Monday, August 1, 2011

Dogtown and Z-Boys (Agi Orsi Productions, Vans Off the Wall, Sony Pictures “Classics,” 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Dogtown and Z-Boys, a 2001 release which frankly when I first heard of it sounded like another Boyz ’n the Hood-style movie about young Black street gangs. Instead it was a documentary about skateboarders, and in particular the 12 members of the Zephyr skateboarding team who formed in the early 1970’s in Dogtown (a.k.a. south Santa Monica), the grungier and less affluent half of the beach community. The way it’s shown in this film, Santa Monica looks like the Kingston, Jamaica of The Harder They Come, a place in which drop-dead gorgeous affluence and bitter, grinding poverty live cheek-by-jowl and within walking distance of each other.

Skateboarding grew out of surfing — it was originally concocted by frustrated surfers who wanted to do something similar on days when there weren’t any available waves (one point made in the movie is that in Santa Monica and its neighboring beach communities — including Venice, where a collapsed pier that had once held an amusement park became a highly dangerous surfing locale where surfers slalomed between the remnants of the columns that had once held the pier up — it’s impossible to surf after 10 a.m., when the winds change and no longer generate surfable waves) — and the Zephyr skateboard team grew out of the Zephyr surfboard team which itself had grown out of John Ho’s surfing shop, which was unique in that Ho and his business partner were themselves surfers. The film shows an early ad for their shop headlined, “Does your shaper surf?” (Surfboards are based on a blank that is then “shaped” and finished by a handcrafter, and as one interviewee points out in the film, Ho as a surfboard designer and shaper was like Howard Hughes as an aircraft builder: he was not only a trained engineer, but when he worked out a new design he was a good enough surfer that he could take it out and test it on actual waves.)

I think Dogtown and Z-Boys vastly overstates the overall social significance of the skateboarding phenomenon as it revived in the 1970’s following a brief fad in the 1960’s — largely due to the fact that the director, Stacy Peralta, was a “Z-boy” himself, and his co-writer, Craig Stecyk (pronounced “STESS-ick”), had written a large number of articles about them (under his own name as well as various pseudonyms) — when the Z-Boys (many of whom were interviewed for the film, and the clash between the fearless long-haired teenagers they were in the video clips from the 1970’s that are the main evidence of what they actually did on wheels and the mostly heavy-set men they were in 2001 is predictably sad) were a going concern and Craig’s articles, more than anything else, proclaimed the gospel of the new kind of skateboarding nationwide. (One of the oddest interviewees was Henry Rollins, one of the few people in this movie I’d heard of elsewhere, who talked about growing up in the Midwest and being inspired by the Z-Boys even though he went into music and poetry instead of skating. An obvious point the film didn’t make is that by promoting skateboarding, the Z-Boys were giving kids in the Midwest an opportunity to participate in a form of sport that had previously been denied to them because they didn’t have access to ocean beaches and therefore couldn’t surf.)

A series of quirky coincidences, including the major drought in California in the mid-1970’s — which forced a lot of homeowners and public recreation centers to drain their swimming pools and therefore created beautifully rounded surfaces on which skateboarders could practice, albeit illegally, and develop the edgy “vert” (short for “vertical”) version of their sport — helped the Z-Boys become the major force in modern-day skateboarding — and incidentally put the Zephyr team and John Ho’s shop out of business as the Z-Boys took the huge financial offers from major skateboard and clothing manufacturers for sponsorships and endorsements. (Stacy Peralta, the savviest businessman of the bunch, started making his own skateboards and grew it into a multi-million dollar business, then entered filmmaking and made movies about skating that grew out of the instructional videos he had originally shot to show people what they could do with his boards.) The film, narrated by Sean Penn (who agreed to do it because he’d grown up in the Dogtown neighborhood himself), has some obvious technical crudities — including one scene in which Penn blew a line in his voiceover and Peralta used the take anyway — and some annoying stylistic affectations, including a tendency to shoot the modern-day interviews in black-and-white while the 1970’s video footage is shown in color. (I got the impression Peralta was influenced here by The Wizard of Oz, in which the “real” scenes in Kansas are in sepia-toned black-and-white while the fantasy of Oz is in color.)

The focus shifts around from various Z-Boys to others in the crew (there was one token Z-Girl, Peggy Oki, who was also their token Asian; there were token Blacks and Latinos in or at least around the group, too, but this was mostly a white-boys’ gig), and the interviewees seem to change their minds over which of the Z-Boys was the best, but certainly the kid who comes off as the most exciting and charismatic to watch now is Jay Adams, a 13-year-old blond who later drifted off into alcohol and drugs and, when he was filmed for this movie looking back on past, was incarcerated in Hawai’i on drug-related charges. The other standout is Tony Alva, who’s about the only Z-Boy who hasn’t radically changed his physical appearance since the glory days; in the 2001 footage he looks pretty much the same — visibly older, but still wearing dreadlocks and long hair and still dressed casually, and still skateboarding.

Dogtown and Z-Boys was a big enough hit that it inspired a dramatized feature based on the same story, The Lords of Dogtown (which an reviewer dismissed as “a sorry Hollywood attempt to cash in”), and one of the most interesting things about it is its soundtrack, a quite good mélange of the raunchier, more raw forms of rock music popular in the mid-1970’s (just before the punk era, though the narration compares the Z-Boys to punk rockers and there are some songs here, like Alice Cooper’s “Generation Landslide” — a great song from a performer who usually didn’t impress me — that count as proto-punk) with occasional cut-ins of middle-of-the-road songs like Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” and an Italian crooner’s version of “Volare” to represent the stuffy skateboarding establishment (who knew that as early as the 1970’s skateboarding had an establishment?) the Z-Boys were rebelling against. Charles wondered just how the filmmakers were able to pay for the rights to all these songs — though their acknowledgments list Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Neil Young, suggesting that those performers (at least) either donated their music or charged only minimal licensing fees, and may have lobbied the other groups and artists whose music was used to go easy on this project licensing-wise as well.

A soundtrack CD from this movie would be a quite good sampler of mid-1970’s pop-rock and evidence that the period wasn’t at all the musical wasteland it’s often described as being; one of the demonstrably false legends of rock history is that almost no lasting music was made between 1970, when the Beatles broke up and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, and 1977, when the punks emerged — which seems like an odd thing to say about the years that “broke” such major and enduring stars as Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Elton John — as well as Patti Smith, who tends to get lumped in with the punks even though she made her first album in 1975. Dogtown and Z-Boys was fun entertainment, though in a way it was also a very depressing movie since the story it told was a very old and now-familiar one of an exciting new art form created by rebellious youth and then taken over and co-opted by the capitalist system, while its creators were tempted by the money they were offered and did themselves in with alcohol, drugs and the sort of destructive “partying” that seems to be an irresistible temptation to too many adolescents who suddenly find themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.