Wednesday, December 7, 2005

First Descent

Posted By on Wed, Dec 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Snowboarding is what a bunch of zit-faced, overprivileged kids with endless supplies of really good weed do when they want to kill time in the winter. But according to the new documentary First Descent, it’s the ultimate anti-authoritarian rush, a life-changing mission to “battle the establishment and overcome prejudice,” as narrator Henry Rollins says. In other words, look out, Rosa Parks: Your legacy is being threatened by a bunch of stoner white boys in need of Ritalin refills.

If you can get past the ridiculously inflated sense of self-importance, First Descent features some awe-inspiring, widescreen action shots and a cool score by former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. Unfortunately, that’s just one-third of the movie. The rest concentrates on the history of the sport and the backgrounds of five famous boarders invited by the filmmakers to conquer a challenging mountain range in Alaska. It all makes for a pretty decent extreme sports video, but a piss-poor documentary.

The film begins in the far reaches of the 49th state, Alaska, where elder statesman Nick Perata coordinates a sort of all-star snowboarding summit. The goal: a two-week helicopter tour of some of the craggiest, “gnarliest” snow-covered peaks in the world. Joining him are several generations of hotshot boarders, including teen icons Shaun White and Hannah Teter, the slick, taciturn Norwegian Terje Haakonsen and goofy, aging jackass Shawn Farmer. Between the scenes of them traversing death-defying ridges and cliffs, we learn about how each one got into snowboarding, as Rollins’ hilariously overemphatic voice cuts in to explain the sport’s humble beginnings.

Considering its cast of “characters” and its wealth of grainy footage, it’s clear the movie would like to be the snowboarding equivalent of Stacey Peralta’s influential 2001 skateboarding doc Dogtown and Z-Boys. But the history of snowboarding isn’t nearly as fascinating, at least not as it’s presented here. Dogtown made the convincing argument that skateboarding came out of an underclass, wrong-side-of-the-tracks culture in Santa Monica; in First Descent, the only real challenge snowboarders face is from snobby downhill skiers who won’t let them on their precious slopes. It doesn’t help that these guys — and the occasional girl — never seem to take off their goddamned wraparound sunglasses and goofy winter caps, even when they’re being interviewed.

The most fascinating part of the film focuses on the business and marketing aspect of the sport, and in particular its immense popularity in Japan, where tens of thousands of fans treat these kids as gods. But there’s little insight into how the boarders feel about this, or how someone like White manages to stay so humble even as he’s signing multimillion-dollar endorsements. The movie is most emotionally inadequate in the big finale, a visually stunning sequence when Haakonsen decides to tackle a rocky mountain slope that’s almost a 90-degree drop-off. Even though every other boarder talks about how scared the Norwegian is to face up to the challenge, Haakonsen looks and acts about as nervous as a man running to the corner store for a six-pack.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].


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