[9 May 2007]
Your typical high school cafeteria is, among other things, an ideal venue for sociological study. A brief glance around the room will often reveal the rigid divisions among different groups, as jocks, stoners, nerds, cheerleaders, band geeks, and other collectives maintain their separate tables with an insular protectiveness. And each table, in turn, exudes a certain caché (or lack of the same) that stems from belonging to these groups. In my high school, for example, a seat at the jocks’ table was something to covet, while eating lunch with the band geeks was liable to earn you a place on a bully’s wedgie list. Still, the true “cool” table, the place where the school’s social superstars set their trays, belonged to the skaters.
With their hair carefully combed into their eyes and the latest Vision Street Wear tees on their backs, the skateboarders were every bit as fashionable as the jocks, but without having to buy into all that school spirit. They were the anti-heroes, rebels without cars, and the targets of many an affectionate note passed furtively during class, or else slipped under the metal doors of their lockers. Whether sleeping in class or performing stunts in the school parking lot, they gave off an air of immunity—somehow part of our student body but at the same time completely detached from it, above it in the way a bored rock star might show up to a meet and greet, yet remain utterly removed from the surrounding throng of fans.
If these aloof idols were the lords of high school, then Christian Hosoi was their king. As the documentary Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi relates, Hosoi was the coolest of the cool, a brash and rowdy pin-up idol whose talent took him to the apex of the skateboarding world during the ‘80s, only to leave him flailing when the world moved on without him.
The film begins by detailing Hosoi’s childhood, spent growing up during the skateboarding renaissance of the late ‘70s. During these Dogtown days, he would travel to skate parks with his father, Ivan, where, with his long black hair trailing out behind him, he shredded up the local ramps with a skill and ferocity that belied his relatively young age. Soon enough, Hosoi was making a name for himself winning contests and impressing judges with his aerial acrobatics. Encouraged by his success, and with his father’s blessing, he quit school to focus on becoming a professional skateboarder.
His career, in all regards, was characterized by excess. Not only did Hosoi attack the vert ramp with unmatched abandon, he also partied without peer. Through old video footage and contemporary interviews with those who were on the scene, Rising Son paints the portrait of an athlete who was acutely aware of his rare talent, and who intended to make the most of it. As skateboarding grew in popularity during the ‘80s, Hosoi and Tony Hawk emerged as the sport’s two superstars. Hawk was known for his technical prowess, completing trick after trick on the ramp with the precision and seriousness of a surgeon.
Hosoi, on the other hand, was pure drama. Often blazing a spliff under the ramp before he skated, he would then appear, primed for competition, shirtless, or else in spandex, or in a riot of shredded neon that streamed behind his speeding form. Where Hawk focused on impressing with clean landings and smooth transitions, Hosoi was bent on displaying his sheer athleticism, skying at times ten feet above the ramp to perform his signature “Christ Air” maneuver (in which he grabbed his board and extended his arms, Christ-like, before plummeting back to earth), often whooping in mid-air as he did so.
The trick, like much of Hosoi’s career, was no accident. Flushed with supreme confidence, a steady stream of cash from endorsement deals and skateboard design royalties, and a devoted following of male imitators and female groupies, Hosoi was the poster boy for skateboarding. What’s more, he knew it, and he celebrated accordingly, renting out Hollywood mansions, keeping all his friends supplied with weed, and footing the bill for every party along the way. Such generosity, the film’s interviews reveal, only further enhanced his charm and standing in the skateboarding community.
As skaters know perhaps better than anyone, however, what goes up must fall eventually. The heady days of “vert skating”, at which Hosoi excelled nearly without peer, were replaced by the advent of street skating, which forsook huge, unwieldy ramps in favor of urban obstacles like stair rails and park benches. Though he was just as adept at the new street style, Hosoi was too associated with his vertical theatrics, and he was soon overshadowed by the new street skating stars. Frustrated and desperate to regain his lost notoriety, he turned to crystal meth and tried to devise a comeback. Unfortunately, his addiction only further derailed his career. He spent the first X-Games smoking meth in a locked hotel room in Japan, while Tony Hawk’s performance there catapulted him back to prominence and what today is multi-million dollar skating empire. Rather than reclaiming his lost glory, Hosoi spiraled further downward until his arrest for meth possession at the Honolulu airport.
Anyone who’s ever watched a major motion picture might be able to guess what follows: Hosoi found God in prison (apparently He’s much easier to locate once you’re behind bars), cleaned up, got married (while still a prisoner), and was eventually released: reborn, re-energized, and completing the clichéd, “rags to riches to hubris to redemption” story cycle he seemed bent on following from a very young age. The film shows him testifying in church about the life-changing power of Jesus, but is also quick to remind us that he remains one of skateboarding’s founding legends. He returns to a skate park with some of the documentary’s interviewees and proves that hasn’t lost a step when it comes to his skating abilities.
It’s hard to blame Rising Son‘s director Cesario Montano for being formulaic, however. At the end of the day, his subject’s real life exploits are simply startlingly predictable. What Hosoi made up for with his originality on the skate ramp, he certainly lacked in his life’s direction. The viewer wonders, though, whether or not it was entirely Christian’s fault, either. Perhaps the most compelling parts of the film involve interviews with Hosoi’s dad Ivan, who comes off as more of a delinquent big brother than a father. It was Ivan’s example that let his son quit school and, in a moment that’s frustratingly not pursued by the filmmakers, he reveals that he even took drugs with Christian during his son’s addiction to meth. In light of the close bond between Ivan and Christian, described at length by those who are close to the duo, it might seem that the younger Hosoi was born both to rise and fall—gifted and encouraged enough by his dad to achieve his success, but not savvy enough to realized the flaws in the example being set for him.
In the end, though, director Montano’s closeness to his subject matter (he was also on the scene at the time of Hosoi, skating under the nicknames “Block” and “The Mayor of Venice”) prevent him to digging too deeply. He’s instead content to revel in nostalgic pastiches of Hosoi’s exploits. The extras, similarly, shed little light on the reasons for Christian’s fall. The cut footage presented in “Christ Tales” is remarkably similar to what makes it into the film. (How is an extra story about Christian smoking dope on an airplane more or less revealing than the included footage covering his fashion sense?) Another extra chapter, “Quicksilver Grabs”, seems to confirm the nostalgic bent of the film toward Christian and the bygone days of Swatch watches and painter caps. We’re treated to footage of Hosoi and his crew, circa 2005, skating in the same sort of empty swimming pool they used to shred back in the day. Soon, though, this footage gives way to a series of “bios” of up and coming skateboarding stars. At least, in this moment, the film recognizes that a changing of the guard has occurred.
But this epiphany is buried in the extras. Rising Son is about the cultural phenomenon that Christian Hosoi once was. Ultimately, like the parabolas he traced on the vert ramp, Hosoi’s career will forever be conditioned as much by its peaks as it is by its valleys. There’s some comfort in that, though, for the rest of us—as if we were attending our high school reunions and realizing, with relief, that life can throw off the best of us, eventually. Even the ones at the cool table.