Last evening we screened Sweetgrass Productions’ new ski movie “Signatures.” I’ve always had the feeling Sweetgrass director Nick Waggoner was headed towards making what could be called “art” films, and this one takes him farther along that path. In fact, this is a movie that could hold its own at nearly any film festival, be it outdoor related or not. But, it also works as a snow rider flick, replete with segments that’ll cause tele kids to salivate, fixed heelers to cheer, and snowboarders to take long meditation breaks because they’ll now be in touch with their soul.
In filming entirely in the mountains of Japan’s northern island (Hokkaido), Sweetgrass took full advantage of the region’s legendary powder snow. I was blown away by some of the white-room sequences that resulted. A variety of mellow yet enjoyable music accompanies most of the skiing (almost all in slow-mo), with narration in soulful sounding Japanese translated by subtitles. I found the subs hard to read on a large TV screen, let’s hope they work better in a theater. Even so, I could track the gist of what various Japanese riders were saying about how skiing and snowboarding connect them to nature, and how the changing of the seasons string it all together.
The Japanese emphasis on nature we hear in “Signatures” probably harkens to the nature worship component of Shinto, a common spiritual practice of Japan. This comes across nicely in the movie, but if you want to get serious, I’d offer that many folks like to look at the spirituality of alpine sports as a way to get a sense of something beyond nature. Mysticism, if you will. So in that sense, a heavy theme of nature worship can get tiresome. Sorry, getting a bit esoteric there. I’ll stop.
Another thing that struck me about “Signatures” was texture. Nearly every frame in the film appears as if you reached out and touched the screen, you’d actually feel the snow crystals melting on your fingers, or you’d brush the fine texture of calligraphy paper used by Japanese artists and snowboard shapers featured in the flick. It’s really quite amazing that way; for something flat to appear so three dimensional. This is testimony to how a practiced eye with some artistic sense can use perspective and light to re-create and enhance reality. Pay attention to this when you watch the film, and you’ll see that quite a bit of other ski filmography is one-dimensional in comparison. You might even get spoiled and want more. Is Sweetgrass setting a trend here?
In a word, I loved this film. My only caveat is please don’t enter the theater expecting “Signatures” to provide the adrenaline pounding, rock music fueled sequences of Matchstick or TGR. Instead, get ready to explore your kinder, gentler side. Perhaps you’ll take up Shinto, or beyond?
For more from Sweetgrass, click the backcountry skiing films linkage.
September 19th Aspen, CO, WORLD PREMIERE Wheeler Opera House 7pm $10 — live deep-country blues from John-Alex Mason to follow. Stay after for Mason. CU there.