The Ordinary Skier
You’ve seen him in ski films for years, so you know he’s a man of few words. Even when he’s interviewed (like in parts of CP’s Tanner Hall Trilogy) he’s straight to the point, terse and can often be heard intoning with some dark wisdom about the magnitude of the danger in skiing steep mountain lines. He’s stoic and mysterious to say the least. So you’d have to be curious about a documentary on Seth Morrison because you’d expect it to provide answers, you know, shed some light on what makes the guy tick; a guy who takes huge chances on ski slopes year in and year out for nearly two decades as a pro; a guy who skis with such power and yet such grace; a guy who (seemingly) fearlessly hucks off cliffs taller than your average apartment building, stomps it and skis back to the helicopter for more.
Well, if you’re hoping to find some easy answers in director Constantine Papanicolaou’s (“CP”) The Ordinary Skier you’re going to be disappointed, kind of. CP unravels the Seth Morrison story in a straight-shooting biographical manner: interviews with his mother, step-father and fellow skiers. There are trips back to Des Plaines, Illinois where Morrison shows us the hill that got him hooked on riding twin planks. But there’s barely one interview with Morrison where he opens up and let’s us see behind the stony, calm mask. Morrison’s recollections of growing up are delivered in a matter-of-fact tone that while not completely devoid of emotion, still has him keeping his cards close to his chest. Only towards the end of The Ordinary Skier do we get a glimpse of Morrison’s motivation to ski like he does and that it may be a defense mechanism against the feeling of abandonment after his biological father disappeared from his life. Morrison comments how others might turn to drugs or drinking or another sport to provide solace from the demons that haunt them but it’s skiing that Morrison knows, “I wouldn’t know what else to do”, he says. Or it could be the aftermath from surviving the helicopter crash in Portillo, Chile a few years back when two others in the bird did not. The Ordinary Skier never tells us. It’s a marked contrast to Tanner Hall’s demeanor in the best ski documentary of 2010, Like A Lion, where Hall wears his victories and his disasters unselfconsciously on his sleeve for all to see. One has to wonder whether CP was able to get Morrison to feel comfortable enough on camera in an interview setting to get him going.
The revelations come in the interviews with the pivotal people in Morrison’s life. When his parents divorced while he was six years old he took it hard. “He said ‘I don’t care’, you learn from his step-father, “He did but he would never admit it”. Other illuminations come from fellow skier Dan Treadway who comments on the artistic side to freeskiing and from Sean Pettit, himself a product of broken home, who talks about the mountain as a surrogate father figure. You are left to impute the same opinions to Morrison but there’s nothing really backing up whether you’re correct in that assumption.
And then there are the photos of the teenage Morrison, laughing, goofing around, ripping it up as a ski racer during his high school years. As the photos slide in and out in the Ken Burns style, it’s hard to believe that the hell-raiser pictured there is now a taciturn realist. Seeing as there’s no insight or explanation into the transformation, pod people from outer space could have taken his personality for all you know.
About 15 minutes into The Ordinary Skier we are introduced to the sub-plot: a trip to Chamonix with JP Auclair and Kye Petersen that is guided by the affable American ski-alpinist Nate Wallace. The experience is a cross between a pilgrimage to the holy site of the birth of ski-mountaineering and a medieval ordeal where the pupil has to survive a series of grueling tests in order to succeed because the planning and preparation required to make even the basic Cham runs like the Passerelle Couloir make staggering demands on your skills.
It’s an interesting first meeting with Wallace because he only knows Morrison from his rep as a madman and yet there’s Morrison dialing it back and sagely putting it out there that, “We’ll take it one step at a time and work our way into it. You can’t just go to the biggest thing and drop right in – that’s just stupid. You gotta learn and here I am learning.”
Chamonix is a humbling experience for any hot-shot skier and as we already have learned, Morrison is now at the stage of his life where he’s past being a young gun and has become a wizened, Jedi Master athlete. The Cham segments then simply underline or perhaps high-light this aspect of his mature persona. He didn’t have to go to Cham, he could have loaded The Ordinary Skier with astounding cliff hucks, but he didn’t. The scenes of the unsettlingly steep runs with the accompanying nerves (check the scenes done at the Col du Plan on the Aiguille du Midi’s north face) that go with them are a subtle reflection of the depth of the man’s character at this point in his career.
So maybe, at the end of the day, we have to realize and accept that this is the essence of Seth Morrison. The lazer-like focus of the mind needed to govern the cold-fusion firing of a skier’s synapses and the speed of light mental processing required to render to necessary physical reactions required to ski big mountains or deep pow through tight trees is not common amongst us mortals. Morrison has it by the bucket full and so he lets his art speak for him. Remember that next time you see him stomp a massive back-flip. By Mark “The Attorney General” Quail