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Dogtown and Z Boys (2001)

I don't like skateboarding much and I've never been a fan of southern California culture. I doubt I would have liked the kids in this documentary either — tough, territorial kids from the poor part of Santa Monica who thought it hilarious to snatch wigs off of old ladies.

Written by:
Stacy Peralta
Craig Stecyk

Directed by:
Stacy Peralta

With:
Sean Penn (narrator)
Jay Adams
Tony Alva
Skip Engblom
Shogo Kubo
Jim Muir
Peggy Oki
Stacy Peralta
Nathan Pratt
Wentzle Ruml
Allen Sarlo

Awards:
Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance and AFI Fest. Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. Best Documentary Director at Sundance.

Quote:
"Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see the potential."

Yet Dogtown and Z Boys is a blast of energy. The camera never stops moving, even on still photographs, and the '70s-era soundtrack, heavy on Nugent and Zeppelin, kicks ass, while little innovations make you perk up and take notice: narrator Sean Penn clearing his throat; fast-forwarding a talking head's commentary to get to the next quote rather than cutting the extraneous material; including the text "Dogtown will be right back" before cutting away to a clip of a skateboarder's cameo on the old "Charlie's Angels" show. You laugh and think, "I've never seen that before." It's what skateboarding enthusiasts said in the mid-70s when they finally saw the Z boys.

They were rag-tag Santa Monica kids who were befriended by Zephyr surf shop owners Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom and made part of the Zephyr team that surfed "the cove," between the broken and decayed pilings of what had once been Pacific Ocean Park. It was a dangerous spot. "You knew if you made a mistake," Engblom says matter-of-factly, "you would pay in flesh." Outsiders were not welcome.

Skateboarding, at this point, was strictly an after-surfing activity. When the surf went out, what to do with the rest of the day? Grab a skateboard and try to emulate on concrete and asphalt the cutback moves and hard, low style of surf-king Larry Bertlemann, who was known for brushing his hands along the waves he was riding. The boys — and one girl, Peggy Oki — skated steep hills, and the asphalt slopes near schools and parks, and, during a California drought, the unfilled backyard pools of the Santa Monica rich, where, eventually, they were able to leave just one skateboard wheel on the pool lip as they attempted to "go vertical," as it became known.

Consequently, when skateboarding national competitions began again in the mid-70s (they'd had a brief half-life in the '60s), the Z boys blew away the competition and created a whole new, Bertlemann-based, skateboarding paradigm. Skateboarding went from fad — something akin to hula-hoops — to national sport, and the boys, delinquents all, were suddenly paid large amounts of money to show off their skills. "[It was] like being sponsored to spray graffiti all over the city," remembers Stacy Peralta.

Much footage is shown of their younger days, long blonde hair flowing behind them, and it's fun attempting to match the kids with their now middle-aged faces. Nathan Pratt, moustached, looks like a high school history teacher. Allen Sarlo became a surfing champion and body builder. The guy with dreadlocks and a vague resemblance to Gary Oldman turns out to be Tony Alva, the most famous of the Z boys, who toured the world and began his own line of skateboarding equipment. He's also the most hyperbolic of the group, comparing winning the 1977 world skateboarding title to an Ali-Frazier title match, and constantly evoking his rock-star status and the "revolution" they created. The saddest case is Jay Adams, also the youngest and, to some, the most talented, who didn't take advantage of his opportunities and wound up scarred and incarcerated in a Hawaiian prison on drug charges. "I was on summer vacation for about twenty years," he says with a half-smile.

If there's a problem with Dogtown it's its inbred nature. It was directed (very well, I should add) by Z boy Stacy Peralta, and written by Peralta and Craig Stecyk, whose mid-70s Skateboarder magazine photo-articles on the Z boys are credited (by the documentary he helped write) with popularizing skateboarding across the country. Perspective outside the group is needed — and by more than Henry Rollins and Jeff Ament.

Even so, this is a raw, energetic documentary that, because it focuses on a glory period 25 years past, inevitably fills you with nostalgia. You wonder about the arc of your own life — about lost friends and missed opportunities. You wonder whatever happened to all of that long blonde hair.

—December 17, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard