First Descent

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/02/05 15:42:09

"Wait a minute-people still say 'gnarly'?"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Since I know nothing about the world of snowboarding, I went into the new documentary “First Descent” hoping to glean some understanding as to what would drive people to participate in what seems on the surface to be such an incredibly risky and dangerous activity. Two hours later, I walked out having learned absolutely nothing about the subject except for the fact that none of its participants–at least none of the ones captured here by filmmakers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison–are in the least bit articulate about the sport, themselves or much of anything else for that matter more profound than “Dude-that’s gnarly!”

The central conceit of the film is to gather five top snowboarders from different generations of the sport–Shawn Farmer. Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter and Shaun White–and send them off to Valdez, Alaska for a couple of weeks to ride the local mountain peaks using their varying methods. While some of the resulting footage is admittedly thrilling and impressive–one sequence shows a rider winding his way through the snow as what appears to be a mini-avalanche threatens to overwhelm him and the climax depicts Haakonsen hurtling his way down from a peak over 7100 feet in the air–their techniques pretty much all look the same here. In between, we are treated to interviews and back-home footage of the quintet that reveal them to be painfully inarticulate people who are unable to describe their favorite pastime in a way that might convince those who aren’t already hard-core fans to give it any consideration. Instead, they merely repeat empty platitudes about the sport representing “freedom” and “self-expression” and the filmmakers are apparently so enraptured with their prattling that they never prod their subjects further.

Speaking of empty platitudes, the most annoying aspect of “First Descent” comes from the occasional digressions by the filmmakers to explain the history and development of snowboarding. Using the kind of hyperbole usually only scene in the biographical films shown by presidential candidates before they accept their nominations, Curly and Harrison go to ridiculous lengths to attempt to convince viewers that snowboarding is not just a legitimate sport (to which I have no argument) but one of the most important social and cultural developments in the history of man. The “humble” beginnings are described in terms usually reserved for the civil rights movement and every subsequent development is something that “forever changed” the sport. Every once in a while, an interesting topic is stumbled upon–mainly the initial resistance to the sport by the skiing industry until they realized how much money they could make from it–but they are too often given short shrift for more footage of snowboarders blathering on about how true and real and authentic the sport is in comparison to . . . well, in comparison to everything.

At one point, a snowboarder pontificates, “Am I selling out the soul of snowboarding?”–presumably to The Man, I suppose. This is the kind of sentiment that I might be able to swallow a little easier is it didn’t appear in a film that, is narrated by Henry Rollins (the former punk star who still tries to pass himself off as a rebel despite appearing in Charlie Sheen films and Gap ads) and contains so many product plugs in the background that when the film goes into slow-motion during some competition footage, I thought it was done just to make sure that we were able to get a good look at the signs advertising Taco Bell and Mountain Dew. In fact, “First Descent” reminds me a lot of a can of Mountain Dew. Sure, it has a flashy surface and it is constantly reminding everyone of just how hip and edgy it is–once you actually get into it, however, it quickly loses its fizz and goes flat long before the end credits roll.

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