J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscars 1976: The Man Who Skied Down Everest

Win an Oscar, attain immortality. That is what media coverage of the Academy Awards generally suggests. However, without the headline above, could you have named the best documentary winner from 1976? Honestly, it is a decent film, but it is not exactly on the tip of a lot of tongues, like so many forgotten statuette winners. At least Bruce Nyznik & Lawrence Schiller’s The Man Who Skied Down Everest (trailer here) has been restored by the Academy and recently released on DVD and BluRay from the Film Detective.

Yuichiro Miura twice became the oldest man to summit Everest in 2003 and 2013, but in the mid-1970s he famous for, you know, skiing down it. His May 1970 expedition was eventful and duly documented by Nyznik, Schiller, and their intrepid cinematographer Mitsuji Kanau (who also shot the Sandakan 8, which was nominated for best foreign language film at the same Oscars). As those who have seen subsequent Everest documentaries understand, just getting to the mountain is a grueling trek. Unfortunately, their party met with tragedy when an ice shelf collapsed under six Sherpas.

Miura does in fact question whether his mad scheme can still be justified in light of their deaths. We hear much from him throughout the film, yet we rarely really truly hear from him. The voice-overs are entirely adapted from his expedition journals, but instead of relying on his voice and subtitles, we hear Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL 9000) narrate the English translations. This was probably considered a much more accessible strategy at the time, but it makes it far more difficult to forge an emotional connection with Miura. Rain’s rich English-sounding Canadian voice arguably is not so well suited to Miura’s Zen-like meditations, making them sound more self-serious than they probably should.

Still, there is no question the filmmakers captured some extreme alpinism. Frankly, it is a little surprisingly some distributor did not think to re-release the Oscar winning doc during the mini-boomlet for mountaineering films a few years ago. Man Who Skied is particularly notable because you can argue the 1970 skiing campaign was either a thrilling victory or an agonizing defeat based on the climatic event itself.

It is entirely possible the filmmakers would make different aesthetic decisions if they were making Man Who Skied today. Nevertheless, it remains a film with considerable merits (including its respect for the Sherpas). It might jolly well have been the best documentary released in 1975, for what that’s worth.

If you want to see how fleeting supposed “fame” can be, checkout the video of the producers receiving their Oscars from Beau Bridges and Marilyn Hassett. Bridges and who? Hassett co-starred with Bridges in The Other Side of the Mountain, which at that time was one of Universal’s top-grossing films ever. She won the best newcomer award at that year’s Golden Globes, without generating any controversy. The Academy declined to nominate her, but in retrospect it seems almost suspiciously apt they chose the stars of a skiing drama to give the documentary award in a year when a skiing doc won. Regardless, it is worth remembering as this year’s presenters make their tiresome political statements how short the shelf life for fame and Oscar glory can be.

In contrast, Miura did really went out and did something. It was probably crazy and ill-advised, but he ran the risks just as much as his unfortunate Sherpas—and he keeps going back out there. Recommended for extreme sports fans, The Man Who Skied Down Everest is now available on DVD and BluRay, from the Film Detective.

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