For Lack of Better—A Love Story

Teton Gravity Research and Clayton Vila Studios explain the unexplainable

“I wouldn’t want to be thought of as just a skier. It’s much deeper than that.”
—Cam Riley, For Lack of Better

We’ve been discussing the evolution of ski movies. Decades of films showed a surprising lack of depth that made skiers out to be a jokester crowd, rather than a wise, mindful tribe. Did it create heroes? Absolutely. Did skiers also invent the wet T-shirt contest? Yes. Skiing, also, is a mode transportation slightly younger than another invention—the wheel. The history and culture is rich, deep, and ski media is finally catching up to those truths.

Perhaps nowhere is the segment more vital and story severely lacking than in the dark underbelly of street skiing. Elements are harder than ice out there, and ice-lined concrete might be as tough as it gets. Years of segments showed only the triumphs, a skier sliding to the end of a handrail, with an occasional fall sprinkled in for good measure. What choice did film editors have? It’s not like the viewer was going to watch seven hours of attempts set to Tupac’s entire catalog. Those present in the streets knew how rich the experience could be. Now, they’re telling those stories.

Cam Riley makes the biggest drop of his life. Photo: For Lack of Better
Cam Riley makes the biggest drop of his life. Photo: For Lack of Better

For Lack of Better, a Clayton Vila-directed film distributed by Teton Gravity Research, follows three characters searching inward as they shoot, produce, direct, and star in their annual video. Vila, Sean Jordan, and Cam Riley each face their own journey in the 42-minute film, battling jaw-dropping injuries and navigating injury-inducing drops. There’s a story in there that doesn’t sugarcoat the details, which reminds me of another documentary recently released, Jimmy Chin’s breakthrough film Meru.

If we look at climbing the Shark’s Fin or jumping off a five-story garage on skis, is there much of a difference in terms of insanity? If anything, the leap of faith off the parking structure would be seen as the crazier stunt, at least by Johnny General Public. While Meru had the core climbing community nodding and broad audiences cheering, For Lack of Better does something similar for street skiing fans and participants. It’s easier to understand climbing mountains than hitting handrails, but Vila makes an interesting point toward the end of the film.

Getting wild in the streets. Photo: For Lack of Better
Getting wild in the streets. Photo: For Lack of Better

He compares filming a video part to building a house. No one loves banging nails, but the satisfaction is present when a carpenter stands in front of a well built, self-made home. Street-skiing video parts are the blue-collar work of the industry. No one wants to ski off the side of building or tumble down a flight of stairs. Every autumn, however, audiences enjoy the two-minutes of action on a big screen or an iPad. In other words, thanks for building a cool house, guys.

This film is not Meru. Not even close, but it makes a strong attempt at explaining what non-street skiing skiers have never known—why the hell would a skier want to do something like this?

Pick your adjective—action, extreme, adventure, outdoor—add the word “sports,” then try explaining it. It’s never been easy, because those who are the best at those activities are not often blessed with the communication skills needed to articulate what they’re feeling. Those who choose to tell the stories professionally are often not skilled enough to truly touch the sky. But, I do have a pretty good mute grab.

Vila, Jordan, and Riley have always had the skill. They are three of the best street skiers in the game. With this film, they enter the realm of properly passing down their story, a good story, and writing their own chapter in skiing’s illustrious history book. For Lack of Better is the first page. I hope to see more.