In Ski Movies Cool, Whimsical Warren Miller Is Clearly Top Dog

updated 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

High among the crystalline peaks of the Cascade range in Oregon, a skier swooshes toward the edge of a cliff on Mount Hood and soars off—backward—landing in a shower of white powder and proceeding on down the mountain in gracefully controlled, head-over-ski somersaults.

No, it's not a scenic commercial for life insurance. It's Miller time, the season when leaves fall, snow dusts the Rockies and a 60-year-old ski bum and ex-carpenter named Warren Miller releases his annual ski movie. Over the last 34 years, Miller's films, mixing grace and pratfalls with wry wisecracks, have become annual events awaited with cultlike intensity by a ski audience of about two million. "It's like showing a porno film on an aircraft carrier when you've still got three weeks to port," says the balding, leather-skinned Miller. "They just go bonkers."

Indeed, there are now so many Miller loyalists that, for the first time, his new movie, Ski Country, will not be limited to club halls and civic centers but is also being released nationwide. This year, from real movie seats, skiers and nonskiers alike can bask in the Alpine sun of such jet-set resorts as Chamonix, France or the empty serenity of New Zealand's glaciers. Snowy mountains become the settings of high and low human drama for Miller, whose lens delights in it all. Gold-medalist Bill Johnson performs at 70 mph with balletic grace, and so in their way do the "flight of the Jell-O brains," wave after wave of klutzy ski clubbers who careen idiotically down a bunny slope. "Skiing down Tuckerman Ravine once is a fine experience," deadpans Miller as a skier plummets perilously. "Skiing it twice is a dumb experience."

His technical mastery no less than his unique style has earned Miller a reputation as one of the world's finest sports filmmakers. He has made more than 4,000 films and shorts for clubs, TV and commercial clients. Warren Miller Productions employs six camera crews and occupies 400 square feet of offices and production facilities complete with a 50-seat screening room in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Among his celebrated devotees: Norman Lear, Jane Fonda (who introduced herself after a Miller show in Sun Valley, Idaho) and Michael Jackson (who, with two bodyguards, slipped into back seats at the Santa Monica Civic Center last year). Says another fan, ABC sports commentator Bill Flemming, "The real key is his depth. He sees beyond the obvious. I remember in Saint Moritz, Warren was watching people race horses on ice—they put spiked shoes on them. He was smart enough to build it into a whole sequence about how the motion picture was invented to settle a dispute over whether a running horse lifted all four feet off the ground at once."

Back in 1936, 12-year-old Warren Miller wasn't thinking much about his future the day he strapped on his first pair of pine skis at Mount Waterman, a gentle incline near his Hollywood, Calif. home. Still, the experience made an indelible impact. "I can remember everything about that day. What I wore, what I ate, the color of the skis, the first snowplow turn I made, even the first tree I skied around. We live in square houses, work in square offices and travel straight streets laid out between square corners. Skiing can be your first real taste of freedom."

Miller, who frequented James A. Fitzpatrick travelogues during the Depression, bought himself an 8-mm movie camera for $100 the day he was mustered out of the Navy in 1946. He was a ski instructor at Sun Valley and living out of a 1937 Buick when he gave a lesson to two young Bell & Howell executives named Charles Percy and Harold Geneen. The two were impressed with Miller and lent him a 16-mm camera. With money he'd made doing carpentry and taking photos of tourists at Sun Valley—and $400 some surfing buddies put up—Miller produced his first film, Deep and Light, for under $500 in 1949 and convinced a ski club to show it. At the premiere 800 people showed up. "The photography wasn't as good as it should have been, so I covered it with words," he recalls. The customers loved it. Miller paid his friends back and showed the film 11 more times that year. Eventually he would take his movies to 105 cities annually.

Miller is celebrating his 35th anniversary with Ski Country, for which he logged 65,000 miles on three continents. This is the first of his films in which he appears himself, skiing with a band of 40 pals in Canada's Cariboo Mountains. "I don't know anybody who has it better," he laughs, "unless it's an airline pilot who works eight days a month and has a lawn-mower business on the side."

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