Review: Dogtown and the Z-Boys (from 2001)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2001.]

12 skateboarding kids, many from broken homes, rising from the “last great seaside slum”, Dogtown, CA, develop a radical new low-rider style, based on moves cut by their surfer heroes. Taking advantage of California’s worst drought in years to refine their techniques, they take the world championships by storm, shake up the staid, moribund world of skateboarding, become teenaged stars, earn riches, go off the rails, and create the modern vert and street styles into the bargain.

Shot through with a skate-punk aesthetic, laced with a laconic (at times, catatonic) voiceover from Sean Penn, Dogtown and the Z-Boys is, at first glance, a provocative flag-planting in the history of skateboarding. With the tagline ‘A Film About The Birth Of The Now’, the filmmakers make no bones about where they feel their subjects fit in to modern street culture. The Z-Boys, named for the Zephyr surfboard shop where they used to hang out, are central, they say, to the history of skateboarding, and to the creation of a skateboarder aesthetic, lifestyle and multi-million dollar industry that now has its own ESPN channel. But director Stacy Peralta, who won the Sundance award for Best Documentary Direction, himself a member of the original Z-Boys, takes the unusual step of appearing in the film himself, as an interviewee, and that’s where the argument begins to fray.

As the film-makers have drummed out in interviews, the documentary was conceived in haste to head off the major Hollywood studios – notably Fox 2000, who had bought the rights to a SPIN Magazine article about the Dogtown phenomenon, ‘In Search of Skateboarding’s Founding Fathers’. Peralta and his long-time friend, photographer Craig Stecyk hammered out a treatment for a documentary. Being media professionals – both producers of skate and surf films, including the Bones Brigade videos, and Peralta a veteran of cutting TV retrospectives – Stecyk and Peralta were wary of studio distortion and simplification. Peralta tries to avoid the language of traditional histori-docs, angling from the perspective of the kids involved. Using a mixture of talking-heads and contemporary Super-8 footage (the owners of which Peralta had tracked down by private investigators), intercut with maps, contact-sheets, press cuttings, Peralta surprisingly manages to keep the overall feel pretty free of plodding, but what it feels like most, hardly a surprise given his background, is a dewy-eyed TV history: more Wonder Years than Hoop Dreams (1994).

The Dogtown kids tired of gently-banked asphalt, and sought increasingly vertical spaces to ride in. Mentored by the owners of the Zephyr board shop, Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom, the 11 boys and 1 girl turned to draining swimming pools and riding in them, developing a taste for the better brands – Anthony, Blue Haven, Amazon – until a Californian drought presented them with hundreds of ready-drained arenas. Their luck increased when a terminally-ill child with a passion for skateboarding asked his wealthy father to drain their pool so his friends could skate in it.

It was during this time – when the Z-Boys attitude to failure was ‘Go call mommy!’ – that Craig Stecyk began documenting and packaging the Dogtown aesthetic. Son of one of the Hiroshima filmmakers, and a successful skate video producer in his own right, Stecyk pushed the Dogtown ethic and aesthetic through features in the resurrected SkateBoarder magazine. Henry Rollins and other third-party interviewees are brought in to testify to the beacon Dogtown lit through the magazine.

Developing a style, or a corporate identity – blue shirts and Vans sneakers (which perhaps goes part of the way to explain why Vans stumped up the entire budget for the film) – and an attitude of what Tony Alva, the ‘Mohammad Ali of skateboarding’, described as ‘imagining yourself doing something as you’re doing it’, the team went to the 1975 Del Mar Nationals – the national freestyle skateboarding championships (described by one interviewee as “a hockey team going to a figure-skating championship”) – and caused a sensation. Confronted with an aggressive, sweeping, lowriding style – style being the key -, sponsors knew where the future lay. Some Zephyr riders were poached to ride for other teams, Peralta himself becoming the first skateboarder to be paid by a shoe company, and the sport’s image began to modernise.

Peralta went on to an arbitrary cameo in the 1970s TV series Charlie’s Angels, sponsorships, and eventually a career as a producer. Tony Alva still skates to this day. Jeff Ho is still shaping boards. Others are unrecognisable juxtaposed with their younger selves – middle-aged businessmen, where once they were low-slung arrogant outsiders.

And then there is Jay Adams. One of his former cohorts hallelujahs ‘When God invented skateboarding, he said “Let there be Jay Adams”.’ Adams is the fault line of the film. Ravaged by drugs, freshly scarred, he is interviewed in prison. Hailed by the others as the most natural Z-Boy talent, as a child he cuts a SoCal dream, sweeping by, blond hair flying, executing carves and cutbacks better than anyone. As an adult, he’s given little time to heavy the tone. Peralta and Stecyk have tried to make a film about how counter-cultures happen, how an entire culture can change, how a sub-culture or a street culture can move from marginality and derision to appropriation and acceptance, to being a career. What they have made instead is a film brimming with gushing of how great their childhood friends were. Despite attempts to bring in outside voices – Rollins, Penn, Ian McKaye of Fugazi – to give the impression of balance, Peralta remains much too bound up with his subject – autobiography, not biography – and seems reverential, earnest, mythologising. Trying to pass off his crew as the Hellfire Club hamstrings the film fatally.

None of the wider issues get an airing – teen sponsorship is seen as an unqualified success, with no possibility that the sponsors may have exploited their charges; the tribalistic brutality of the Dogtown surfers and skaters is given a hometown gloss; with the skating-over of Adams’ story, the last scrap of personal drama in the film is lost; and the wider sense of cultural analysis, which is certainly present in some of Peralta’s interviews, is never given a chance to breathe. There’s far too much footage, pleasurable though it is to watch, at the expense of the individual stories, and, far from being a jazz improvisation, as one interviewer suggested, the whole film is ultimately as slick, processed and airless as Hear’Say.

Was there really no one else doing these things? Were the Zephyr Twelve really the Apostles of the New Skateboarding? Was it really such a tremor? What happened to the other schools of skateboarding? Did the Zephyr team create this counterculture? People were riding empty swimming pools by the mid-60s (admittedly on clay wheels), a full ten years before the Dogtown gangs, and there were other skate-gangs in the neighbouring areas of Santa Monica and Venice Beach, each contributing to the creation of the wider aesthetic and attitude. A neat contextualisation drawn out over several interviews with Peralta and Stecyk is the stark difference between Southern California – SoCal – and the East Coast: the East Coast standing for indoors, ‘ideas’, compared to the SoCal outdoors, ‘style’; SoCal’s missions set against the richness of the East Coast’s historic architecture; SoCal’s beach- and street-based culture, and the East Coast’s sedentary intellectual culture. Peralta even fears at one point that California has no culture… Maybe that’s where the overstatement in the film stems from – a desire to reiterate that Southern California isn’t as vacuous, self-centred and insular as it is sometimes portrayed, and that it can have a shaping influence beyond the street or the beach.

The Dogtowners were not necessarily The First To Do Everything, but they were certainly the first wave to get paid and to start mainstream corporate culture out of youth street culture. Much of modern skateboarding was born out of Dogtown, but the current state of skateboarding is clearly a hybrid of many influences and styles, just one of which is Dogtown. Perhaps now that David Fincher is exec-producing the expected Dogtown feature film, we’ll get a more balanced view of the story, filtered of the creation-myth foisted upon us by the original protagonists. And with some real old ultraviolence. (Still, it’s fun, and I rather enjoyed it.)


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