A few decades ago, the Science Museum’s Omnitheater was the only game in town for über-big-screen entertainment. Then Imax screens went up at Valleyfair and the Minnesota Zoo, and now even Rosedale has an Imax. What’s the Science Museum’s strategy for dealing with this upstart competition? Stay the course, senior V.P. Mike Day told me at the media preview for the upcoming 2010 Omnifest. “We’re still filming in the world’s biggest format and projecting on domed screens. We’re also still focused on making documentaries.”
Members of the media were given a sneak peek at the two Omnifest entries that have not previously been seen at the Science Museum: the brand-new Van Gogh: Brush With Genius and the 2000 title Ski to the Max. The other three entries in the festival, which runs from January 29 to March 11, are films that were hits in their previous engagements. Those titles are Africa’s Elephant Kingdom, Into the Deep, and The Greatest Places.
Van Gogh, Day told me, has been earning plaudits and awards among Omniphiles for its unique take on a subject—painting—that’s well off the beaten path for Omnifilm subject matter. “You’ll see the paintings in a way you could never see them even in person,” Day promised, and that was no lie—to see wheat fields painted with brush strokes the size of a Pontiac, you’re definitely going to need the world’s biggest film format.
The film is narrated from beyond the grave by Van Gogh (Jacques Gamblin), who informs us that he wishes people would focus on his painting (“pin-ting,” in Gamblin’s French accent—”I pin-ted, I pin-ted, I pin-ted. I could not stop pin-ting”) instead of the Ear Incident and the suicide. He introduces filmmaker Peter Knapp, who we see making the very film we’re watching, and “Ellen,” a museum curator played by Penélope Cruz lookalike Hélène Seuzaret.
The odd framing device adds a vaguely creepy element (watching the comely curator finger his manuscripts, Van Gogh muses on why he was so unpopular with women during his lifetime) to what is otherwise a serene and mildly educational look at the painter’s work. Seeing the canvases fading into the subjects that inspired them conveys a fresh sense of astonishment at the Impressionist’s inventive use of color and perspective.
Ski to the Max, on the other hand, is pure Omniporn. Like conventional porn, it employs stilted dialogue and implausible scenarios in the service of getting to the Good Parts as quickly as possible. The only difference between Ski to the Max and something you’d find on the discount rack at Sexworld is that instead of people performing staggeringly difficult and outrageously inadvisable stunts in the nude, they do so in snowsuits and parachutes.
The movie was written and directed by ski-stunt specialist Willy Bogner (that was his work in the opening scene of A View to a Kill), and it’s like a 12-year-old’s hand-drawn comic book come to life. In one scene—I swear I’m not making any of this up—a pair of men on motorcycles are chased across the desert by a WWI biplane. They fall off their bikes (which, for no apparent reason, subsequently explode) and are offered a ride in an Audi SUV driven by Pink, who sings along with her own music as she shuttles the men across a lake (the SUV converts to a boat), drives them up a mountain (stopping at an unseen point to add tire chains), and drops them off at the top, where they parasail down, followed by Pink in the SUV, which happens to have a parasail tucked into its sunroof. Fine print—that is, letters three feet high—at the film’s conclusion notes that the Audi “is not a production model.”
Ski to the Max is the best Omnifilm I’ve ever seen, because Bogner knows what you came for and he gives it to you—again and again and again. Skiing at high speed through a dense forest at night, holding flares; bicycling down a luge; snowboarding into a restaurant through one plate-glass window and then out the other side of the restaurant through a second window. As in Van Gogh, there’s a strange and unnecessary framing device—this one involving daydreaming drivers sitting at a stoplight in downtown Denver (apropos of nothing, at one point someone skydives from a building and lands in the middle of the intersection, then runs off). Elements that might in another film be signposts of some kind of plot come and go randomly, while power ballads about pushing the limits and living your life wail on the soundtrack. (Apparently Bogner didn’t get the memo that by 2000, Limp Bizkit had replaced REO Speedwagon as the house band of extreme sports.)
Culture vultures who might consider themselves interested only in Van Gogh should strongly consider catching Ski to the Max while they’re at it. I think there’s a surrealistic subtext lurking in there—something about id, absurdity, and the human condition. Luis Buñel did not survive to document the X Games, but fortunately Willy Bogner is still with us.