WATCH: Shawn Cypher’s ‘Trees’ is a contemporary masterpiece
VAIL — A magnum opus of amateur video, Shawn Cypher’s “Trees” will have you mesmerized from the first frame.
That first frame is a toast to Britton Green, a Vail native who grew up with the sport of snowboarding and was killed in a car crash in 2017. The toast occurs on a table made of skateboard decks.
Within the first 30 seconds, we see an original model GoPro camera and hear a statement of prose from Cypher about the trees we’re about to see him ride. Many of these trees are between life and death, and it becomes evident immediately in “Trees” that the local practice known as logsliding has given Cypher a deeper appreciation for, in his words, “the whole circle of nature, and how it happens out here in the woods.”
We then see an absolute battle go down, where Cypher executes an incredible array of slides across “nature’s fallen giants,” as they’re described in the film. The trees Cypher slides are the types of hazards expert skiers see and avoid altogether. You’ll see the typical mess of precariously balanced lodgepole carcasses, common across the White River National Forest, where bark beetles have ravaged evergreens and continue to kill trees across the region. And then you’ll see Cypher slide right over the mess, transferring his board from one dead tree to the next with ease.
You’ll also see a number of trees bending into a natural arc as they face certain death with no deep freeze in sight to stop the bark beetles’ attack, a sad and sadly common sight in the White River National Forest. As he reaches a weightless apex atop its arc, Cypher seems to absorb a drop of the tree’s remaining life to find a moment of beauty amid the tragedy of another dying evergreen.
Mourning and memorializing
Seeing firsthand the existential crisis our forest faces, processing the hopelessness and helplessness one feels when surrounded by so many dead and dying trees, a day of logsliding becomes a memorial of sorts: a celebration of what that tree once was and where it is now.
And if there’s a person who knows the importance of mourning on the road to acceptance, it’s Cypher. Over a five-month period in 2011, Cypher snowboarded 7 million feet in honor of his friend Jaz McGrath, who was killed in an avalanche in 2010. He had to adopt a disciplined schedule to do so, but he still found time to slide logs that season and every one since then. Cypher underwent a similar mourning period for Green in creating “Trees.”
While the bark beetle has helped spawn a local generation of logsliding snowboarders — Green was a log master himself — many learn on something more like the wooden version of a handrail with supports. All the logs Cypher takes on in “Trees” are 100 percent natural: There’s not a support to be seen in the film.
“Trees” also marks a comeback for local media worker Bob Aubrey, who made popular videos in the Vail area during the first decade of the century. Aubrey edited the film, and his band Lindsey Von Frankenstein made the music. The flute work by Audrey Ste-Marie gives it a sound that’s like something out of the RZA-produced “Kill Bill” soundtrack.
In creating “Trees,” Cypher was fortunate to have Aubrey’s help because – while he is a man of many talents – video is not among Cypher’s specialties. But today, skills in operating a camera need not matter quite as much as the talent the camera can capture, as evidenced in “Trees.” Sure, a production purist might long to see a tip-top quality version of something similar, and indeed there is a place for that, but those types will also acknowledge the painstakingly tedious endeavor a few seasons in the woods with a maniac like Shawn Cypher would involve. The robotically repetitive approach one needs to take to capture a single shot tantamount to the dozens we see in “Trees” is enough to make any videographer/editor throw in the towel.
Indeed, today, with a living room band and a phone that shoots video, the amount of originality and creativity that can be packed into a production is hard to imagine for someone who has lived through an entirely different era of media, as has Aubrey, 44. But in creating “Trees,” Cypher, Aubrey and Lindsey Von Frankenstein created something that’s indeed unimaginable in another era.
The film is contemporary in its subject matter through the dead trees on display and the art of logsliding being something inconceivable before the invention of the snowboard, but it’s also contemporary in its approach, with a GoPro planted by Cypher able to capture action a videographer may not have the time or patience for. Finally, the living-room-band live recording of the soundtrack, with the track available for free on SoundCloud, serves as the cherry on top of what just might be the most contemporary video production of the decade in Vail.
And just in time, too.
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