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  Dogtown and Z-Boys

reviewed by Gilda Williams

Whatever happened to the coolest kids in your high school? In the skateboarding epic Dogtown and Z-boys, a documentary so cool it’s like cool porn, you get to see them today, grown men in their 40s. Some run successful businesses, another is in prison after a lifetime of excess; one disappeared and ‘was last seen in Mexico’, while another directed a successful skateboarding documentary about just how cool he was in high school. Dogtown, we learn, was a seaside slum in Los Angeles, California, site of a giant, derelict amusement park ‘where the debris meets the sea’. And the Z-boys were an assortment of amateur surfers from local broken homes who turned Dogtown’s Zephyr Surf Shop into their clubhouse-cum-replacement family, and accidentally revolutionised skateboarding during the long, hot afternoons they idled away on the storefront pavement.

Dogtown gained attention at this year’s Sundance, where it shared the Audience Award for documentaries and director Stacey Peralta, one of the original Z-boys, was awarded best documentary director. The filmmaker’s crowd-winning skill lies in his ability to place the entire audience all instantly and firmly on the same side, the side of the winning team: the super-cool Z’s. You cheer when urethane wheels finally replace those locking, tripping, clay wheels of old; you immediately see – just as the Z-team did – the riding potential of the smooth, sloped, empty Beverly Hills swimming pools, victims of California 1976  drought. In the hilarious footage of the tough, long-haired Zephyrs turning up at the 1975 Del Mar Internationals, the watershed moment for introducing the  Z-style to skateboardom, the team’s infinite superiority over these stone-age, pirouetting, crew-cut ‘champions’ is staggeringly convincing.  You sense the competitive comraderie that drives these kids to still greater heights of cool. And Peralta never embarrasses us by suggesting we might need a glossary; we hear talk of carves and skimming and grinds like we’re all conversant, like we’re all one of the guys.

The editing is predictable, with rapid fire cuts and grainy black-and-white shots in a banal reflection of the youthful, raw, rebellious etc. etc. nature not only of the sport but of the whole subculture. Strangely, while the filmmakers strained for originality in the editing, the script is allowed to lapse into the most lackluster narration: ‘They destroyed the status quo and challenged the sport’, narrator Sean Penn is forced to say, unable to bring any style to this doomed, textbook-like script. Luckily the dullness of the voiceover is lifted by the well-chosen interviews which instead offer vivid recollections and even a few funny lines, like one from a former Z-member, speaking in a deadly serious, heavy California drone: ‘I’ve spent, like, 20 years on summer vacation’.

After a decade making specialist videos for his company the Bones Brigade, Peralta must have decided his story needed telling to a larger audience. To that end the film seeks to develop our interest in individual characters, an acknowledgement that endless footage of anonymous skateboarding, however acrobatic, would bore the non-aficionado straight out of the cinema. Unfortunately Peralta overstates this tactic not only with a clumsy, TV-sitcom style line-up of characters towards the beginning of the film, but by then dividing the film formally into separate chapters, each a portrait of one of the three main heroes. There’s the wildly talented Jay Adams, the youngest and the blondest, and obviously the class in this act; Tony Alva, the Mick Jagger of the situation and the world’s first skateboarding superstar; and Peralta, the level-headed and ambitious virtuoso. To its credit, this strategy effectively allows us to distinguish and appreciate individual styles, with Adams’ unpredictable, gorgeous antics providing the athletic highlights of the film. But the character-led structure also drives home Dogtown’s worst fault: the shameless self-mythologizing which becomes especially uncomfortable when Peralta seemingly interviews himself, about just how influential – and how cool, how way cool – he was.

Gilda Williams

Sight & Sound, July 2002