Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
"First Descent" is boring, repetitive and maddening about a subject you'd think would be fairly interesting: snowboarding down a mountain. And not just any mountain. This isn't about snowboarders at Aspen or Park City. It's about experts who are helicoptered to the tops of virgin peaks in Alaska, and snowboard down what look like almost vertical slopes.
I know nothing about snowboarding. A question occurs to me. If it occurs to me, it will occur to other viewers. The question is this: How do the snowboarders know where they are going? In shot after shot, they hurtle off snow ledges into thin air, and then land dozens or hundreds or feet lower on another slope. Here's my question: As they approach the edge of the ledge, how can they know for sure what awaits them over the edge? Wouldn't they eventually be surprised, not to say dismayed, to learn that they were about to drop half a mile? Or land on rocks? Or fall into a chasm? Shouldn't the mountains of Alaska be littered with the broken bodies of extreme snowboarders?
I search the Internet and find that indeed snowboarders die not infrequently. "All I heard was Gore-Tex on ice," one survivor recalls after two of his companions disappeared. The movie vaguely talks about scouting a mountain from the air and picking out likely descent paths, but does the mountain look the same when you're descending it at 45 degrees and high speed? Can rocks be hidden just beneath the surface? Can crevices be hidden from the eye?
The film features five famous names in the sport: veterans Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen and Nick Perata, and teenage superstars Hannah Teter and Shaun White. For at least 20 minutes at the top of the movie, they talk and talk about the "old days," the "new techniques," the "gradual acceptance" of snowboarding, the way ski resorts first banned snowboarders but now welcome them. "As the decade progressed, so did snowboarding," we learn at one point, leading me to reflect that as the decade progressed, so did time itself.