woodcarving, although Steiner records half his interview while ice fishing. Concussions are regarded as a relatively minor on-the-job hazard; the glory of flight takes precedent over potential injury. That seems more heroic and sensible until you remember that ABC’s Wide World Of Sports “agony of defeat” footage featured the implosion of ski-flyer Vinko Bogataj, whose 1970 crash at Oberstdorf became synonymous with spectacular failure, and looked really painful besides. The word “painful” makes for a natural segue into our second film, Copper Mountain: A Club Med Experience (Die Grosse Ekstase des Paterfamilias Seaver).

***

Copper Mountain’s Wikipedia entry had me at “...and the other half of the movie is more or less an infomercial”.  Mind you, having Alan Thicke and a poignantly young Jim Carrey give off a poor man’s Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo vibe is enough of a draw. But the through-the-looking-glass factor here is incalculable: the idea that, at any time in human history, a person might have watched this film for any reason other than giddy, aghast mockery is mind-boggling.

That the film was co-written by Damian Lee, the director of Abraxas, Guardian Of The Universe should tell you something. Lee would trade in Copper Mountain for Whistler, British Columbia upon directing 1991’s Ski School, while Carrey, evidently scarred by his Club Med Experience, would not return to the slopes until visiting Aspen in 1994’s Dumb And Dumber.

When I say that I watched Copper Mountain more for Alan Thicke than for Jim Carrey, I am not being sarcastic, nor am I saying it be smugly contrary. The idea of Jim Carrey has always been more appealing to me than its execution; he’s been good in films such as The Truman Show and Man On The Moon, and I still remember staying up as a kid to see him on In Living Color. I love the story of how he promised his dad he’d make it, and then put a million dollar check in his dad’s coffin at his funeral. He has brought some star power to the valuable endeavor of trolling the hell out of Fox News recently, and that’s something. That said, a little of him goes a long way, and even the less-than-an-hour of Reagan-era, extra-earnest Carrey in Copper Mountain fulfills my 2013 quota.

On the other hand, I have never even approached the feeling of Alan Thicke overdose. Growing up, my father used Alan Thicke as an example of someone with a diverse array of talents. You’re welcome to name whatever superior renaissance men you wish, but Thick has acted, hosted talk shows, beauty pageants and other events (a talent of sorts), wrote and produced sitcoms and helped compose two of the greatest TV theme songs of all time.  Even if you didn’t like Growing Pains that much, you had to respect Jason Seaver. Copper Mountain is... not his best work. But it is far from the worst film anyone associated with Growing Pains has ever been in, and Thicke escapes the movie astonishingly unbruised, at least in my biased view.

Of course I’m using the term “movie” loosely. I can only assume this hour-long presentation from 1983 would be shown or sent out on VHS to people interested in going to Club Med’s Copper Mountain resort but unable to imagine a really hackneyed storyline along which their vacation might unfold. This movie can help with that, although that’s about all it’s good for.

Judging by the mostly Canadian cast and crew, this video was either aimed at less-discerning Canadians or intentionally cast with as few Americans as possible to suture the actors’ embarrassment. Situated just west of the Continental Divide in Colorado, the real Copper Mountain is like Aspen, but without the gentrification or the accomplishment of once having allowed Ted Bundy to escape from their county courthouse.  Club Med’s resort seemed like a fine place for its time, but has since closed and been made into resort employee housing.

What little plot there is functions as an excuse for Alan Thicke to show off Copper Mountain’s skiing, for Jim Carrey to build on his repertoire and for some musical performances by semi-famous acts. Carrey and Thicke’s characters are supposed to be close friends, as evidenced by Thicke hailing from Chicago, and Carrey residing in nearby Grimsby, Ontario. Carrey’s character, Bobby Todd, is shy around most people unless he impersonates Steve Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and so on. Alan Thicke is Jackson Reach, waterbed salesman and amateur Nordic skier, who travels to Copper Mountain to take part in a lucrative pro-am ski race.  

While Bobby deals with what would now probably be diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome through gay panic, Arab-baiting jokes and “accidentally” walking into a women’s sauna, Jackson gets himself into a race with the resort’s bartender, Yogi, who turns out to be really out-of-shape Olympic skier Don Hebron. Yogi, having nothing to prove except for how much fried chicken he could eat in one sitting, gives his spot to Reach, who loses anyway but is grateful for being another step closer to never having to install a hard-sided single chamber waterbed ever again.

Rita Coolidge, who recorded the theme to Octopussy around this time, does some of her well-known covers on-screen.  Meanwhile, Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins delivers his beloved (?) brand of American-Canadian rockabilly, and Dan Fouts-lookalike Bill Champlin counters with the type of yacht rock which made him a key addition to the band Chicago. Director Damian Lee plays exposition disguised as Jean-Claude Killy’s helicopter guide. Dick Gautier, who once played a sexist Batman in an ERA-era equal pay PSA is along for the (non-helicopter) ride, and is almost as sexist here.

Neither of these films made me want to learn much more about skiing than what Better Off Dead or the “Asspen” episode of South Park taught me. However, it is nice to know that there is more to skiing than Stan Darsh, Roy Stalin, Rick Reilly saying “I told you so” and Hunter S. Thompson burying the aforementioned Killy where he stood. You may like to ski exponentially more than I do (you probably do), or prefer The Duck Factory to Thicke Of The Night, but The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner and Copper Mountain are both worth experiencing at least once. No snow is required.


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