Ann Arbor has always been known as a supportive environment for off-the-grid films and filmmakers. And tomorrow, as a fundraiser for the Projectorhead film series from the University’s Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, the Michigan Theater will play host to the latest entry in the ever-growing genre of ski porn.

The Way I See It

Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
Michigan Theater
$15

Wait a minute. Ski porn?

“People in the Midwest and East don’t know that term,” said SAC department chair Markus Nornes, who organized Saturday’s screening and will be handing out swag to audience members beforehand. “But in the West, where I come from, that’s what everybody calls ski documentaries.”

Nornes, an avid skier and native of Fort Collins, Colo., specializes in documentary study and bills himself as the only ski porn scholar in the world. Of course, around here, he has to make sure to clarify himself when using the term.

“Everyone has their clothes on, and in fact they have so many clothes that you usually can’t tell the girls from the boys,” Nornes said. But people in Michigan don’t understand his passion. One Detroit ski club called him to clarify there wasn’t any unseemly material in the movie before committing to attend.

Films in the ski porn genre consist almost entirely of professional athletes skiing and performing tricks in exotic locations. Its roots go as far back as the ’40s, when the genre’s godfather, Warren Miller, started filming his friends turning tricks on the slopes so he could study their technique. But he found that his videos had an eager audience when screened in ski towns, so Miller took his work on tour and began churning out ski documentaries at an incredibly prolific rate, camping out by the slopes when he wasn’t filming.

Though Miller was the original ski pornographer, and his namesake production studio is still considered a name brand for extreme ski videos, other companies have risen to prominence in the last decade. These include Matchstick Productions, based in Crested Butte, Colo., which is responsible for tomorrow’s film selection, “The Way I See It.”

So those looking for “Deep Throat” in the snow will be disappointed. But what makes the image of people sailing through the air on skis so compulsively watchable?

“If you ski, it’s transfixing, you know? You can’t take your eyes off it,” Nornes said. “And if you go to the theater, people are yelling and screaming and shouting out. If someone crashes, you hear everybody going ‘Aah!’ ”

In Nornes’s research, he’s found that certain pathways in the brain — called “mirror neurons” — light up when the subject performs certain activities, acting as pleasure centers. And for someone who finds, say, the act of skiing pleasurable, even watching other people ski will activate those same centers.

“Just watching someone gracefully go down the mountain is bliss,” Nornes said.

Outfits like Matchstick Productions have the added benefit of showing ski action from all over the world, including the most treacherous terrain from Japan, Switzerland, British Columbia, Alaska and the American West. So it’s a vicarious experience for those skiers who will never have the chance to hit those faraway slopes themselves. And the advent of YouTube, with its multitudes of amateur ski pornographers, has only increased interest in the professionally made selections.

During the year, Projectorhead screens a wide variety of films — everything from the “Lord of the Rings” movies to “West of the Tracks,” a nine-hour documentary about Chinese industrial workers. So a ski porn selection actually fits right into the organization’s mold. And there’s enough of a fanbase for the genre in Ann Arbor to warrant the screening — it’s a common stop on the world tours of Warren Miller films.

Though Nornes could go on dissecting the development of genre aesthetics over ski porn’s history — including the mixtures of film and hi-def video and Matchstick’s innovative use of helicopters — on Saturday, he’ll be content simply to kick back and watch other people ski.

“I’m getting excited just talking about it,” he said.

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