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Ole Martin Hafsmo
Ida Elise Broch,
Espen Klouman Høiner,
"First Descent" technically impressive, lacks direction
Earlier this year, "Lords of Dogtown" brought us the story of the skateboarding revolution in 1970's California. Seemingly right on cue, "First Descent" now imparts upon us the birth of the snowboard craze in documentary form, weaving together a narrative of the sport's brief history and the Alaskan backcountry adventures of five of the snowboarding's biggest and brightest. Co-directors Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison piece together a finely-crafted exposition of snowboarding that is both informative and technically marvelous, and satisfies despite a strangely glory-centered message.
The cast of real-life snowboarders creates a range of viewpoints that keep things interesting, consisting of Terje Haakonsen (the snowboarding god), Nick Peralta (the pioneer), Shawn Farmer (the 40-year-old hillbilly), Shaun White (the X-Games golden boy) and Hannah Teter (the girl). The film centers around the gang's trip to the uncharted peaks of Alaska, where they shred the sickest lines down the deadly slopes of previously-untouched mountain ranges. The setting itself rightfully takes center stage throughout the action sequences: frequent fly-bys of the snowcapped peaks against the crystal sky are breathtaking all by themselves. As the snowboarders cut through the powder, the camera captures each upswept flake from angles that intensify the majesty of each mountain, which makes pretty apparent the skill needed to survive the descent. The sound direction adds to the drama, drowning out all ambient noise and leaving only hiss of the boards on the snow. The film's most technically impressive moment is when one of the boarders touches off an avalanche - the gruesome crack of the collapsing snowdrift followed by the disintegration of an entire mountainside (in slow motion, of course) is nothing but amazing.
Intertwined with the expedition is a telling of the history of snowboarding and brief bios of the five main players. Through grainy 80's footage, the film shows snowboarding's roots as an anti-authority movement, combining elements of skateboarding and surfing to form a sport that got the kids interested in hitting the slopes again. The film does a good job of tracing snowboarding through the years by means of various segments throughout the film, showing how it grew from the invention of a bunch of damn punk kids to a billion-dollar industry and an Olympic event. But, you can't help but snicker when the overly intense, deep-voiced narrator describes snowboarding as a noble movement that "fought to keep its soul" and boldly struggled for validation during its conception in the 80's. Also, aside from Shaun and Hannah learning how to dig people out of avalanches before their first Alaskan run, the film pretty much ignores the fact that snowboarding can, you know, kill you. And while we're being negative, we can talk about how the whole movie seems to be a huge action-sports commercial for Mountain Dew and Oakley eyewear. But I guess someone has to pay the bills, right?
The cast bios are a mixed blessing. While they present the development of snowboarding from a personal standpoint, they make the industry out to be some fantasy world where a bunch of independent souls live by their own rules (richly, I might add). Farmer, the 40-year-old surfer dude, enjoys skeet shooting in his backyard with his father and shopping at his favorite store ("Guns, Liquor and Ammo") when he isn't getting paid to careen down the side of a mountain. The life of the 18-year-old snowboarding superstar Shaun White is strenuous, only allowing him a week off between signing autographs in L.A. and being the grand marshal at a NASCAR race in Darlington. Apparently, the documentary would have you think that the easiest thing in the world to do is become a pro snowboarder, completely bypassing any kind of training or personal injury the main subjects had to endure. Oh, and the word "gnarly" is used nine times. Take that as you will.
But, despite the thematic concerns, the documentary is wholly entertaining. Even though the "do what you want" attitude toward life may be taken slightly overboard, it provides a generally effective context for the whole film. The spirit of the snowboarding culture is convincingly portrayed in a form that is, in a word, beautiful if you're a winter sports enthusiast, pray that this one comes out in IMAX. "First Descent" is a good diversion from exam week that will get you in the mood for semester break - and if the whole "school" thing ends up not working out for you, all you have to do is strap on a board and win some X-Game gold. At least that's how this film makes it out to be.
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