HBO’s “Dear Rider” Documentary Is More Than Jake Burton Carpenter’s Story | Cinema | Seven days


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  • Courtesy of Burton Snowboards
  • Jake Burton Charpentier

Jake Burton Carpenter originally wanted to be a surfer. Growing up by the ocean in Long Island, NY, he hoped his parents would one day surprise him with a surfboard.

Unfortunately for young Jake, that day never came. Fortunately for the rest of the world, that parental snub would prove to be one of the most important decisions in winter sports history.

Instead of a surfboard, Carpenter finally put his hands – uh, his feet – on a Snurf, one of the first predecessors of snowboarding. It was basically a wooden board with a string attached, but it allowed Carpenter to combine his interest in surfing with the experience he had gained skiing with his family in Vermont. In the decades that followed, his passion for this backyard toy snowballed into a global business that helped make snowboarding a popular Olympic sport.

Carpenter’s evolution from a snow surfer in his backyard to the father of modern snowboarding is wonderfully captured in Dear rider, a new documentary from HBO Sports and Red Bull Media House. The film was already in the works before Carpenter’s death from cancer in November 2019. Because Burton snowboards was the first successful snowboard company, Dear rider serves not only as a portrait of an individual, but also as a seemingly complete history of a sport.

Directed by Fernando Villena, the film combines archival footage, intimate personal films and recent interviews with snowboarding legends such as Shaun White and Kelly Clark to tell a story that is at times humorous, brutally honest and deeply moving.

At the start of the documentary, Carpenter admits that he started Burton with the goal of building a better Snurfer, something he saw as a get-rich-quick scheme. “I thought to myself that if I could make 50 boards a day, I could make 100,000 a year,” he recalls in the film.

After moving from New York to Vermont in the late 1970s, Carpenter launched Burton Snowboards and quickly hit their production target of 50 boards per day. Selling the boards, however, would prove to be a whole other challenge.

Carpenter was forced to become a door-to-door salesperson, going to retailers to demonstrate his snowboards in the hopes of a sale. In a funny anecdote, he remembers leaving home with 38 snowboards and coming back with 40 because a retailer decided to return the boards he had already purchased.

These earlier failures did little to deter Carpenter. At this point, he was no longer motivated by potential profit but by an intense desire to prove his skeptics wrong.

“He’s ‘Mr. laid back’ and cool, but underneath he’s motivated,” his wife, Donna Carpenter, says in the film.

Jake worked hard not only to persuade people to buy his snowboards, but also to persuade resort owners to leave snowboards on the mountain. He became a snowboard evangelist, spreading his love of the sport to whoever wanted to hear it.

In Burton’s annual catalogs, which at the time were the closest thing to a snowboard magazine, Carpenter wrote passionate introductions that always began with the greeting “Dear Rider”. Amusingly, actor Woody Harrelson reads some of these missives throughout the film.

Those early days of snowboarding bore little resemblance to the gravity-defying maneuvers commonly associated with today’s sport. The film includes footage from the first competitions in which runners wearing speed suits and basketball shoes hurtled down the mountain at terrifying speeds. “It didn’t matter if you won; you were just happy to survive,” Carpenter is heard to say.

As Carpenter viewed “ski” racing as the future of the sport, “freestyle” snowboarding involving aerial stunts was beginning to emerge on the West Coast. His rise sparked a bitter rivalry between Carpenter and Tom Sims, the founder of California snowboard company Sims. This chapter of the film reveals the astute business side of an otherwise perpetually cold carpenter, as well as some of his early missteps.

It wasn’t until Craig Kelly, widely regarded as snowboarding’s first superstar, left Sims to ride for Burton that Carpenter began developing boards suitable for this new style of snowboarding. They have helped propel Burton Snowboards – and the sport in general – to previously unimaginable levels of popularity.

Dear rider features an appearance by Michael Jager, creative director of now-defunct JDK Design in Burlington, who designed many of Burton’s iconic – and sometimes controversial – boards and advertisements during the ’90s snowboarding boom. Jager is credited with as the creative director of the film.

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  • Courtesy of Burton Snowboards
  • Jake Burton Charpentier

The final third of the film, devoted almost entirely to Carpenter’s various health issues, takes on a darker tone. It covers Carpenter’s first brush with testicular cancer in 2011, as well as his battle with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare nerve condition he developed a few years later. While battling this disease, Carpenter was on a ventilator and almost completely paralyzed, unable to see or speak.

All Carpenter could do during this time was jot down barely legible notes to visiting friends and family. As her condition slowly improved, the notes began to reflect her sardonic wit. When a friend came up with a Burton shirt, Carpenter wrote a note that said, “I didn’t know we made shirts that big.”

Seeing Carpenter make a full recovery after being almost completely paralyzed is one of the film’s most inspiring moments. A few months after leaving the hospital, he went snowboarding, surfing and even partying at Burning Man again.

In the short time between her recovery and her cancer recurrence in 2019, Carpenter has lived an already hectic life to the fullest. He passed away on November 20, 2019, at the age of 65.

“We worked very consciously not to make it too sad, because Jake was not a sad guy,” Donna Carpenter recently told The Associated Press.

The film’s final moments are always unmistakably sad, especially considering the impact of Jake’s untimely death on the athletes he inspired. But it’s hard not to leave the film feeling inspired.

In 90 minutes, Dear rider depicts a man who followed his passion for untold fortune and success, only to realize that none of it mattered as much as his friends, family and fellow travelers.

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