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+ Dogtown and Z-Boys review


“You go blindfolded”


Stacy Peralta, winner of the 2001 Sundance Film Festival Director’s Award, wears a sweatshirt and sneakers. He’s tossed his backpack against the wall of this awkwardly large hotel conference room. Peralta’s used to appropriating spaces not designed for him, being a former Z-Boy. That is, a member of Los Angeles’s Zephyr Skate Team, legendary during the 1970s and setting the stage for today’s skateboard culture and industry (as in, Tony Hawk’s video games, the X Games, etc.). At a time long before anyone even thought about building a skate park, the Z-Boys made the sidewalks, swimming pools, and schoolyards of Southern California their own.


Peralta has made a documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. Narrated by Sean Penn and comprised of Craig Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman’s video footage and photos, as well as interviews and a slamming soundtrack (including Hendrix, Zep, Iggy, and Neil Young), the film traces the impacts of a unique convergence of factors: the low-income environment, the kids’ “latchkey” existence, the invention of the urethane wheel, and the emergence of vert skateboarding. Structured around the diverging stories of two skaters—the brilliantly athletic Tony Alva and the ethereally Jay Adams—Z-Boys recovers and reflects a particular counter-cultural moment.



PopMatters:

Even aside from its subcultural subject matter, Dogtown and Z-Boys might inspire young filmmakers.



Stacy Peralta:

It does show that filmmaking is accessible to young people. That’s what my skateboarding videos were all about. I found out so many years later that they empowered kids to pick up cameras and do it themselves. We made the film Dogtown and Z-Boys look the way it does is not only because it reflects the subject matter, but I have a case to make against this age of production value. Everything we see is so well produced that it doesn’t even look like reality. And it all looks the same—commercials and episodic TV and motion pictures—they’re all lit so perfectly that it doesn’t look like any world that I know of. It removes us from that process.



PM:

At the same time, I noticed that the MTV Special on the film essentially lifts the film—it accommodates their aesthetic so perfectly.



SP:

Yeah, that surprised me. Somebody warned me that they were ripping off the film. I don’t know what to say.



PM:

Alternatively, Spin ran a skateboarding timeline, where Farrah Fawcett and the Christian Slater movie was low points…



SP:

Yeah, Gleaming the Cube. And that scene, that seems to break the documentary, where I have a walk-on on Charlie’s Angels: people don’t know what to make of that.



PM:

The film raises this question of “authenticity,” about what it means to sell out, while getting the word out.



SP:

I can tell you this much. There’s no selling out in this film. I hardly made any money on it. I don’t own the film, and in order to support myself to be able to make it, I had to take two directing jobs, one for a series on Bravo, Influences, which is basically not a creative thing. We made the film in 6 months, and for those 6 months, I was probably paid for 2 months of work. But hey, this was a cause, had to do it. Since I was one of the guys, I knew many of the people who had footage, and was able to bargain for poverty wages. We spent probably $40,000 on footage that could have cost over $100,000.



PM:

Had you kept in touch with “the guys” before this project, like [photographers] Glen [E. Friedman] or Craig [Stecyk]?



SP:

Glen and Craig I’d kept in touch with. I’d seen Tony and Jim Muir once in a while. Hadn’t seen Jay Adams or Bob Biniak for 20 years. I had to hire a detective to find Bob and Paul Constantineau. The only person who got a steady paycheck on this whole production was my editor, Paul Crowder. I knew from my experience that there was no way we could hire an editor to do a project like this for free, like we did. You give and take. A lot of jobs you take to put food in people’s stomachs, but others you do for love. What’s happened is that because of the success of the film, I’ve had to stay on it a year and a half longer, doing festivals and interviews. But you know what, if you do the right thing in your life, if you listen carefully, things happen. If you’re willing to live in a state of heightened insecurity, things will work themselves out. Too often we don’t trust the universe. If you’re doing what your heart’s telling you to do, you’re obeying the universe. I don’t want to sound too cosmic here. But things will happen, and not rationally. They’re gonna come through the back door. You go blindfolded.



PM:

But you can see how young people, perhaps especially, are anxious about the future.



SP:

Absolutely. I heard this when I was growing up, becoming what I’m trying to become: “You’ve gotta be confident. You’ve gotta go in the room and fill the room with your energy.” I’m sorry, but I’ll never be able to do that. What I’ve learned is, you don’t need confidence. What you need is ideas and the ability to get up and move forward. You need drive. You only get confidence by doing what you do. You don’t get it before. You get it by having the experiences of falling down and getting back up. I’m sure there are people that do wake up bursting with confidence, but that person’s not me.



PM:

Skating is literal about that.



SP:

It is. People ask me, “You didn’t wear pads back then. How did you survive?” We survived because we learned how to fall. We grew up in the age of clay wheels, which were like rocks, and if you didn’t learn to fall properly, you couldn’t proceed. We anted the film to be a reflection of that, the imperfect and subversive nature of skateboarding. So we broke it up and put the burn marks and the leader. And if someone would get too longwinded, we’d just speed up to the next part of the film. We didn’t want to hide it, to make it pretty.



PM:

It’s refreshing, since the popular standard for documentaries now, at least those using still photos, is to zoom in slowly, with fiddle music in the background.



SP:

[laughs] We went into the matte camera stage, where there’s lights and a table and the camera, and off to the side, a guy who programs the computer to smooth out all those moves. I said, “I don’t want you to program anything, just use the joysticks and do it freehand.” And we wanted to shoot as many different angles as possible and as many speed-ups as possible, so Paul could have as many opportunities as possible when he edited. It made it fun. We didn’t make this film for anyone in particular, as long as we liked it.



PM:

And now that you’re traveling with it, what are you seeing in audiences?



SP:

When you make a film like this, you always have in mind that you can’t lose the core audience, or your film gets bad-mouthed. That’s the one thing we tried to keep our ears attuned to. What’s been a surprise is how many non-skating people have looked at this as a cultural phenomenon, like, “Wow, we knew this was in America, we’ve seen Tony Hawk, but we didn’t know why.”



PM:

So it’s recovering a history.



SP:

Yes. And really, it’s the kids who really have no idea. When Tony Hawk saw this, he goes, “I’ve been involved in skateboarding my whole life, and while I knew about his, I didn’t really know the depth, or why it happened.” This is a distinct American phenomenon, with no European influences. You can trace it back to Hawaii and surfing. It’s so American.



PM:

To that end, your crew was fairly diverse, even given that you were mostly “latchkey” kids of a certain class, and that Jay and you and others were so blond.



SP:

Right. There was Jeff [Ho], Peggy Oki, Shogo Kubo, Tony [Alva], who’s Mexican American. We had a black surfer on our team. Now this is very normal; back then it was very abnormal. When we would leave our area and go skateboarding anywhere else, it was all blond, blue-eyed kids. Today when you look at skateboarding, it has become very multicultural and very “urban.” The kids that are doing it today would have been kids 20 years ago, who were in gangs and didn’t like skateboarders. It’s left its surfing roots completely, and become inner city. Which I think is fantastic: skateboarding’s one of the few sports you can do where you can leave the designated areas and do it anywhere. Every skateboarding kid wants to taste that illicit thrill of doing it where he’s not supposed to do it, to try different aspects of his talent on terrain that wasn’t built for him. And he can potentially make a name for himself by developing a trick someplace that doesn’t belong to him. That’s what’s going to keep skateboarding subversive. Even though they’re building skateboarding parks: kids are always going to sneak into pools, or skateboard on railings in front of buildings where there’s security guards. It’s just part of the process.



PM:

How self-conscious were you all, at the time, that you were being “subversive,” in whatever ways?



SP:

It was more of a thing where we were living in the shadow of the ‘60s when skateboarding had come and gone so quickly, and so we were skateboarding when there wasn’t such thing as it anymore. We were used to being kicked out of everywhere we went. Everywhere. Skateboarding: doing it is almost like being part of a virus. Viruses come in, occupy the body as if it’s their own, use the resources of the body to replenish and remake themselves, and then leave. Skateboarding’s the same way. You see an empty pool: this belongs to you. You use it as long as you can and then you leave. We never thought we were doing anything that was interesting, except to ourselves. It’s hard to think it’s going to turn into something else when everyone is telling you that what you’re doing is wrong—“This is wrong. Leave.” Our parents didn’t understand it because there was no context to understand it. They looked at us and thought, “You’ll outgrow this.” It had the respectability of a yo-yo. Or a hula-hoop. They didn’t realize that what we were doing was physically demanding, took a lot of pre-thought. And they didn’t see the beauty in it. It was developed very clandestinely.



PM:

It’s funny, too, the change in attitude revealed in the Johnny Knoxville stuff. When those skater tapes turned into Jackass, a couple of parents were included in the show, and were plainly proud of their farting, skateboard-crashing, staple-gunning kids, because the kids were TV stars and entrepreneurs.



SP:

I haven’t actually seen the show, but I’ve heard about it.



PM:

Can you talk about how Dogtown, the place, affected the art and culture of skateboarding?



SP:

Dogtown is basically West Los Angeles, where all of Los Angeles points at the beach. Like we say in the film, the end of Route 66. It’s very rare for a coastal area to be low-income. Now if you look at it, it’s Beverly Hills at the Beach, it’s all money. At the time, Hughes Aircraft and Douglas had aircraft factories near there, so there were a lot of assembly line workers and rent-controlled apartments. It’s just a beautiful slice of rundown coastline. And right where we surfed on the beach, there’s a building that today is now a five-star hotel, and in the ‘40s, was a hotel and beach club where movie stars would go. But when we were there, it was a place called Sin-Anon, a place for very serious drug rehab. But the low-income surroundings allowed people to grow, there were a lot of artists there, like Jeff.


And because of the layout of Los Angeles—it’s a very hilly area—you had this concentration of schoolyards that had these asphalt waves that you couldn’t’ find anywhere else, in that abundance. Plus, Los Angeles is the swimming pool capital of the world. And not just swimming pools, but movie star pools, with the big sensuous bowls. So we had so many things going for us. People ask, would the X Games be where they are today if it wasn’t for you guys? My answer is yes, because it would have happened eventually, somewhere else. But we had everything going for us at the start. We had the terrain, the urethane wheel, and the weather—the drought. As we call it in the film, it was a “disharmonic convergence,” because no one else wanted it to happen. But even that favored us.



PM:

How did you come to the selection of interview subjects, aside from the available Z-Boys?



SP:

Well, Glen Friedman was a photographer, and was kind of the curator since that time. Another guy was Tony Friedkin, who was a surf photographer from the Santa Monica area, who had a good understanding about both cultures. As a filmmaker, you have to find people who are articulate. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years for many different projects, and you can find people who may be right, but just can’t express themselves. I knew there were certain bridges of information I needed to make in this film, and it’s a process of hoping people will deliver that to you. For instance, Nathan Pratt, who’s one of the Z-Boys, was not really a hardcore skater, but I knew that Nathan would give me the background in surfing I would need for the story. And some of the guys asked, “Gee, why’d you put Nathan in the film so much?” He gave us information we needed to get from one section of the story to another. And guys like Tony [Alva] would say, “You know, I didn’t remember the drought.” So you have to make sure you get all the ducks in a row. The last thing you want in a documentary is voiceover, voiceover, voiceover. It’s a yawning session. And then you’re hoping that people like Henry Rollins, or Jeff Ament and Ian McKaye, who are outside of the experience, will explain how it affected them, and show it wasn’t an insular culture. And Henry Rollins! He was just terrific, very sharp. He came to the premiere that Sony had set up, with Entertainment Tonight and the whole gauntlet of people, which is a necessary evil. And Henry, bless his heart, he talked to every single one.



PM:

How does “style”—anti-establishment but also welcoming such mainstream elements as this premiere gauntlet—shape the culture?



SP:

Today, we live in an age of extremism. Kids today are like stuntmen, going as big as you possibly can. But back then, your body form, the carriage of your body, was an identification marker for who you were. It was like an anatomical hangtag. If you looked good, everyone wanted to watch you. It was that as well as being aggressive. How to look the best you could, at the most critical moment. And that took years to get there. The guys who faked it, you could see right through them. It was beautiful to watch. I’d see Tony Alva or Jay Adams and be inspired. I’d go my next run and tuck down more, and feel it.


When you get into a critical moment, you can feel it. We were all pushing each other, in that regard. If you could carve a pool, and in a critical moment, just kind of tilt your back a little, wow! It’s like a matador. The audience goes insane. They might not be able to do it, but they can feel it. I don’t want to get too crazy with the metaphors here, but if you have a room full of pianos and hit the E key on one, the E keys on all those pianos will hum. It’s the same thing. When you hit something true in one human being, it hums though everyone. We would do that to each other. Some guy would do it, and boom, we were all vibrating to it, thinking, I’ve got to keep the session going.



PM:

Did you talk a lot about it, at the time?



SP:

We did talk about what was possible, and we argued about it a lot. For instance, we would do what was called backside kick-turns, where your back is to the wall. We didn’t think it was physically possible to do a frontside kick-turn. And I told Bob Biniak, “I know it’s possible, and I know you can do it.” I stood on the top of the pool and I egged him on until he did it. That was a huge turning point for us.



PM:

You knew Bob could do that kick-turn: how aware were you of each other’s differences and abilities?



SP:

That was something that I think was specific to me. This is one of the reasons I think I succeeded with my own team. I had an ability to look at other people and see they could do things, without an ego attachment to it, like, if he does that, he’ll be better than me. For me, I found the whole process fascinating. I found myself at contests, coaching the other guys. I don’t know where that came from. It was an innate thing that I just did, and it came in handy later, as a coach and a filmmaker too. Especially for a documentary: you have to be able to walk in and say, “What’s the story here?”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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