First Descent
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First Descent

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There is something special about snow to a kid. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, New York my street was designated a play street which meant they blocked it from traffic. It also meant the city would dump snow there after a blizzard. We had a pile of snow sometimes two stories high to borrow through and slide down. For some people this childhood thrill never ends with the chronological on set of adult hood. If they have the talent, inclination and means they enter the strange world of the extreme snow boarder. A rational human being sees this sport as some crazy kid straps a board to his feet, jumps off a snow laden mountain, twist and turn in the air and hit the ground at break neck speeds. To those in the sport their description would be flying, freedom and the best rush ever. The documentary ‘First Descent’ is about those people that take on the most extreme form of snow boarding which in this particular case means taking on the treacherous Chugach Mountains near Valdez, Alaska. Maybe the names of those at the top of this sport are unknown to the general public but for those that follow the activity they are legends. Included in this documentary are such snow boarding greats as include 40-year-old Shawn Farmer, 30-year-old Norwegian legend Terje Haakonsen and 18-year-old Shaun White and Hannah Teter. This was an unexpected range in age for me, I did come into this film thinking it would be only the under twenty five set. Say what you want about these individuals but they are athletes in every sense of the word. What they are able to put their bodies through is nothing short of amazing.

Shawn Farmer is considered one of the pioneers of the sport. He was pushing things way back in the nineteen nineties, wow, was it really that long ago? I have ties older than this sport! Considering he has the habit of spitting out his chewing tobacco on camera he is hardly the ideal roll model for teens. One the plus side he still has what it takes to go up against people half his age in one of the most physically and mentally challenging sports around. While this is considered by most a predominately American activity the inclusion of Norweigian shows that this is something enjoyed around the world. Some footage of fans attending meets in other countries reinforces this nicely. In Japan, for example, the top competitors are given the notoriety usually reserved for rock stars. Youngsters Hannah Teter and Shaun White demonstrate an almost childlike glee when the weather clears up enough for them to hit these pristine slopes. It is easy to tell that for those that can do this it is an addictive sport. To the people involved they are easily bored. They don’t want to go down slopes that bear the imprints of hundreds of other boards. They want to literally ‘go where no man has gone before.’

Some of the history of the sport is included between the shots of men careening down mountains. In the eighties many ski resorts where facing a decline in attendance and the associated loss of profits. They began to open their resorts to the new breed of snow lovers, the snow boarders. In the early nineties the sport started to really take off. Extreme sports were the big thing and this was one of the most extreme. By 1998 it was included in the winter Olympics. This also brought the first front page scandal. The very first gold medal winner, Canadian Ross Rebagliati, tested positive for marijuana. Now I can understand banning this substance for legal reasons but if could hardly be considered a performance enhancing substance. Rebagliati lost his medal and appealed the decision stating that he was the victim of passive exposure and finally regained his status and award.

The documentary does show that amidst all the fun and thrills there is danger. Farmer winds up falling and breaking an arm. Teter has a spectacular crash and fortunately comes out okay. One of the most dramatic moments comes when a hard landing by White’s pal Travis Rice causes an ice pack to crack resulting in an avalanche that almost buries Rice.

The film works well as an extended action shot but it doesn’t really go deep enough into the sport itself. There are a few cursory interviews and as mentioned previously some notes on the origins but little about the inner workings of why these people do this dangerous sport. I’m sure that those that are into the sport will be able to discern the finer points of each run but for the uninitiated most of the movements seem to be the same shot over and over. A little more explanation of the how’s and why’s would have helped a great deal. I can appreciate a new sport a lot more if a great degree of understanding is provided. I have been known to actually watch curling since I looked up the rules. There is also something very anachronistic about people expounding about their individualistic nature while wearing the logos of their corporate sponsors. Most notable is the constantly visible ‘Mountain Dew’ logo but then they did help produce the film.

This is the first big project for directors Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison. They have worked before on MTV Prom Date and the Tony Hawk project Reunion X. As newcomers they exhibit a lot of potential and I do look forward to up coming projects. They still have to learn a bit about pacing the film. There are just too many similar shots juxtaposed. On the positive side the cinematography is absolutely stunning. They pay excellent attention to the beautiful scenery that abounds in Alaska. The shots from the helicopters are excellent, capturing the speed and thrills perfectly. He could have used a little extra time in the editing room. At almost two hours it is a little too long.

Universal has done an excellent job transferring this film to DVD. The video is flawless. It is presented in a near reference quality 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The colors are brilliant and pop out at you. There are no compression artifacts present at all. The Dolby 5.1 audio is also top notch. The soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame pounds through the speakers and shakes the room. There are also some interesting extras, especially if you are a snow boarding fanatic. The bloopers contained in the featurette ‘AK And Beyond’ are funny and the rest of that piece is good showing what it took to even get to the mountains. In ‘Big-Mountain Riding’ Nick Perata explains some of the many challenges to taking on mountains that have never hosted any boarder. There are also some addition action scenes and a few out takes to round things off. As the 2006 Winter Olympics wind down this is great for those out there just not ready to let go of action in the snow.

Posted 2/23/06

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