Skateboard culture is on a roll in `Dogtown'


May 31, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The thrilling in-your-ears-and-eyeballs documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys never mentions Jack Kerouac. But when narrator Sean Penn declares that the skateboard revolution of the 1970s took off on the spot along the California coast where Route 66 ended, you have to think of this film's roll-and-rock pioneers as a latter-day Beat Generation, finding adventure and discovery in abandoned pools and playgrounds instead of the open road.

In South Santa Monica and Venice and Ocean Park, a dozen teen-age skateboarders as well as a trio of twentysomething mentors - innovative surfboard designer Jeff Ho, surfboard builder Skip Engblom and photojournalist Craig Stecyk, the owners of the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Production Surf Shop - invented an improvisatory, daredevil style of skateboarding. For the first time, skateboarders would soar on concrete and asphalt the way cutting-edge surfboarders would groove or slash across the surface of the waves.

The Zephyr competition team started out surfing the dangerous rubble-strewn waters of the abandoned Pacific Ocean Pier - itself an amazing feat, as heart-stopping period footage shows - and took up skateboarding as a sideline when the surf was down. But a California drought caused hundreds of homeowners to drain their backyard pools, and the Zephyr gang began turning these glittering white ovals and kidneys into experimental skateboard rinks. They tried out moves that brought them over poolsides and into the air, presaging maneuvers that would take hold years later in extreme sports. Skateboarding became their main event.

For them it was a visceral life-or-death competition - not because of their ruthless aggressiveness, but because their innovations reflected their own gravity-defying, up-by-the-bootstraps life stories. These kids from many ethnic backgrounds and varyingly dysfunctional families grew up in a part of L.A. where the have-littles could see the have-lots right across the street. When they exploded on the scene in a professional competition in 1975, it was on their own terms.

Directed and co-written by Stacy Peralta, a member of the Zephyr team who (along with co-writer Stecyk) created sport-transforming skate videos in the 1980s, Dogtown and Z-Boys at its best captures the in-the-moment euphoria of the 11 guys and one gal who made the Zephyrs a sensation in the manner of grass-roots rock upheavals like punk. When the narration and the gang members' interviews describe the skateboarders' seat-of-the-pants routines as performance art, for once you believe it. You follow the lines they draw through space as you do Picasso's forearm in Clouzot's The Picasso Mystery. There's great action moviemaking here: You learn what it means to "carve" a pool, as you learn what it means to "close off" the boxing ring in Ali.

Several Zephyr club participants are part of the filmmaking team - Peralta, Stecyk and photographer Glen A. Friedman, who's listed as a producer and creative consultant. They forge ahead without self-consciousness, presenting themselves as interview subjects even when it's not clear who's interviewing whom. Of course, given this headstrong gang, the most straight-ahead interviews are full of disputations and challenges and fervent asides. Edginess is key to their aesthetic. Peralta and company retain rather than edit out a flub or two in the narration, accentuate instead of smooth out the divergent grains and color qualities of different film and video stocks, and hold to a jumpy shooting and cutting style that's partly like early rockumentaries and partly like early-'90s Maxwell House commercials, on caffeine. At best the film keeps your eyes peeled and your ears pricked; at worst it's as self-consciously funky as deliberately stressed designer furniture.

Right past the movie's mid-section, the team breaks through commercially - and breaks up. Individual stars begin competing against each other under the auspices of rival sponsors. The movie doesn't get high and mighty about skateboarders selling out and surrendering their roundtable camaraderie, but it doesn't delve as deeply as it might into the disappointment of founding surf daddy Jeff Ho. The film's first half is so resolute and dignified about keeping personal stories to a minimum that the rags-to-gladrags tales of the second half seem both too much and not enough. Peralta's treatment of the most naturally gifted and self-destructive skateboarder, Jay Adams, seems misjudged. For a minute you think Adams died before the film was finished; then you learn he's in a Hawaiian jail for several drug-related crimes. (In the press notes, Peralta says he wants Adams' fans to know that "Jay is sober and in good spirits, and is looking forward to his future when he will be released and reunited with his seven-year-old son" - not the tone Peralta takes in the movie.)

What keeps you hurtling past the missteps is the moviemakers' voracious appetite for experience. Even the unsatisfying profiles open up the subject of the skateboard revolution. By the end, this movie is an anthem to all Americans' right to create their own heroism - grow up gutsy and creative and absurd.

Dogtown and Z-Boys

What: A documentary by Stacy Peralta

Released by: Sony Classics

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 90 minutes

Sun Score: ***1/2

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