Tribeca 2013: In ‘McConkey,’ a different path down the ski slopes

NEW YORK--Nearly all sports documentaries follow a rise and fall pattern, sometimes changing up the sequence but rarely the elements. The good ones, though, manage to follow the formula with style and depth.

It’s easy to make the case that the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere “McConkey,” a new documentary from a group of directors working for Red Bull’s media arm, falls in the latter category. The profile of the extreme-sports pioneer Shane McConkey is both remarkable to look at and, at a screening I attended, didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

If you’re not familiar with McConkey’s story, it’s a compelling one. A failed college ski-racer, the Squaw Valley-raised mischief-maker dropped out of the University of Colorado at Boulder in the early 1990s to help pioneer a new kind of on-the-edge free-skiing. He soon grew restless, though, and began taking up BASE jumping, that kamikaze sport where people hurl themselves, usually illegally, from perches hundreds of feet up and parachute to the ground below. (“Ready, set, seeya,” their pre-jump mantra goes.)

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When even that became jejune to him, McConkey decided to combine his two previous passions. He essentially invented the sport of ski BASE jumping, in which--inspired by the iconic opening sequence of “The Spy Who Loved Me"--he’d ski down a backwoods mountain, launch himself off a cliff, then parachute to the ground below. It’s as dangerous as it sounds, and as breathtaking to watch.


Indeed, what’s most impressive is how much video McConkey has of his exploits, dating back to his early days at CU and continuing through his 30s, with sequences of him vaulting, launching and flying peppering the movie.

“Shane kicked off this whole project because his entire life was walking around with a camera,” said one of the directors at a post-screening Q&A.;(Those directors include Steve Winter, Murray Vais, Scott Gaffney, David Zieff and Rob Bruce, all working under the auspices of Red Bull, a longtime McConkey sponsor).

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As several friends observe on screen, the main subject is something of an attention-starved man-child, though even when he’s pranking fellow skiers, there’s a genial, playful quality to his antics. And as those same friends point out, that need for attention often has him looking “over there”—that is, away from the current zeitgeist of extreme-sports to the next dangerous frontier, where the rest of the sports world would only later catch up to him.

This creates something of a paradox, since it means he’s not only often slightly discontented with the status quo, but he’s helping the new status quo grow increasingly dangerous. McConkey eventually finds some grounding in his non-sports life thanks to his new wife, Sherry, and, ultimately, the couple’s young daughter, Ayla.

In its final act, the film takes a tragic turn that is best left undescribed for maximum effect. Even if you know McConkey’s story, though, the intense build-up and abundant personal video is likely to stir some strong emotions.

“McConkey” is seeking distribution at the festival. It seems like the kind of movie that could play on any number of cable TV stations, even if the visuals lend themselves to a big screen.

The film does contain some of the cliches along the lines of ‘a life without passion is no life at all.’ (“Human beings have things in them that are innate,” said McConkey friend and protege J.T. Holmes at the screening. “For Shane, that’s just adventure and pushing what’s possible.”)

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Perhaps not surprising given Red Bull’s involvement, the movie also takes a rather uncritical look at a culture of extreme sports that HBO’s Bryant Gumbel and others have explored more skeptically in recent years.

But if Gumbel and others would be correct to poke holes at the standard defenses of free will and individualism in leading athletes to go to extreme places --after all, there’s a culture of celebrity and glorification that’s complicit in pushing people there--it also shows how for many who practice these sports, the motives can be pure and, in the end, unstoppable.


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