The DIY of Dogtown

skate

In a short scene at the beginning of "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a new film playing at about 50 independent theaters nationwide, a tow-headed young surfer hacks up a roller skate with a saw and a screwdriver. He pries off the wheels, affixes them on to a wooden plank, and a homemade skateboard is born.
This Do-It-Yourself ethic runs throughout the film. It shows up in the skateboard construction, the lifestyle of the subjects and the film’s format. Making use of archival video footage and hundreds of photographs from 1975-79, the documentary revolves around the Zephyr skate team, a ragtag group of teenagers who came from a surf ghetto in Santa Monica they called Dogtown. The film’s origins are also very DIY, as director and co-producer Stacy Peralta’s decision to buck Hollywood and go independent suggests. Of course this anti-Hollywood image also gives the film an extra healthy portion of street "cred." But there’s a little more to "Dogtown and Z-Boys" than just good looks and timing.

The buzz started with a "Spin" article that described skaters Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams, and the "Dogtown" skate scene. Hollywood bigwigs noticed the piece, and there was talk of a studio feature production based loosely around Peralta’s life story. As Michel Cicero reported in the
"Ventura County Register", Hollywood executives approached Peralta in 1999 to buy his life story rights for use in a feature film. Peralta opted out when he was told he wouldn’t be involved in the writing of the screenplay.
Peralta wanted to do it himself, it was his life story after all. Of course, he also needed funding to get the project off the ground. When Peralta chose the DIY route, Vans Inc., the makers of the original skate shoe, decided to put down $400,000 for the independent project. Vans did not want any creative control, and simply asked for a short logo shot at the beginning and end of the film (which does not run at some theaters). There is no mention of Vans in the promotional material for the film, and even though all the skaters in the film are wearing their shoes, it’s the type of transparent but successful marketing that most viewers don’t notice— retroactive product placement. Before the film was released, Vans stated that there would be no promotional product relating to the film, but today they are selling shoes and clothes on their Web site that imply a strong movie tie in.

What Kind of Skate Movie is This?

Unlike Hollywood feature films, today's company-sponsored skate movies are rarely distributed nationally and don’t gross millions of dollars. Prior to release, they are hyped in magazines like "Transworld Skateboarding" and "Thrasher" and are given debaucherous premiere parties in Newport Beach California. They go directly to video for distribution at skate shops, and sell for about $25 a copy. These plotless, cut-up videos are then usually played in an endless cycle in skate shops around the country, in a kind of private screening world where kids gaze in adoration at the newest heroes and the latest tricks, wondering things like, "How did Rob Boyce make that backflip in Vancouver?" The fact that "Dogtown and Z-Boys" is being distributed nationally to Landmark and other independent theaters across the nation may be reason to rejoice for skaters stuck in the middle of nowhere, simply for the fact that it will be viewed on something other than a tiny, stickered skate shop television set. skate

But for the non-skateboarder, "Dogtown" might just be a curiosity. The film is a fun dive into So Cal youth culture but the endless array of grainy still photos and "Brospeak" interviews might seem pretentious, self-serving, and even boring to an outsider. Nonetheless, fun is what's at the center of the film and there is something universal about teenagers having fun.

The film explains, with Sean Penn’s narration, how the national surfing craze of the 1960’s spawned the first wave of skateboarding. As the ‘60s wore on, surfing and skateboarding went more underground, and stayed there until the mid-1970’s. When the Zephyr team surfed, the scene was filled with new heroes like Larry "Rubberman" Bertleman. The team took Bertleman's moves to the streets of Santa Monica. They had fun on their own terms, broke in to backyard pools and skated them with abandon. The Z-Boys came from broken homes and humble backgrounds. The thrill of covering new terrain, and knowing they were part of something bigger gave them a mix of freedom, accomplishment and adrenaline.

From a non-skateboarder’s point of view, the film might be more about rebellion and subversion. The difference is, in the ‘70s, there was a lot less gear to buy. Kids in the film are wearing ripped jeans and gardening gloves. Now, the free-spirited nature of amateur skateboarding has given way to a culture where every skater needs the shoes, the clothes, the hat, and the camcorder to get that cool, edgy feeling. If you read skateboarding magazines, this is not the first time you've heard that the skate industry has forgotten its innocent, less materialistic roots.

Which brings us back to Vans, Inc. Is it any better that the money came from a skate industry company ( that made 15 million last year) rather than a Hollywood studio or Coca-Cola? Perhaps it is. Peralta’s choice to make a documentary in a climate where that genre of film rarely turns a profit speaks volumes for the credibility of the film. On the other hand, he also wrote a screenplay called, "Lords of Dogtown" that has been bought by Hollywood execs and is expected to begin filming in Venice, California this summer. According to "Variety," it will be directed by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit. "But," the Z-Boys Web site asks, "Has Fred ever skated a pool?"

Stephen Baxter, 22, is a summer fellow at WireTap Magazine and a native of San Diego, CA. He once owned a Tommy Guerrero pro model and currently lives in San Francisco.

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