Monday, December 05, 2005

The Seattle Times: Arts -- "First Descent": Snowboarders flying high

Movie Review
"First Descent": Snowboarders flying high

By Tom Keogh

Special to The Seattle Times

It doesn't get gnarlier than this.

A dynamic sports documentary, "First Descent" is essentially a history of snowboarding with a wraparound story about several generations of star snowboarders (or "riders") coming together to take on steep peaks in Alaska.

Fans of the startlingly gorgeous and suspenseful snowboarding footage found in such Warren Miller films as "Impact" and "Journey" might find "First Descent" a little flat to look at and alternately pokey and busy in execution. Directors Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison lack the Miller team's longstanding sixth sense for finding the one, mind-blowing money shot in extreme snow-sports scenes. Instead, they cut too much footage and too many angles together, wearing a dramatic moment down rather than building it up.

But they do make "First Descent" a persuasive celebration of snowboarding, which was once reviled, inside and outside the ski industry, as an obnoxious fad. Toward that end, Curly and Harrison line up plenty of interviews with snowboarding's 1970s and early-'80s pioneers, the guys (mostly guys) and gals whose experiences in surfing and skateboarding evolved into clunky first efforts to ride on snow using too-long boards with no foot straps.

These were the athletes who were chased off slopes and took heat for promoting what some considered a vagabond sport. But things changed when ski resorts faced dwindling profits in the late '80s, and snowboarders were suddenly welcomed with open arms.

By the '90s, a new wave of riders came of age, and the era of international celebrity snowboarding began. We meet a lot of these folks, too, and it's hard not to be amazed at old footage of professional snowboarder Travis Rice and others getting a rock-star reception in Japan and elsewhere.

The film also discusses snowboarding's inclusion in Winter Olympics events beginning in 1998. Traces of marijuana use were found in the blood of that year's gold-medal winner, a quasi-scandal that still appeals to those who don't want snowboarding to completely lose its rogue beginnings.

Making the point that snowboarding has been around long enough to include creaky, middle-age masters and talented-if-not-quite-consummate young pros, "First Descent" assembles five superb riders for a series of escalating challenges on Alaska mountains.

Over 12 days, Shawn Farmer and Nick Perata, representing the old guard, ascend to dizzying heights by helicopter in the company of younger, cutting-edge superstars. Everyone's intention is to ride down staggeringly steep mountains without getting buried in sudden avalanches or crashing into rock formations.

Farmer and Perata, despite reputations for boldness, are no longer sure they're up to the challenge. Shaun White and Hannah Teter, excellent competitive snowboarders, lack experience in such conditions but are game to try.

Between both pairings, in historical terms, is a fifth member of the group, Norwegian snowboarder Terje Haakonsen, whose deep inner calm is impressive in the face of danger.

"First Descent" ends with visionary questions about snowboarding's future. One thing the film makes clear: There will be no end of new riders to chart the sport's course.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

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