First Descent (review)

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Endless Winter

Did you know there was a snowboarding revolution? Could you kick yourself for missing it? Well, don’t you fret: the story of the snowboarding revolution is right here. “The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution,” First Descent is subtitled, and they wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

Actually, I think they might. I have a sneaking suspicion that First Descent is a huge put-on, the latest jape from Christopher Guest and his merry band of mockumentary tricksters. Oh, sure, “Kemp Curley and Kevin Harrison” are credited as the producers and directors, but come on: everyone knows that Kemp Curley was the missing Stooge. It’s a joke.
I mean, how else to explain the film’s hilarious combination of self-congratulatory hyperbole and the banalest kind of banality? We are granted, through this advertisement for ESPN’s X Games disguised as a documentary, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow five of the best pro snowboarders in the world (damn, there’s money to made at this?) as they seek out virgin mountains in Alaska to run. But this is no ordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — this is “historical,” as “all these generations of snowboarders” come together for this death-defying adventure. Seriously: there are guys here from the early glory days of the sport, way back in 1990, like 40-year-old snowboard “pioneer” Shawn Farmer, who with his orange camou ballcap and propensity for spitting tobacco juice on camera would have to be played by Guest himself; and 30-year-old Terje Haakonsen, who is of course Norweigian and is at the very moment sending Guest into paroxyms of laughter — of course there’s a Norweigian guy!

I think by the time the film gets around to its “wackily obsessive Japanese fans” segment, Guest might be saying: You know, we can’t run with this — it’s just too clichéd. But he’d probably have a grand time faking the footage of the faraway days of 1995, with all those crazy rebellious snowboarders getting dissed by skiiers at the resorts and banned from the lifts. My gosh, it’s been a long ten years from those indignities to the honor and grandeur that is snowboarding today, a sport in which megacorporations have glommed onto its rebellious crazy spirit in order to sell overcaffeinated sugar water and plastic fast food to teenagers.

They’re whom First Descent is aimed at: teenagers for whom 1995 really is the distant past, young unformed minds that might be impressed by the gravitas with which the film treats the history of the snowboard, as if it took the genius of an Einstein to make the huge conceptual leap from a board that travels on water to a board that travels on snow and (here’s the genius bit) that you ride like the board with wheels that travels on pavement. Brilliant! Kids are also the only ones likely to be impressed by the adolescent philosophizing of the adolescent snowboarders, and I’m not just talking about 18-year-old Hannah Teter or 18-year-old Shaun White, who are “so happy” when the Alaskan weather clears enough for them to go boarding, and who know that “it’s a different mindset out there.” But that’s okay, because, as Hannah says, “I wanna progress, you know,” and you can’t progress if you’re dealing with the same old mindset all the time.

Look, I admit, I’m an old fogey: I don’t get how anyone can pat themselves on the back for being defiant and anarchistic while they take their millions from Mountain Dew and Taco Bell — yeah, you’re reaaaal counterculture. Saying “rad” and “gnarly” kinda doesn’t do it. Is it appropriately teenage-insane to ride a snowboard down a 60-degree incline on an Alaskan mountain that could avalanche out from under you at any moment? Absolutely. But after two hours of being snowblinded by the same old tricks, I feel like these kids’ mother, who’s damn tired of hearing, “Mom, watch me do this!” for the hundredth time.

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