What would life be like if you wore Google Glass 24/7 and filmed every minute of your existence? While screening McConkey, the movie (released last fall), it felt like I was watching such a production. Result: Insight into an inspiring athlete’s life — and death — along with a few questions.
Turns out that not only do immense amounts of commercial sports footage exist featuring pioneer freeride skier Shane McConkey, he apparently began video taping his own life at an early age, and continued to do so on into his film career. The movie combines Shane’s own off-the-cuff creativity with produced/professional footage. In doing so, it follows the arc of the man’s life with unexpected intimacy (interestingly, from filmmakers who had previously specialized in straight “ski porn.”)
If you’ve lived under a rock, McConkey eulogizes Shane McConkey, easily one of the most influential skiers of his generation. Shane died while BASE jumping during fliming in 2009, the film subject of this review was made by MSP in association with Redbull and released last fall 2013. I’ll not do a recap of Shane’s life from the movie as a generic review would do; most of you know the gist anyway and the details are indeed in the flick.
I’ve always been a fan of Shane’s clown antics and beautiful skiing (I’m over 40 so I can use the word “beautiful”).
On the other hand, rather than the common take on his extreme stunts: “that guy has fu***** ba*** the size of grapefruit,” my take has been something like a parent gasping in fright as his child goes for a lawn-dart onto concrete from his skateboard, only to dust himself off, exchange the cracked helmet for a new one, laugh, and continue on.
Even if you’re of Shane’s generation, many of you might admit that despite admiring the size of the man’s testicles, you probably at least once have experienced that same shocked reaction to what he walks away from, usually laughing. On top of that, perhaps you’ve even been uncomfortable — if not while watching his skiing, then during seat gripping footage of his BASE jumps.
Most certainly, considering the amount of footage that must be available of McConkey’s life, the filmmakers could not help but make a rather personal and even myopic production out of what they had. To have a subject such as McConkey, and the “selfie” footage at your fingertips; too tempting to resist. The hope is they could use the resulting intimacy to show what made Shane tick, but more, to segue to a broader view and examine issues of why he paid the ultimate price.
Did they make it work? For the most part, yes. I could have done without the intimate photos of Shane’s wife’s morning sickness, and the helmet-cam clips of BASE jump mistakes are too much after you’ve seen just one. (Yes, I get the point…) But overall, by using a combination of commercial film, home video and personal interviews, the filmmakers manage to show McConkey’s human side along with his lighthearted yet inspirational presence. Adding balance, they document Shane’s circle of caring, loving people who suffer when he dies.
Regarding the broader view? Perhaps the subject is too much outside this film’s purview, as it doesn’t do much to answer why.
BASE jumping is incredibly dangerous. According to the Wicki, “BASE jumping as of 2006 has an overall fatality rate estimated at about one fatality per sixty participants. A study of 20,850 BASE jumps from the same site (the Kjerag Massif in Norway) reported 9 fatalities over the 11-year period from 1995 to 2005, or 1 in every 2,317 jumps. However, at that site, 1 in every 254 jumps over that period resulted in a nonfatal accident. BASE jumping is one of the most dangerous recreational activities in the world, with a fatality and injury rate 43 times higher than parachuting from a plane.”
Thus, while I found the film overall compelling, it was at at the same time disturbing. The filmmakers do explore Shane’s family relationships in depth (divorced parents, absent father, and so on), and even hint how his out-take antics sometimes got tiresome for his colleagues. This led me to think they’d ask more questions about a film genre that appears at times to produce “gladiator” movies, in which individuals do danger for real — for pay. Stuff that in most movies is done by safety-system backed stunt men and special effects.
At what point does this exceed the moral or ethical standards of our social contract? Any thinking person has to ask: Is there any limit?
First, for perspective it’s important to note that adventure films have been made for a long time, and sometimes can’t be made without people doing dangerous things. Thus, the question is not if doing so is appropriate (I’d say it is a legitimate creative genre), but again, what’s the limit or are things under control?
As depicted in the film, as his career developed McConkey decided to combine wing suit flying, cliff hucking with skis and BASE jumping. He was ostensibly refining the sport, or as today’s lingo expresses it, “progressing.” But the combination turned out deadly. The fact that the failure of one ski to release during his last jump probably caused his death (by inducing a spin in freefall) is alarming when you consider the above.
To get some perspective on this I spoke with one of the filmmakers, Steve Winter from MSP (Matchstick). I asked him who the decision makers are in these sorts of situations, and if either the filmmakers or athletes nix things very often.
“It’s almost always the athlete deciding what to do,” Steve said. “What we end up filming is very very calculated with a high level of professionalism, to the point where with just about any idea an athlete comes up with, we feel comfortable filming. In the case of Shane, we grew up with him filming, and trusted him. Also, all this is situational. Ourselves and the athletes take every situation as unique, plan carefully, and only go ahead if we feel the risk is reasonable.”
And here is what Shane’s wife Sherry has to say, paraphrased from an interview that’s been published in several places (see link below):
“If people see him only in the movies…They don’t see how long he sat on his computer preparing for his jumps or researching the cliffs he was going to do or throwing rocks off cliffs and counting. I mean, he would spend hours at cliffs. It was so frustrating going with him sometimes — it was like ‘jump already!’ You know? It would take hours for him to do it…”
Fair enough, and I can support what Steve and Sherry say when it comes to highly developed sports such as big mountain skiing. But as you can read a few paragraphs above, BASE jumping is different — the odds are no good. Thus, there seems to be a grim inevitability to the whole exercise, no matter how much care is taken.
As backstory, consider the how and why of BASE jumping being so seductive for filmmakers. Beyond the 1976 James Bond skiing parachute stunts, I remember back in 2006 when Mark Obenhaus made the movie “Steep.” I had peripheral involvement in that project (including providing some voice-over narration and an on-camera interview), and spent quite a bit of time communicating with Mark and his associates about where ski mountaineering and (of the steep, free skiing variety) came from, where it was presently, and where it was going.
Never once did it even cross my mind that BASE jumping with skis had any sort of real viable role in the progression of the sport or needed to be part of Obenhaus’s movie. Sure, “ski-BASE” jumping is fun to watch, starting with Rick Sylvester’s El Capitan and James Bond stunts of the 1970s. But it’s only that, exciting movie stunts. It wasn’t like ski mountaineers were going to start wearing parachutes any time soon.
Nonetheless, somehow someone convinced Obenhaus that McConkey’s BASE jumping was worth quite a few minutes of valuable film time in the otherwise ground-breaking content of Steep. Likewise, BASE jumping continued to be content in ski films, culminating in McConkey’s last jump from the Sass Pordoi, Italy.
I’m all for any sport to “progress” and in some arenas physical risk has to be part of the equation. Individuals who push the progression, such as McConkey, do frequently deserve our admiration if not adulation. After all, inspiration is the name of the game and I’m no stranger to coming away from a jaw dropping ski flick or climbing film with renewed sense of purpose in whatever I do.
In that sense Shane’s motto of “you’ve only got one life, live it” does inspire. Yet many, if not most people know in their hearts a full life can be lived without high risk sports. More, quite a number of us believe in things like reincarnation or everlasting consciousness. “One life” can have a lot of meanings. Thus, we end up viewing Shane metaphorically and receiving his gift. To view Shane’s life realistically is another matter, e.g., his daughter is growing up without him — and we know from the intimate segments of this film that he adored her.
So what to do? It’s glass half full or half empty with this flick. Walk away depressed, or walk away inspired. I’ll choose the latter.
In my world view I feel that certain people do indeed exist whose calling gift (way of contributing) is to push limits of physical, emotional and mental risk. They sometimes fall as a result. Shane may have been one of those individuals.
“Stopping him would have been like caging an eagle,” is how his wife Sherry sums it up.
Takeaway? Examine what you’re being inspired by, and at what cost to the individuals involved. After that, focus on the good and live life to the fullest. Sure, it’s a cliche, but live like you’ll be gone tomorrow! Watch Shane ride skis like a fighter jet, invent himself as the clown prince of skiing (banned from Vail for nude skiing, then, Saucer Boy!), innovate modern ski gear, and cackle laugh through it all like a child being tickled by his parent.
Time to get up from the desk, hug my wife, call my son, go look out the window — and perhaps go skiing.
Even if you’ve seen this flick before, I’d recommend watching on the big screen at 2:00 PM this coming Sunday here in Carbondale. The 5Point venue will include some discussion of the film, and the type of folks that attend the festival are always up for conversation. 5Point Film Festival.
Interview of Sherry McConkey, Shane’s wife.
In closing, if you want to enjoy the kind of humor Shane was known for:
Or, to be more current (after all, this post is sync with a FILM festival):
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.