The Elements of Style
Hopped up on speed and high on itself, Dogtown and Z-Boys might be the spryest documentary you’ll see this year—heck, it might be the spryest movie you’ll see all year. The Audience Award winner in the documentary competition at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Stacy Peralta’s propulsive tribute to the Zephyr team (hence, Z-Boys), an influential group of skateboarders who revolutionized the sport, is at once irreverent and reverential. Peralta, a member of the Z-Boys himself, doesn’t bother with objectivity. Unabashedly hagiographic, the movie mythologizes its subject with an alacrity that could be off-putting if it weren’t so infectious.
“Locals only,” scream graffiti sprayed by the Z-Boys in their turf in Venice Beach circa 1974. The rebellious posse may have been insular and xenophobic in their youth, but the movie—like its grown-up subjects—is decidedly more inclusive. Dogtown is commendably audience-friendly in charting the birth and rise of skateboarding. For strangers to the sport and those who weren’t around to witness its explosion in the mid-‘70s, the movie can be genuinely eye-opening. Peralta traces the birth of the cool to 1975, when writer (and Peralta’s collaborator) Craig Stecyk wrote the first article about the Z-Boys in an issue of Skateboard magazine. An improvised family of teenage outcasts from a beach slum area of Southern California affectionately dubbed Dogtown, the Z-Boys incorporated the smoking moves of pioneering surfers into skateboarding.
Armed with the requisite D.I.Y. ethic, the Z-Boys, Peralta immodestly proposes, brought skateboarding into the new century with a succession of “Eureka!” moments. The most audacious of these—and the one that gets the biggest laughs from a disbelieving audience—was the discovery, during the 1976-77 drought, that dried-up swimming pools were the best venue to strut one’s moves. Skating heedlessly around the curved surfaces of pools in random backyards, the threat of being caught adding to the buzz, the Z-Boys introduced verticality to skateboarding. As one of the Z-Boys proudly notes, there would be no X-Games without them.
It’s no wonder that that self-congratulatory sentiment permeates the film at every step. Peralta’s most compelling material may be the impressive assemblage of Super-8 footage and still photos, but it’s all framed by his interviews of the motley dozen or so that were part of the scene. Now all grown men, in appearance if not in spirit, the Z-Boys look back on their heyday with no shortage of self-regard. (The movie goes through words like “revolutionary” and “genius” like Bush goes through “hero” and “compassion.”) The documentary proper even kicks off with a portentous shot of the earth from space. The unironic inflation of the movement’s world-historic significance courts sneers, but the Z-Boys’ unextinguished zeal makes the self-aggrandizing almost beguiling.
It certainly helps that Peralta the filmmaker is as proficient as Peralta the skateboarder. “Style is everything,” declares a Z-Boy, articulating the movement’s overriding aesthetic and ethic. Dogtown‘s maker takes that dogma to heart. Powered by a formidable array of classic rock giants (Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Black Sabbath, among others), the movie has flair to burn. Edited to within an inch of its life, Dogtown flits by at a speed that strobe lights would envy. Peralta seems to have cut his teeth in the Michael Bay and Baz Luhrmann School of Filmmaking. Bay and Luhrmann are cinema’s Lucifer and Beelzebub respectively in my book, but Peralta avoids sharing that ignominious fate because his stylistic choices actually make sense for his movie. Peralta tries to approximate the sport’s adrenalized rush with his technique. He pulls out all the stops—on top of the frenetic cutting, there are random freeze frames and slo-mos, mistakes that aren’t edited out (so New Wave), and even an effect where the celluloid burns and melts.
Using Fincher-esque flourishes that are now au courant, Peralta at least has novelty going for him. To be sure, novelty is not the same as originality. And, lively as it is, Dogtown feels oddly familiar. The movie’s visual style is everywhere—it’s in the language of advertising and MTV, the cinema of selling. That he applies overused techniques to what is essentially an anthropological tour of a neglected subculture is what gives the movie freshness. Dogtown may be redolent of commercials and music videos, but it sure as hell looks, sounds, and feels like no documentary I’ve seen before.
Then again, it should be no surprise that the movie reminds us of a commercial. The Village Voice‘s Marc Holcomb, in his qualified endorsement of the movie, called it “the best infomercial you’ll ever pay to sit through.” Admirably blunt, Peralta at one point acknowledges that he viewed his skateboarding skills opportunistically: “This was my ticket.” The same opportunism muddles his movie. There’s something calculated about its coolness—at its pandering worst, it feels like a prefab doc for a prized demographic, rather than the tattered valentine it probably started out as being.
It’s certainly no crime to make an entertaining movie, especially one that genuinely fills in blanks in our cultural consciousness. But the movie’s insistent need to be marketable, to be recognizably hip, to be acceptably edgy—in short, to be liked—betrays the insolent rebelliousness that gave rise to the Z-boys in the first place. If Dogtown simulates skateboarding’s velocity successfully, it also inadvertently embodies the sport’s transformation from outcast haven to soda ad campaign. (Does it come as a surprise that the movie was largely funded by Vans, the Z-Boys’ shoe company of choice?)
Considering that its director is also one of its subjects, Dogtown isn’t as tendentious as it could be (though a skeptical voice or two would have been nice). Peralta, making his first feature, has some trouble shaping this gnarly beast. True to the live fast-die young attitude of the Z-Boys, the movie was conceived to exist purely for the moment—nary a boring minute, at the expense of a grander, more thoughtful design. If one has reservations with Dogtown and Z-Boys, they’re likely to crop up after the movie. For the experience of sitting through it is nothing short of exhilarating. Peralta’s product may have the whiff of sell-out, but you may find that you’re too busy buying it to care.