The Avon Cinema leans arthouse in its palate. It has earned a reputation for featuring the types of films that earn rave reviews from “The AV Club” but largely slip through the cracks of mainstream pop culture. Naturally, the Avon is not especially Catholic in its patronage. On any given night, one can expect to find only a smattering of local cinephiles, and perhaps a stray student or two, populating the theater’s seats. But even a guardian of highbrow culture needs to take a few nights off, and there’s no one better to help loosen the intellectual collar than a bunch of ski bums.
The Warren Miller Entertainment engine roared into Providence again as part of its yearly film world tour, hosting raucous shows at the Avon on Wednesday and Thursday night. And what a host Warren Miller was.
In what has become a time-honored tradition, the film company’s annual ski documentary drew a full and eclectic house to the Avon, enticing audiences with free lift tickets, discounted apparel, and a raffle that included all-expenses paid vacations to premier international ski resorts — all included with the $20 price of admission.
The 68th edition of Warren Miller’s famed ski docs, “Line of Descent,” makes it clear that the brand isn’t going stale. There’s a basic — and successful — formula at work here: attract audiences with giveaways and a grandiose raffle and then keep them entertained with visuals of thigh-high powder and 10,000 foot elevations. I’ve had the privilege of covering this event for multiple years now and can happily report that the simple pleasures of Warren Miller Entertainment’s globe-trotting, gravity-defying ode to powder chasers and their snow-covered Edens have not abated with time.
Like its predecessors, “Line of Descent” unfolds in a series of vignettes, exposing viewers to some of the world’s most remote and idyllic peaks, as well as the weird and wonderful communities built around them. Warren Miller’s attention to the ski bums who form the backbone of those communities is the great gift of the documentary series. There’s a spiritual aesthetic to this clan of adrenaline junkies that’s hard to pin down but deeply alluring. They enjoy an intimate relationship with their natural surroundings that borders on religious. Even their jocular vernacular, full of goofy “pows” and “gnars,” quickly turns ethereal when they are asked to wax poetic about life on the mountain. Miller’s films convince you that these shunners of the 9-to-5 have achieved some form of hedonistic enlightenment — it’s enough to make you want to buy a one-way ticket to the untamed fringes of Montana, Norway or even New Zealand.
That being said, director Chris Patterson has made better work than “Line of Descent.” Last year’s film (also directed by Patterson), “Here, There, and Everywhere,” reveled in the natural beauty of its ski haunts, using an abundance of wide aerial shots that framed skiing as a sublime and celestial act of physical poetry. “Line of Descent” is more theatrical and campy — it loses sight of more natural choreography. Many of last year’s aerial shots are replaced with handheld go-pro filmmaking, which denies viewers depth perception and sense of scope. They break the escapist spell the documentaries have so cleverly constructed over the years.
“Line of Descent” is still a fun ride. One vignette centers around surf skiers in the western United States, who use non-binded surfboards to cruise through powder banks. It’s the kind of half-baked scheme that is both hilarious and wildly endearing, a reminder that some people don’t take the world so seriously and get along just fine.