Chairmen of the Board

Bad-boy skaters perpetuate their own myth in Dogtown and Z-Boys

The most compelling element of Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta's valentine to a crew of footloose Southern California teenagers who set a radical new style in skateboarding in the 1970s, is the documentarian's heartfelt belief in the lasting importance of the enterprise. As a member of the tribe and an advocate of their code, Peralta sees his old passion less as a sport than as a surf- and street-bred art form. For 90 minutes he promotes the view that the twists and turns and leaps that he and his old pals on the Zephyr Skateboarding Team (Z-Boys) pioneered on the banked asphalt playgrounds and in the empty swimming pools of Los Angeles are, say, akin to Stravinsky writing "Rite of Spring" or Jackson Pollock dreaming up action painting.

Hard-core skating buffs will likely embrace Dogtown's entire package of mythology -- the notion that a ragtag band of 13- to 18-year-olds from the wrong side of the tracks turned themselves not just into athletes, but romantic urban guerrillas who rolled gleefully through a brave new world of rules and regs and inspired a new youth culture in the process. They will like narrator Sean Penn's pronouncements about "the beginning of a revolution." The buffs may also pay heed to skateboarding's resident philosopher and sociologist (and Dogtown co-writer) Craig Stecyk when he goes on about how a "kiddy fad" evolved into a "cultural aesthetic" and how skaters "used the handiwork of the government-corporate structure in ways the architects never imagined."

Apart from Dogtown's steady stream of hyperbole, there are some other messages the nostalgia-clouded moviemaker may not even be aware of. A quarter-century after inventing the "vertical" style of skateboarding that every 10-year-old in Keokuk now sees on the X-Games telecasts, the aging and none-too-articulate Z-Boys tell the camera what tough guys and uncompromising individualists they all were, and how they achieved something like rock-star status not just in "Dogtown," a stretch of three seedy L.A. beach communities, but all over the world. When you hear the proud defiance in their words and see the hard mileage on their faces, you can't help considering the tolls exacted by fleeting, minor-league celebrity and the American reluctance to grow up. With its grainy home-movie footage from the '70s and its elegiac air, this documentary wants us to fondly remember a certain shining moment. But, as a wise man once said about baseball, "only the game stays young," and the untidy present days of Peralta's faded heroes keep intruding on the reluctant documentarian, who is clearly focused on idealizing the way things were.

Heaven is a half-pipe: Old-school skater Tony Alva raids an empty swimming pool in what Dogtown tells us were the good old days.
Pat Darrin
Heaven is a half-pipe: Old-school skater Tony Alva raids an empty swimming pool in what Dogtown tells us were the good old days.

Tony Alva, called "the Chuck Berry of skateboarding," is still doing skate demos and sneaking into people's backyards to ride their swimming pools; baby-faced Jay Adams, "the original seed the sport sprouted from," according to writer Stecyk, is serving time in a Hawaiian jail on a drug conviction, and the nasty scar parenthesizing his right eye speaks of hard times. Former Z-Boy Chris Cahill, a closing title informs us, "was last seen in Mexico."

Moviemaker Peralta, who at 19 capitalized on the skateboarding boom with advertising deals and, eventually, his own manufacturing and video-making company, is no more immune to his own mythologizing than the others. He interviews himself at some length in the course of Dogtown, enthusiastically repeating the Z-Boy party line about their outlaw ways and peerless creativity. We expect some depth and perspective from filmmakers, but even in talking about the movie Peralta sounds like an ex-high school quarterback who never got over the Big Game, or an old campus revolutionary who's never glimpsed the folly that went along with the fervor: "The older you get, the more real it feels," he says of the Z-Boys era, "because you realize you don't get many moments in life that are that pure."

True; for better or worse, it's called growing up. Peralta's mythmaking could have used some informed, adult hindsight: Even the skate-crazy 14-year-olds in the house might have appreciated it.

 
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