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Wednesday, Jun 18 1997
The summer-movie mind-set has become as inescapable as summer. This sort of thinking demands that we go see every one of the big, dumb Hollywood blockbusters, suspending the ritual criticism to which we subject any film released in non-summer months. Actual content becomes almost superfluous, as does any sort of believability. All of a sudden we only want explosions, damn it, and lots of them. Worst of all, the summer-movie mind-set doesn't just apply to movies. All manner of questionable activities are let off the hook this, at least temporari-ly. Under summer's influence, something like ESPN's X Games Xperience tour seems far less ridiculous than it would in any other season.

The X Games Xperience -- a touring event showcasing "extreme sports" -- is meant to be a teaser for an extreme sports competition held later in the month and broadcast on ESPN. Described modestly by its press kit as "The ultimate free-stylin', gravity-defyin', in-your-face extreme touring event on the planet," the X Games Xperience is, of course, nothing of the sort. On this blazingly hot Saturday, it's just another attraction in the already overstimulated Pier 39 area. And, in fitting with the summer movie status quo, the most extreme thing about it is the amount of money and energy dispensed to make it appear exciting. The 20-foot faux-granite climbing wall, snazzy half-pipe, and elaborate bungee-jump simulator are supposed to be the main attractions here, but the X Games folks aren't shy about revealing the real reason for this two-day free show. More than half of the booths set up in the event area belong to various X Games sponsors -- Slim Jim, Pringles, Live 105, and, naturally, Mountain Dew, probably the first major product to jump on the extreme sports bandwagon -- who offer samples, sweepstakes entries, and related merchandise.

Still, as with summer box-office blockbusters, it's much easier to ignore the product placement and simply revel in the spectacle of white boys risking their necks. Surrounding the half-pipe on either side are clusters of baseball-capped people gasping as kids half their age take turns dropping in on in-line skates and BMX bikes, cruising up the sides of the structure to hang suspended in the air before dropping down again. Most impressive is the skater who manages to do all this with the waist of his jeans fastened well below his butt. But what gets the crowd most energized is the suggestion of impending disaster; the loudest oohs and aahs are reserved for when someone flubs a landing and skids down the wood on his elbow pads. It's possible that the performers sense that this is the way to keep the attention of the audience, because soon nearly every trick on the half-pipe ends in a wipeout.

In between these "extreme demos" are performances of, to again quote the X Games Xperience press kit, "Hip-movin', shower-singin', scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs jams played by bands on the cutting edge." During the early afternoon performance by an East Lansing, Mich., group called 19 Wheels, though, there's precious little moving of anything. The foursome play an entirely likable and straightforward set of countryish, Replacements-style rock, but nevertheless seem to be wasting some stadium-worthy moves on a handful of people who are either severely in need of electrolyte replenishment or just can't be bothered. Frontman Chris Johnston introduces a song called "Colorado" by announcing, "This song is about diversity." Since there's no reaction at all from the crowd, he tries again. "Diversity is good." Not even a cheer. It's another symptom of the summer-movie mind-set: Shut up and give us the explosions. That's what we're here for.

Offstage, Johnston confirms that the song is about Colorado's notorious anti-gay ordinance, Amendment 2. "It's also about questioning authority in general, but no one really seems to get that song." He pauses. "Actually, we played it recently in Colorado, and the people we were playing to didn't seem to get it either."

Similar audience lethargy is apparent around the autograph booth, where the four extreme athletes from the half-pipe sit holding pens, ready to dispense signatures for their fans. After 10 minutes and no takers, the boys shrug and vacate their post. The crowd's non-reaction to both 19 Wheels' performance and the autograph booth reflects the more general atmosphere of the X Games Xperience. The event has been promoted as "extremely interactive," but with the exception of some small children fulfilling their Spider-Man fantasies over at the climbing area, interaction appears to be fairly low on the list of what people want to get out of the day. Somehow, the extremeness of extreme sports has become the province not of the participant, but of the viewer. Blame it on summer movies, which give us maximum distraction with minimum effort. Maybe next year ESPN should replace the 20-foot climbing wall with a 20-foot video screen, and then we'll really see some excitement.

By Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler


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