“First Descent” bills itself as “the story of the snowboarding revolution,” which is a bit misleading. While it’s hard to deny the sport’s explosion in popularity over the last couple decades, the only revolution on hand has been the takeover of America’s expensive ski resort properties by individuals who, while younger than their stodgy skiing counterparts, are only slightly less wealthy. It makes for good ad copy, but little else.
Originating in or around the 1970s (though some sources allege it goes back almost 100 years), snowboarding started out – like surfing and skateboarding before it – as a relatively marginal activity, relegated to the handful of places that allowed the ungainly contraptions and their obnoxious riders access to the slopes. Loose-knit organizations of boarders rose up independently on the East Coast, in Europe, and in the Rocky Mountain states until a handful of national gatherings in the 1980s and the development and distribution of homemade snowboarding videos led to a rapid rise in popularity. By the mid-1990s, snowboarding had become an Olympic sport, and the X-Games, which snowboarding was instrumental in helping get off the ground, are one of ESPN’s most popular televised events.
Filmmakers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison spend less time discussing the history of their sport, however, and more with the five boarders they’ve assembled to take on Alaska’s back country in the film. The five are Shawn Farmer – former wild man of the sport; Nick Perata – friend of Farmer’s and Alaskan snowboarding guide; Terje Håkonsen – 3-time world champion from Norway; Shaun White – multiple X-Games gold medal winner; and Hannah Teter – 17 year-old member of the US Snowboarding Team. The majority of the film involves Perata, Farmer, and Håkonsen showing the younger riders (White is 18) the ins and outs of mountain boarding, an activity neither of the two teens have ever attempted. Each rider is also given their own segment, providing some background and “human interest.”
Much of “First Descent” involves watching the riders tackle various mountains. Their skills are undeniable, and while it’s interesting, for a while, to see how halfpipe experts White and Teter handle the slopes, it would’ve been nice to get a little more back-story via footage and interviews with the founders of the sport. This was a big part of the appeal of Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, two docs that share a kinship with “Descent.” The filmmakers are obviously enamored with the five riders, but a little of their back-slapping goes a long way.
Some of the footage is exceptional, yet several of the more impressive stunts are shot from so far away on digital cameras that the resulting onscreen resolution is just a shade above god-awful. The film works better when cameramen or helicopters accompany the boarders, allowing us a closer look. This is especially the case during a great shot of Travis Rice escaping an avalanche.
Unfortunately, Curly and Harrison too often lapse into the same kind of quick-cut editing that makes MTV and the X-Games themselves so annoying to watch. They lay back somewhat when the five are on the mountains, but still insist on drowning each of these in the requisite “alternative” rock soundtrack. Thanks, but I don’t need Dave Grohl’s screaming to convince me Håkonsen’s 60 degree plunge down a 7,000 foot peak is super awesome. Sometimes the visuals are better left speaking for themselves.
With the exception of Farmer, who at 40 is the only one who seems concerned with his own mortality, none of the featured snowboarders has the personality to keep us interested during the umpteenth description of what it feels like to “throw down a line.” White and Teter are personable without having much to say, Perata is a bit too eager to please, and Håkonsen strikes you as The Guy Most Likely to Eat the Others if they ever got stranded. The snowboarding itself is top notch, and the scenery is fantastic (as a documentary, “First Descent” is one hell of a commercial for the Alaska Tourist Board), but a little more history and a little less self-congratulatory wankitude would’ve made for a more enjoyable experience.
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