Sunday, June 25, 2017

Summer Movie Blogathon – Dogtown and Z Boys

This post is part of the Summer Movie Blogathon hosted by yours truly. 

The blogathon is broken into categories. Dogtown and Z Boys falls in the Movies about the Beach, Surfing, or Summer Sports category. Dogtown and Z Boys is a 2001 documentary about skateboarding and an influential group of skaters, the Z Boys, named for the Zephyr Surf and Skateboard teams of the 1970s. The film is broken into several parts and uses interviews of those involved as well modern skaters and musicians like Tony Hawk and Henry Rollins to tell the story of this time and place and its influence on skateboarding and culture.

The interviews are great. Some of the people, in particular, Skip Engblom, co-owner of the Zephyr Surf Shop, and Zephyr team skater Wenzel Ruml are just hilarious. The film is narrated by Sean Penn who had lived and surfed in and near Dogtown in his younger days. The story of the Z Boys is mostly told the skaters themselves along vintage film and still photography. There's a great Grammy-nominated soundtrack, featuring everything from Jan and Dean, Herb Alpert, and Jimi Hendrix to Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd to Devo, The Stooges, and The Pretenders. The music is seamlessly integrated to what they are talking about.

Also there's a great editing trick that Dogtown and Z Boys uses extensively. A lot of the time when people are speaking, they tend to ramble. Normally, you would see a jump cut to where they get to the point. In this film, they fast forward the video for a split second to do the same. It's kind of a neat and subtle effect. I see it used all the time now, but this is the first film I ever saw it used. Director and one of the Z Boy skaters, Stacey Peralta, even uses the technique on himself in spots.

The film opens with some background on Dogtown, a rundown area consisting of the South Santa Monica, Venice, and Ocean Park beach communities in Los Angeles. Originally, the area had developed as a resort community with several amusement parks, but by the late 1960s, all of them had closed leaving the remnants of dilapidated piers and amusement park rides to rust in the surf. According to Skip Engblom, it was, "... the last great seaside slum." 

Peggy Oki, the only female Z Boy
By the early 1970s, the sport of surfing was in the midst of the short board revolution. Gone were the days of hanging ten and nose riding, surfers were moving to shorter boards to do maneuvers impossible on the longboards of the 1960s. In mainstream surfing, it was mostly flowers and sunsets, but for the boards coming out of Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom's Zephyr Surf Shop, they embraced the aesthetic of car culture and graffiti art. Also an aggressive localism developed in the surf as Dogtown surfers fought to protect their turf from outsiders. This gives a good background on the environment in which these skaters were brought up. Many of them came from broken homes, and Zephyr team gave many of them the structure they lacked at home.

Dogtown and Z Boys then gives a brief history of skateboarding, how it developed and became a national fad in the mid-1960s only to crash and almost disappear as fast as it appeared. Early skateboards used either clay or steel wheels. A tiny rock on the sidewalk could send you flying of the board, making them dangerous and causing many cities to ban them. Then in the early 1970s, the revolutionary urethane wheel made it possible to do things unimaginable on the stone-age clay wheels.

In Dogtown, the next wave of surfers and skateboarders emerged to take the radical approach of influential surfers like Larry Bertleman and apply it to the concrete on a skateboard. Near Dogtown, there were a number of public schools built on hillsides or in canyons with large concrete banks leading into the black top, the perfect spot for taking surf moves to the asphalt. 

Dogtown and Z Boys then looks at the birth of vertical skating. In the mid-1970s, a drought in Southern California caused many home owners to drain their pools, the perfect environment for this new approach to skateboarding. Once the Z Boys found some pools to skate, they knew others were out there. They didn't have permission from the owners. They just came and skated a pool until the cops showed up and then moved onto the next. Often the pools were partially filled with water, and they brought pumps and hoses to drain the pools, so that they could be ridden. 

In 1975, a national championship was held in Del Mar. Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom built skateboards for their team and entered them in the contest. This was mainstream skateboarding's introduction to the Z Boys. They skated like no one else there. Whereas other skaters were doing tricks like handstands and nosewheelies, the Dogtown guys were skating like the hottest surfers from the 1970s. Though their style was unique and innovative, the judges largely gave better scores to the more traditional skaters. Still, their skating drew the notice of a burgeoning skateboard industry.

At the time a newly revamped SkateBoarder magazine started publishing photos and articles about the Z Boys written/photographed by Craig Stecyk, the photojournalist and artist behind the innovative look of Zephyr surfboards. As a result, the Dogtown skaters became instant celebrities, and other skateboard  companies offered the Z Boys contracts to ride for them. The Zephyr team disbanded, and financial issues caused the Zephyr surf shop to close. Of the Zephyr skateboard team, the top skaters were, Stacey Peralta, Jay Adams, and Tony Alva, who all took different paths in skateboarding and life. 

Of the three, Stacey Peralta (who directed and co-wrote the film with Craig Stecyk) was the most responsible. He saw professional skateboarding as a once-in-lifetime opportunity, and he was determined to milk it for all it was worth. He traveled the world, as an unofficial ambassador of skateboarding. Later as his skateboarding career was on the wane, he teamed with skateboard manufacturer George Powell to form Powell Peralta, and their skateboard team, the Bones Brigade, had a huge impact on skateboarding in the 1980s and into the 1990s. In addition, with the help of Craig Stecyk, Peralta produced a series of skate videos that virtually invented the concept of skateboard videos.

Stacey Peralta

Jay Adams was probably the most naturally gifted of the group, but had the most trouble with dealing with the notoriety of being a famous skateboarder. He just wanted to skate, but being sponsored meant showing up on time and having responsibility, and that seemed to freak him out. He made bad choices, like dropping out of school and got heavily involved in drugs. When the film was made in 2001, he was serving time in prison on drug-related charges. Jay Adams died of a heart attack in 2014 at the age of 53.

Jay Adams

Tony Alva was the rock star of the group. They said that all of the Z Boys had enormous egos, but Tony's ego was bigger than all of theirs combined. After riding briefly for another company, he did something unheard of at the time. He formed his own company. Now, in skateboarding, often the top skaters will leave their sponsors and form their own companies. Tony Alva was the first to do this. Also the marketing was as much about attitude as it was about skating. That too has almost become a standard in extreme sports. 

Tony Alva

Dogtown and Z Boys ends with a segment on the Dog Bowl, a pool where the Z Boys had their last and best sessions together as a group. The pool was in a Santa Monica home, and the owner's son was dying of cancer and asked his parents if they could drain the pool, so that his friends, the Z Boys, could skate it.  Here they could skate and not worry about the police. By this point, they were all professional skaters, but the environment gave them a chance to skate and push each other for the pure joy of doing so. 


I actually have very complicated feelings about Dogtown and Z Boys. I have only one problem with the film and that one problem is also the one thing that makes the film work so well. Let me explain. I'm a skateboarder. I grew up reading SkateBoarder magazine. I saw the Z Boys at the time and was amazed by what they were doing. But they were not the only skaters out there. There were lots of great skaters, not among the Z Boys, who were doing things that in my eye seemed every bit as radical and innovative as what the Z Boys were doing. The film makes it seem like the entire skateboard world revolved around Dogtown. It didn't, though as a group, they were hugely influential. 

What makes a good documentary is the narrative. The narrative of Dogtown and Z Boys is the unique point in time, the Dogtown environment, and its influence on this group of skaters and the world as a whole. Because I was following skateboarding at the time, I know that Dogtown was one part of of a much larger scene, and while I would like to see Dogtown placed in a larger context of skateboarding as a whole, doing so would only dilute the film's narrative. 

Also at the time, generally speaking, I didn't like the Z Boys as much as other skaters. The main reason was that with them, it seem to be about attitude, and that bothered me. In particular, Tony Alva seemed to be all attitude, but to pull that off, you have to be good, and he was very good, and at a certain point in time, indisputably the best. I saw Tony Alva skate at the 1976 Hang Ten World Championship. It was in Carlsbad, North County, San Diego. I was 14, and my older brother took me. In the film, there are shots of Tony Alva in a white jumpsuit with a red arrow. That was from that contest. I'm not sure if this is the same contest where Alva won the overall (film says it was 1977). All I know was that when I saw him skate, Tony Alva placed second in the slalom behind Henry Hester. Alva hardly did slalom. Henry Hester and the other top slalom guys specialized in slalom. Tony Alva beat out the others and came very close to beating Hester. That's how good he was.

If I had to pick a favorite skater, it would be Stacey Peralta. He was a phenomenal skater with an incredible style, but what also made me like him was that he didn't seem to have the attitude of the rest of the Z Boys. He just let his skating speak for itself. Seeing Dogtown and Z Boys, I now understand where that attitude came from and how it molded the skaters coming from that scene. It really help me put it into perspective.

In sports like skateboarding and surfing, you tend to have three types of movies. First, you have surf films/skateboard films. These feature the best footage that the filmmakers can put together. If you're a surfer or a skateboarder, you love these. You could watch them all day. If you're not, you probably couldn't sit through the whole thing. Second, you have fictional films about the sport and the people who do it. We're talking about films like Ride the Wild Surf for surfing and Thrashin' for skateboarding. These rarely ever work very well. I can't think of one that I really like.

Finally, you have documentaries with a narrative strong enough to make them appeal to an audience not involved in the sport itself. For surfing, Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer was such a film. To be honest, Bruce Brown didn't set out to make a film about surfers following the summer as they traveled the world. He just wanted to make another surf movie about surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August taking a surf trip to South Africa. When the travel agent suggested that it was only marginally more expensive to take a trip around the world, Bruce Brown decided to go that route. The narrative of following summer by crossing the equator emerged as they were on the trip. It's that narrative, the adventures that Hynson and August have on the trip, and taking surfing to places and cultures that had never seen a surfboard that make into more than just a surf film, something even nonsurfers could watch and enjoy.

For a long time, there wasn't a film like The Endless Summer for skateboarding. Had Stacey Peralta made a film about skateboarding as a whole, skateboarders like me would have loved it, but it would have just been another skateboarding movie to everybody else. By focusing on the Dogtown narrative, that place, that point in time, and that group of skaters, Dogtown and Z Boys becomes something that anyone can watch and enjoy. For someone like me, who knows the bigger story, learning their story, who they were and what they went through, I can now appreciate and see beyond the attitude that to me overshadowed who and they were back then. 

Dogtown and Z Boys was entered in the Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award (in a tie with Good Scout) and the Directing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It also won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary and received other awards and nominations. This is a great film, and it's well worth the time to watch.

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