Dogtown and Z-Boys


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In the 1970s, Southern California ruled the world. Everybody bowed to its golden aura; across America and around the globe, hair became feathered, button-up shirts refused to close, collars grew longer and sharper. Suntanning changed from a pastime to an obsession, and cocaine was transformed from a high-end, hardcore street drug into a party favor. The fascination with surfing morphed into a secular religion.


There was a catch: if you didn't live near water, you couldn't surf. But in the early 70s, a handful of SoCal kids did a brilliant end-run around that problem: they took skateboarding, a fairly sedate hobby that occurred mainly on sidewalks, and transferred it to the bottoms of swimming pools that had gone unused due to persistent drought. They figured out how to zip up and down the bowls at high speed, shooting up over the lip of the pool in defiance of gravity. The result was a cultural chimera: part sport, part dance, part poetry. They didn't just ride; they carved the air. They looked majestic and playful, knowing and innocent; nobody had seen anything quite like it. What these kids did with a puny wheeled board was so strange, dazzling and counterintuitive that it caught on throughout the world. Pretty soon you couldn't walk down a tree-lined street without dodging a platoon of skateboarders?scraggly asphalt nomads, zigzagging their way toward some abstract notion of transcendence.


If that description sounds a bit purplish, it means one of two things: you're not a skateboarder, or you haven't seen Dogtown and Z-Boys, a thrilling (if problematic) new documentary about the history and culture of skateboarding. The movie isn't perfect, but its intelligence and seriousness won me over. That's no small accomplishment considering I didn't like, respect or understand skateboarding going in. I'm a child of the 70s who never figured out how to ride one of those damned things and had no interest in learning. I thought the jargony hoodoo surrounding the skateboard was pretty silly?as charmingly elaborate and pointless, in its own way, as the mini-cults surrounding videogames, arena rock and Dungeons & Dragons.


This feature-length opus by Stacy Peralta, one of the original chroniclers of the movement, sells itself as a serious anthropological documentary?a manifesto; it insists that skateboarding is not just a hobby, but a sport and even an art form, then systematically defends it on esthetic and athletic grounds. Amazingly, Dogtown succeeds on almost every count. It's structured not as a traditional documentary, but as an argument, perhaps even a sermon. I'm a believer.


The story begins in Dogtown, a decayed part of Venice/Santa Monica where adventurous surfers rode the waves perilously close to a jagged, run-down stretch of pier. It was there that a trio of surfing, dope-smoking entrepreneurs?Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk?started the Zephyr Surf Shop, which sold customized boards and gear. What made their work so popular (and so wonderfully American) was its mix of influences; the boards were fatter than the norm, with elaborate, t-shirt-ready designs equally influenced by counterculture psychedelia, skatepunk graffiti and lowrider graphics. The shop also sponsored a skateboarding team, the Z-Boys. Once the drought hit, they took the boys and their boards into emptied swimming pools. The riders evolved elaborate, improvised patterns that dissected the negative space inside the bowl.


As Dogtown observes, the turning point for the Z-Boys came during the 1975 Bahne-Cadillac Skateboard Championship, aka the Del Mar Nationals?the first major contest following a long period during which skateboarding had been declared pretty much dead. That contest now holds the same significance in skateboard culture as the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan went electric, does for music. Before the Zephyr team, skateboarding looked fairly stiff, ritualized and cute?kind of Pat Booneish. The Z-Boys came in with a rock 'n' roll swagger, psyching out their more established and respectable opponents with the brutish, blank-faced, juvie-hall jocularity Muhammad Ali deployed against George Foreman. They acted like they didn't give a damn about rules or traditions, and in fact, they didn't. During the freestyle portion of the contest, they threw protocol to the winds and winged it, zipping low to the ground, doing handstands and wheelies, slapping the pavement like primates or brushing it gently as if panning for gold.


Of course the Z-Boys walked off with the prizes, plus something more valuable: buzz. Inside of 12 months, a bunch of bedraggled kids from middle- and working-class, mostly broken homes were besieged by offers to go pro, endorse boards, sign autographs, bang groupies, tour the world. The team was like a rock band, and the band had to break up so everybody could go solo. The Z-Boys' lives became rise-and-fall cliches?but when reality syncs up perfectly with a bad Hollywood movie, what can you do but live it?


Dogtown and Z-Boys looks and sounds the way this sort of documentary should look and sound. Sean Penn, whose breakout role was as stoner-surfer Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, narrates the story in a ruminative yet casual voice. He sounds like an old ex-skater who stayed up too late and decided to spin yarns about his past rather than go to bed like a respectable person. (A few times, I was pretty sure I heard Penn clear his throat and take weary drags on a cigarette; that Peralta didn't cut these gaffes from the narration pleases me in ways I can't even begin to explain.)


The documentary is chock-full of vintage 60s and 70s pop and rock tunes ("Cat Scratch Fever," "Foxy Lady"). It mixes present-day interviews with all manner of archival footage (Super 8, 16 mm, news video, home video), plus magazine and newspaper clippings. Best of all, there are numerous photos by Stecyk, a brilliant photojournalist whose accounts of the life were published in skating (and surfing) magazines throughout the 60s and 70s. He somehow managed to frame these Zen-punk skaters in ways that made them appear to defy gravity, even mortality. Stecyk's snapshots are part journalism, part recruiting poster; no wonder skateboarding spread like a brush fire.


If there's a problematic aspect of Dogtown?besides the chop-chop editing, which ranges from exhilarating to exhausting?it's the circumstances behind its production. Director Peralta was one of the earliest chroniclers of skateboarding; the sections of his writing excerpted in the narration have the bold, elegant insistence of a political pamphlet. I don't have any problem with the content or style of Peralta's words (he's quite a good writer) but it bothered me that I had to hear them in a documentary directed by Peralta. Dogtown includes scenes where Peralta's subjects discuss his writing at length and tell him what a good job he did spreading the gospel; they do the same with Stecyk. The constant presence in Dogtown of both Peralta and Stecyk (who served as cowriter and production designer) threatens to undermine the project's credibility even as it ensures it. (Another interesting detail: the film's executive producer is Jay Wilson, a surfing documentarian and vice president of global marketing for Vans, Inc., a sportswear and apparel manufacturer.) Watching Dogtown, you feel as though you're inside looking out and outside looking in, all at once; sometimes you're not sure if you're watching a documentary, a position paper or a feature-length ad for a lifestyle. And when you think about how intimately the filmmakers were involved in this movement's birth, you can't help doubting the legitimacy of every detail onscreen; when a movement's founding fathers tell their own story, they tend to reinforce rather than puncture myths.


On the other hand, this film only exists because a handful of true believers insisted in willing it into creation; if not for Peralta, Stecyk and the rest of the Dogtown revolutionaries, this tale might not have been told. Or at the very least, it wouldn't have been told with such passion.


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