Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams and the voice of Sean Penn / John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Michael Angarano and Heath Ledger.
Illustrating the time in the mid-70s LA where surfing met skateboarding come two movies. One, a documentary featuring the icons and nobodies of those halcyon days of skate that set the standard for the sport we know today. Two, a fictionalized version of said documentary, made sleeker and sexier for the movie going public that do not care for documentaries.
That’s what’s what, bro.
Well, this is odd. The last time out I covered Out Cold, a snowboarding movie. This week we have Z-Boys And Dogtown and Lords Of Dogtown, both skateboarding movies. Recall last time I said I pick these movies at random so this a funny coincidence. Wonder if there’s a surfboarding movie out there somewhere? Hmm…
*needle screeches across the record*
Never mind that crap in a hat. Your eyes are not failing you. Two movies?!? At once? Yeppers. I’ve always wanted to try this, and thanks to The Standard in geo-synchronous orbit circling Netflix and my cunning (read: random selections) one flew east, one flew west, but both settled down into my nest. I’ve always spouted about movies based on pre-existing material, be it plays, books or comics, cause a sort of frission with audiences. There’s always that grumpy disconnect between which was better and which got it all wrong. “The book was so much better!” “Check out the original before you see the remake.” “Hydrox are better than Oreos.” You get it. Something almost always gets lost in translation. Sometimes, however, the remake is better. Consider Soderbergh’s take on Ocean’s Eleven, or the movie is better than the book as with the original Die Hard. And sometimes things have to get lost in translation to break old rules, like Kurosawa’s versions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear (his Throne Of Blood and Ran respectively) replacing the Scottish Highlands and feudal Britain for the Tokugawa shogunate. There’s really no solid formula for making a reinterpretation a decent one. Besides shrewd casting, a savvy director with a unique vision and a scenarist with a scalpel for a pen, the rest is just luck. The filmmaker up against a fickle audience that may have read the book/seen the play/saw the original/saw the other remake better have some serious confidence—if not hubris—that what they’re gonna commit to camera will not go sh*te over shovel. Luck has a lot to do with this since movie geeks are so dang fickle, even if they are going to see the reinterpretation just to quail about what got f*cked up at the next Trekkie Con.
Just kidding. I like Star Trek. I meant E3.
Here is the first time where two movies of identical material get to go under the microscope. Nowhere in The Standard does it say I can’t tackle two questionable films in the same breath, especially since one precludes the other. The story may be the same, but just like reinterpretations and revisionist remakes one movie may take efforts to be honest and the other, more user friendly flick tries to sell tickets. We’ll be the judge about the what’s what. And in the endgame I will lord over both. Mwah-ha-ha.
Ahem. I know little about the art and craft of skateboarding. I say art because, hell haven’t you ever seen the pros shred? It’s kinda like interpretive dance mixed with acrobatics. And it looks so cool when done by a master. I’d like to think that skateboarding has informed all sorts of manually-powered sports on planks in the manner of flash and style. BMX, snowboarding, rollerblading, even wake boarding owes something to how a deck is properly manipulated. Style and substance are inextricably linked.
I say craft because one just doesn’t hop on a board and reach crucial realm. There’s a science to it, no doubt. An understanding of fundamental physics, like gravity, inertia, momentum, wind shear and equilibrium. Takes a while to get all that stuff in synch, not to mention a lot of earned bruises and skinned knees (always wear protection, kids). I figure ballet dancers must know the same facets, as do NASCAR drivers, BASE jumpers, surfers and anyone who has played an Nintendo console since the inception of the Wii (ten years on and I’m still learning that lesson). It’s somewhat akin to the dancing skills of the iconic hoofer/actor Fred Astaire. He made it look so easy, like it was natural as taking a stroll. What few understand it took hours upon hours of practice to make his moves appear natural. A grand illusion. So goes for the mad skillz of the other performers above. There is a science to everything, and those that understand the scene may prove their craft. And with craft may come art, and art may yield effortless grace like Astaire’s dancing. But grace does not ever come easy. In fact, I’m willing to wager that those who achieve grace never realized it at the time.
That’s kinda the theme with Stacy Peralta and his fellow skater dudes from 1970s Dogtown. No one knew they were reimagining and recreating the sport of skateboarding at the time. They were just doing the DIY thing. Can’t surf the waves? Go surf the concrete. Make do with what you got. I like that type of ramshackle ethos. Not to get too obscure, but I always liked the liner photos of ska-punkers Operation Ivy sole album Energy. The bass player had affixed his axe to the strap with electrical tape. The drummer used stacked milk crates as a throne. Use what you have. The stories of Peralta and his crew scouting out empty swimming pools as makeshift, proto-skate parks appealed to my broken-wing sensibilities.
So where am I going with all this? I can’t skate. I’ve tried an am too much of a spaz. I can barely walk in a straight line under ideal weather conditions (I blame my dependence of Starbucks’ Doubleshot. That and wearing Crocs at work). I really don’t want to try again. It’s been years, since the 90s when the sport finally achieved legitimacy thanks to Z-Boy disciple Tony Hawk. Like I’ve mentioned before these movies are mostly random selections to which I subject myself to, even if they are about stuff I really got bored of aeons ago.
I find as this heartening for the scruffy and the broke to pool resources and can creates opportunities from scratch. Make make a lousy life more tolerable if only for a little while. We all need that sometimes, whether it being blowing on an old NES cartridge to get Mega Man 2 going just one more time to the tired grandma in Tuscany with overgrown eggplants and tomatoes and that large tire of cheese her hubs scored cheap at the local farmer’s market. What if I fried this? Bang. Eggplant parm. It’s an underdog feeling backed by practicality.
It’s all about surviving. And making good of what life hands you, like skate wheels that grip, a drought and empty swimming pools.
Dateline: Dogtown. Where Venice Beach ends. The last of the great urban slums. The crumbling piers and the crashing surf against the rotting pilings are the only reason any comes down to this end. The butt end of Oakland, to catch a wave. The best surf cuts below the remnants of the once seaside paradise of Venice Beach. And its not for sale. Never for sale. As far as the local surf punks are concerned those unworthy couldn’t even rent it.
Stacy (Robinson) and his fellow surfer bros Jay (Hirsch) and Tony (Rasuk) want a piece of the action, always. But local tough and surf happy gypsy Skip (Ledger) and crew want no snot noses harshing their curls. Locals only, and the three live too many blocks uphill to earn their trade. But the beach belongs to everyone, right?
Not in mid-70s LA. Nothing belongs to nobody for long if it means an escape from urban blight. So Stacy and friends are back to riding their beater skateboards instead, a poor excuse to comp for sh*tty surf. It’s kinda like that saying about pizza: “Even when it’s bad it’s good.” Stacy and crew frequent Skip’s beater surf shop, which he lords over like the snob he is. Again, locals only. One day a decidedly non-local shows up at Skip’s shop pushing something. The guy figures surfing ain’t so far removed from skateboarding, so check it: Urethane skate wheels, made from petroleum. They grip and never shatter like traditional clay wheels.
Skip’s intrigued, as well as Stacy and his fellow skate rats who are quick to grab the sample wheels and refit their planks. Behold! Now they can surf anytime! On land! They take their surfing skills to concrete and what do you know? Skateboarding gets all curvy, faster and eventually vertical.
All by happenstance Stacy and his friends are re-inventing skateboarding from a cheap form of transport and a novelty to…a performance art?
Upon such humble beginnings do legacies commence. Helped along with some squishy wheels.
You know the novelist’s adage, “Write what you know,” right? Well Stacy Peralta knows skateboarding. He and his cronies reinvented the sport. So to offer up a slice of decidedly California culture Peralta cut Dogtown And Z-Boys about his teen years on the Zephyr Skate Team and the ensuing fame and fortune and loss and the whole bit. Rags to riches to rags to redemption. Kinda standard issue really.
As was Hardwicke’s take on history with Lords Of Dogtown. I’m gonna say upfront that one informed the other. Directly. Peralta thought he could get the Dogtown story to a larger audience via historical fiction rather than just by the doc alone. He was somewhat correct in his thinking. It took a budget of $400,000 to bankroll Z-Boys, but only earned $1,300,000 at the US box office (grand total with overseas was $1,500,000). According to my fuzzy math that’s only a quarter takeaway. Hardwicke didn’t fare much better with her film, netting only about half gross, including foreign markets.
I have a theory about why that happened (surprise). Despite how cool and fun skateboarding is, it is clearly a niche market for a hardcore subculture. I’m not certain, but I think most kids thrash on an Xbox rather than an Element 92 Classic. Both films would definitely be ready-to-wear for skaters, but mostly a curiosity for the rest of us. If we want to learn about the history of skateboarding there’s always Wikipedia, YouTube, other social media or simply just the latest gaming installment in the Tony Hawk franchise.
To most, skateboarding is a curiosity, and movies about the sport have a very specific (if not narrow) margin to shove into the local multiplex. When I was finished with Peralta’s film—which began to get repetitive and a shade dogmatic (pardon the pun) in the third act—I had the firm belief this was for skaters and “locals only.” I also felt that Z-Boys was too long. Peralta made his point clear before the first hour elapsed. The rest came across like shout-outs to his fellow skate rats like Alva and Adams, and when those dudes were actually in front of the lens they more-or-less repeated the events that Peralta assembled on film. It all seemed a little suspect—if not desperate—to me. Skating culture is not the flavor in Columbus. I live in a modest metropolitan area, boasting a little more than 660,000 souls. The cities that make up the greater LV area pride themselves on their Parks And Rec services, boasting more parks and playgrounds than Saturn, or whatever. Wanna know how many skate parks there are where I dwell?
Two for forty-one square miles of counties stretching towards Philadelphia and into Jersey. New York City has only 6, and they have 300 square miles to work with. It’s a niche market, and most squares are simply not interested in skateboarding movies. Especially since those cooked up usually are nothing more than framed stunts with a sorta story threading through to justify it as a movie rather than commentary on zeitgeist or a commercial plug (EG: Gleaming The Cube, Street Dreams, Skate Kitchen, etc). I know I’m a ruddy cynical dork, but when you’ve watched as many mediocre movies as I have done here, you start to see patterns. Patterns as to why some films flourish and others tank. This all doesn’t really have anything to do with a dearth of skateparks in the LV, but it does all reflect movie audience’s discretionary spending.
Now that we’ve established that skateboarding is a very specialized sport (kind of like hockey, badminton and curling), we need to address the bottom line here. The one regarding ticket sales. It’s not as if Z-Boys and Lords were bad movies. They weren’t. It’s just they would appeal to either this niche market or curious onlookers. Like I also said, skating done pro is amazing to watch; it looks like these pros are really defying gravity. But a whole movie? Two? There are oodles of YouTube feeds dedicated to the sport where an avid skater can ogle and take notes and try out the stunts for themselves. Why bother forking out 12 bucks for matinee?
I equate it to the rock star thing. Sure, you get all the albums, tee shirts and paraphernalia from your idols’ websites. But to see them perform live? Ah, therein lies heart of the matter. Like with rock, as with skating isn’t it curious that a pop culture revolution always starts with revolt but evolved a mean to and for pleasure? Perlata’s movie touches upon that. Moreover it shows how kids that got stuck in the middle turned to that surviving thing and became rock stars of the skating world. Young Peralta and his friends weren’t trying to get rich and famous. They weren’t allowed to surf and/or got bored. It morphed into a homegrown industry where the home life sucks. It explains why bullying surfmeister Skip became a surrogate dad to these boys. Gave them purpose, and also allowed the fruits of their labor to be skimmed off the top.
Everyone wants something from you is what Peralta’s movie unwittingly informs us. Beyond frustration with the same ol’ same ol’ and going nowhere fast mental block; why does everything have to go to utter sh*t in order to breakaway? Frustration? A need for some DIY ethos? Being broke? Most likely yes on all fronts. Peralta and company weren’t hellbent on changing the sport, but change it they did and all the usual trappings led to more trappings. There’s a very bleak undercurrent to Z-Boys; you know how this is going to end up, even if never even set foot on a deck. That might be where the onlooker movie goer mindset might be to want to check out this flick.
Enough gloom and doom. Let’s talk tech. Not surprisingly with Peralta, Alva and Adams at the fore, Z-Boys is impeccably researched. Peralta managed to connect everyone involved with and around the Zephyr team back in the day on hand. He even made time in interview Adams who had been busted on a drug rap (he was released a year later after the film premiered). All were present, and they weren’t spinning yarns. Nothing like a documentary with a wide swath of characters “keeping it real” and sharing the good, the bad and the scars. The stories I heard was when times are rough, one must play rough to enjoy these times. No one interviewee was swaggering (maybe Adams a bit) and there was a lot of backslapping, snobbery and bullying one could chalk it up to adolescence. That and gobbling up any royalties that skated their way. You know, when you get older, rose colored glasses and bleagh.
The historic footage in Z-Boys is nothing short of amazing, and in no small part to photographer Craig Stecyk. He was the camera eye catching the Z-Boys in action, and just as their skills inspired other boarders to get vertical, his photos that graced Skateboarder magazine were just as inspiring to the onlookers. Chances are all lot of them perused the magazine, saw what they saw and saved up for a plank to swim in an empty pool. His work was a bit more than Robert Mapplethorpe. His shots were like the urban equivalent of National Geographic. Witness the skater in their element. I have never read a skateboarder magazine ever, but with Stecyk’s eye I was tempted. Many, many original shots. History applied as trade. This is a history most of us wouldn’t even care about, but it is a vital slice of pop culture even if you didn’t care in the first place. I sure as hell didn’t until I saw how the sausage was made.
Okay. Peralta’s doc is pretty right on, ever for a land lubber like me. But we’ve been talking tech, right? My nasty familiar was curling around my legs watching Z-Boys and her name is pacing. Peralta’s moves plays like a sleepy day in high school civics. Z-Boys gets really repetitive halfway through the second act. Recall that backslapping mentality? It’s one thing to comment on our skaters’ accomplishments. It’s another to get all rah-rah for large chunks of the time where the object of affection says their part. It’s a minor version of the Packers’ superfan (or pick whatever hockey team one rallies around) that paints themselves green (all of themselves), donning a foam block of cheese on their scalp and behaving like they scored the last few goals personally. All the while holding a frosty mug full of Bud. It felt like filler, and the tale was told 30 minutes ago. In simpler terms, the sh*t grew sluggish. Bummer.
So what’s up with Hardwicke’s take? She caged a lot of data from Z-Boys, albeit a tad awkwardly. The real Peralta, Alva and Adams served as consultants, but I had a tough time assuming these guys had a final say come post-production. It’s no surprise that Z-Boys informed Lords, and even if I saw Peralta’s movie after Hardwicke’s I’d pretty hard pressed to claim I didn’t connect the dots. Heck, all documentaries are based on real events. Historical fiction? That demands sweetening over facts. Or at least a nod to the facts second and a head bob to sick righteousness front and center. Cynical? Yep. The way of ticket sales? Ditto.
Using one film to relate to other was where I got scourged. It was bound to happen. That sweetening matter? Sigh. Peralta’s doc was adequate and interesting enough on its own, but to lave the fictionalized story with classic, cloying Hollywood drama trappings? Even if you didn’t see Peralta’s film and did keep a clean nose you’d smell the tropes miles away from the highest tide. Such crapola ruined the potential of Lords. Instead we get a kinda kinetic Hard Days’ Night feeling. Adolescence running riot. These skater kids are sex waiting to happen. And Peralta was on hand for all this, so I had to allow some credence. But if the man gave the thumbs up eight ways to Monday and was on hand ready for finger-waving, I’ll bet he in the endgame cowed towards revenue than relevance (esp’ how his doc tanked with Middle America).
Hardwicke’s chronicle is an amusing tale of surfing in Cleveland, with Sex Wax behind the ears to stave off otitis. Rough and tumble? Sure, but the trappings are a mile long. I’d like the believe that Hardwicke’s film was curtailed to make it more marketable. That and due to rampant, encouraged sexism in Hollywood having a woman at the helm was a significant enough pill to swallow. To not rock any cradles, Hardwicke may have conceded to the sweetening in order for Columbia to back off and have her name attached to her project. Just a theory, but considering the lone Z-Girl Peggy was once disqualified for being a girl at a meet and the movie Peggy got less screen time in Lords than the real Peggy in Z-Boys got me to wondering.
Which brings me to casting, and believe or not my views are rather favorable. For the most part. Considering Hollywood meddling, our portags fill the necessary void of characterization via the assembly of the tough guy, the fragile guy, the misfit and Wally Cleaver. I think Robinson was put on board—so to speak—because he’s a dead ringer for the younger, real Perelta. Look, you don’t become and ace skater fiend by being a Boy Scout, and none of these down and out, ne’er do well kids would ever be eligible for the Glee Club by being meek and upstanding. Hirsch as Adams as a mama’s boy? If your mom as that whacked out you’d be first in line for the latest Fear concert date, punches all the way. Instead his delicate features paired with wild behavior just screams poseur (a very keen skater insult). Get in with the cholo brigade cause he can speak Spanish and shearing off his sunny locks to get in with the punk crowd? Might make some sense—esp’ considering the Z-Boys adult Adams regretting his bad decisions in his youth—but that lingering family obligation, so sweet and so proud? Friction.
That whole schpiel however illustrated how dedicated Hirsch was to the character. Sure, for all three acts he was an insufferable snot, but at least he acted. Robinson and Rasuk mostly just went through the motions, were able to skate mean and most likely consulted with YouTube than with the real Peralta and Alva. Rasuk just comes across and spoiled bully, demanding no spotlight to others. Robinson is passive, nice clean cut kid next door who happens into the world of skating by aw shucks accident. Red lights. Like Adams/Hirsch you don’t get to the top of a very selective sport by braiding your sister’s hair. You must be—as Skip told them—pirates and take no prisoners. Considering that this sport is meant for one to be smashed onto the ground more often than get vertical you gotta get hard. Too many soft blows in Lords took the steam, the momentum out of the film. What would’ve been better would be the cinematic version of “actions, not words.” Too much exposition, titillation and soft lobs. Not enough metaphorical face plants.
On a postive note, and compared to Peralta’s movie, most scenes are recreated really well. Almost frame for frame. No shock that Stecyk had a lot to do with this, what with his tireless camera work for the real Z-Boys. Hard to deny the actors never blew his images off. I understand comparing apples to avocados between films is lazy work, but someone cracked the whip when these kids aimed for the light. Regardless of their lame acting chops (save Hirsch) these kids could thrash with the best of them, managing to reenact classic shots through Stecyk’s lens almost effortlessly. After all, the heart of both films are the stunts, and boy howdy these non-actors can shred. Looks even better through the eyes of high-end cameras.
Even though I called out Hirsch as the only solid Z-Boy on the casting call, it always seems the guy behind the guy is the most captivating. I give you Ledger as Skip. He’s the only one who has presence, even if his Skip it totally invented. Based against Z-Boys far kinder reflection his was where the lines got blurred.
The late Ledger was a darn fine actor. Protean. He was never the same guy twice as his career went on. In fact, until his rude passing, it became very hard for me to see where the man took a left and the character shoved itself into front-and-center. Ledger’s Skip has a lot to do with his acting chops and making characters his own. I’m not slagging on the rest of the young cast as just wallpaper. Like I implied Hirsch was excellent at being fragile, even though you know what a dark road he was heading down. But Ledger shined because he was portraying a real person, and one to be compared to the real Skip on Z-Boys. Real Skip and Heath’s Skip are not the same people, however Ledger’s performance feels more real. We all know (or heard of) a guy like Skip. That pissy, on-the-fringe dude who really gave a sh*t about you were doing in school, since he dropped out freshman year.
Ledger was the only one that had presence, even if his Skip was fabrication. I was not sure during Lords if I liked Skip or not. Wait, that’s not right. It would be if I respected the character, since he was the de facto axis up which the story spun. As implied above the other Zephyr kids were more or less ciphers (even Hirsch). He was the troubled kid. Jasuk was the ego. Stacy was average joe. And so on. Skip had a little more meat on his bones. Without him around I doubt I could’ve tolerated Lords with all its Tinsel Town trappings tracery to trade tickets.
That’s the stuff that bugged me about Lords. Had to come up. There was a lot of MTV, mandatory slickness about its delivery. A lot of pat teen rebelliousness for rebellion’s sake (I focused the lens on Hirsch in particular). These kids were from the mean streets. They’re troublemakers. They skate and ditch school and smoke weed and enjoy vandalism and are sexually active and voted for McGovern and yak yak yak THESE KIDS ARE DANGEROUS. To like, the status quo and everything! Why Hardwicke presented these kids in this very, very tired light escapes me. Hasn’t the whole “maintaining integrity vs corporate mainstream” thing been played to death yet? Old hat. What’s the motivation? There have been endless topical teen rebellion flicks well before Hardwicke’s pedestrian take. Consider the classics that the director prob’ took a few hints from: The Wild One, Rebel Without A Cause, The Outsiders, Kids, etc. The list goes on, and we’ve seen it all before. I would’ve wished with such a fertile tale of a very uniquely American slice of pop culture that Hardwicke would’ve brought her own spin would spice up a very tired trope. Nope. It was a real slog to watch the third act of Lords, which passed as flair was a serious dose of the sillies. Guess what? You can’t introduce comedy into a movie decidedly not a comedy. I’m splitting hairs here, but…
Here we reach our quandary. Two movies about the same story with two distinctly different takes. Two different views, and not dealing with remakes or sequels or other distractions. This was kinda like taking a final exam explaining my take, but here it is even without cramming. Both films were overall okay, but hampered by hubris and the soft sell. Peralta overestimated how vital his tale was, but Z-Boys was chockfull of history and eyewitness accounts it was about skateboarding. That very niche-y niche market. Low ticket sales didn’t equal a bad film here. Low ticket sales equalled a select few buying tickets. Pure math.
Lords did the math backwards. How can we pitch this tale of trailblazing skaters—a very below the salt demographic, mind you—to the average movie-going nabobs and make it finger licking’ good? Let’s bake this recipe: get rowdy kids, make their characters cut-and-dried, assemble a classic period playlist, sprinkle sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll here and there like a classic Ian Dury album and entice Heath Ledger to act while being on…something for eight weeks. Make sure he breaks stuff. Gets the fist pumps going. That’s how to make a profitable film, Kate. BTW, yer a girl director right? In that case you better waste any creative potential to ensure a third rate pay cut. All producers have grey hair and a daily Metamucil cocktail for breakfast. Ida Lupino was a fantasy dream. What’s this nose manual thing? We don’t have any allergies. Where are you going?
Sigh. Round and round and round.
This whole installment was akin to applying for a Rhodes scholarship. I’m beat. I still don’t know how to skate, but I respect it more. Not the stunts. The practice invested to making it look Astaire effortless. And as with making good movies, seamless is the way to go. Never thrashing, and never pussyfooting.
I can survive on this opinion.
Rent it or relent it? For Peralta’s film? A mild rent it. It’s still a specialized market, but the film was infused with enough verve to invite curiosity. Hardwicke’s film? A mild relent it. Once you give up and resign yourself to this being a formulaic film, just chill and enjoy the cool surf and skate stunts. Not all flicks are designed to win awards. Like Peralta’s did.
- “I was on a summer vacation for 20 years.”
- Ledger does a killer McConaughey impression.
- “This was the last great beachside slum.”
- DeMornay still has her epic smile.
- “You just got patty-slapped!”
- Ambivalent about the Z-Boys soundtrack. Don’t think Peralta had a real say in it. A lot of overused songs IMHO.
- “Do a Bert!” I like that.
- Jay coulda sold that board, what with cash being tight.
- “Nice socks!”
- All right, the Tony Hawk cameo was cute.
- LOCALS ONLY.
The Next Time…
Road trip! Worse, family vacation! Robin Williams chucks his family and way too much baggage into his rental RV to get in touch with Mother Nature!
That usually means poison ivy.