Grit/Motion: Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) & Lords of Dogtown (2005)


I am finding that this year has turned up a lot of our earth, a lot of our collective soil which we’ve all grown in together. For whatever reason, I have felt that the time spent in these last months has allowed some of my older, more submerged roots to become visible again. Parts of my culture and my identity that used to shine so clearly at my forefront that have since been reshuffled into my psyche. 

It is also the first time in a long time I’ve thought about rewatching some films. Quite self-consciously, I’ve tried for a long time in my life to continually pursue films unseen, unexperienced. Especially when considering material for this site, I have tried to hold true to a quality of new and original experiences, and not allow the work to just become an expulsion of opinions on things I already like and why I like them. Great art can create waves of reckoning inside yourself, and I was concerned that in cinema I had already seen and liked, that reckoning had already since passed.

But in the spirit of this revealing of those hidden roots, I returned to a story which has captivated me for a long time, which made an impression on me at a young age, and whose tracks I can now trace through myself as a much older man. The first glimpses I saw of this story, was when Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001, Dir. Stacy Peralta) was playing wordlessly in a skateshop I used to visit, endlessly looping on a TV mounted on the wall at the back. I browsed the shop for a long time, long enough to get shouted at to hurry up by my mum who was sheperding me through this early experimentation with skate culture. I couldn’t grasp much from the silent frames, but the furious impression they seared into my mind was something that marked me. 

Skateboarding to me was a defining, sculpting part of my childhood. The concrete sprawl of my city was a spider’s web to get lost in, the gravel and the concrete became very close friends. Communal skating in underground car parks was so common to me that it was a real shock when I fell out of it, as my friendship group splintered and fractured apart around 13/14. It was also where I honed my first filmmaking skills, shooting clips through a shitty Sony Ericsson W810i and editing them through the in-built software. Skateboarding from the outside looks like a very simple barebones activity, but hiding underneath it’s griptape surface is a creative vibrancy and anarchic sense of invention and play which draws disparate elements and disparate people together.

There is a line to be traced however winding and convoluted, between myself and every other kid who picked up a skateboard since, and the Z-Boys of Dogtown. The sand of California’s grittiest beaches has been swept far by the wind, a legacy crossing through time and generations of disaffected youths.

For those coming to it fresh and unknown, the Zephyr Skateboard Team (a group of young, anarchic-spirited kids from the zone they marked as Dogtown) helped to revolutionise skateboarding into the modern phenomenon it has become today. To some that means very little, but to this ragged clan of urban guerillas it meant pioneering the use and invention of stylistic elements which changed the form in which the sport was experienced. Infusing surf culture and style into the concrete, their fierce and ecclectic personas bubbled above a churning cultural firestorm, as their exploits and stylistic experiments helped to reform the fundamentals of the culture itself.

What makes Dogtown and Z-Boys so special in its’ documentary experience, is the closeness and authenticness of its’ own creation. Stacy Peralta, the film’s director, was also one of the original Zephyr team. The cultural scene which the audience expects to be revealed, is guided by its’ key participants of the living history they catalysed into existence with an intimacy of subject matter that most documentarians would struggle to achieve. Skate culture and its’ relationship to filmmaking has been relatively fruitful, with a niche cottage industry of videos shot for the community of interested participants which can again be traced back to Peralta, director of the first ever skate video (The Bones Brigade Show, 1984).

The film is, more directly than others, born from the earth that made it. For those more cynically minded, it’s a lesson in self certified myth-making, but that is to mistake the understanding of what their story means. The spirit of this story is embedded in every fibre of its’ being, and its hyperactive gritty collage layers an experience onto its’ audience of what it is like to turn your junkyard into your playground. As fiery recollections swirl around footage of twisted skaters under a washed out sun, the private world of Dogtown is cracked open by those who helped set up its fortifications.

Roses grow from the shit, not from the petals. A documentary lens has always been more infused with that anthropological spirit, subjects and not actors. And to be opened to the world of skateboarding and its’ evolution, is to be opened up to the lives, dreams, catastrophies and successes of its key players. The atmosphere is on fire, collisions of turbulent adolescents meeting disorganised intoxicating adults who take them under their spray-painted wings. The blaze of success becomes an inferno, and in their different ways the documentary examines how each subject, each friend, ally and enemy coped with their own peculiar set of burns.

The truth is shown in Dogtown and Z-Boys, or rather through a ragged and incendiary collage, the truth is assembled and presented as best as it could have from those who witnessed it from the inside out. The area between South Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Ocean Park,  gave lightning in a bottle to a bunch of 11 year old kids and they smashed it open to grab hold of it. The instinctual urban play of poorer, spiky youths in the blazing sun leading to sponsorships, rifts, careers, mistakes and drifters. A scene is catalysed, but it is never evenly generous to its’ makers. And who better to understand that than its’ own participants? 

Lords of Dogtown (2005, Dir. Catherine Hardwicke) was knocking on doors for a long time, and it was only when the documentary landed that it’s creation began. But it’s creation is just another point on the long journey from those original bankside turns carved into moments of space and time, circa 1970something. Stacy Peralta was the screenwriter for the film, and the film’s authenticity in reconstructing the gnarled history of Dogtown is cut close to its’ bones.

In recreating the film, the now outdated 70s style of skating had to be resurrected, which also meant the cast had to learn how to skate in the first place. Sets were built closely to the original specifications (the Zephyr Shop for example), and the original Dogbowl swimming pool was resurrected from its’ grave to provide a new location that had already been an old home. The layers of history run deep and collide over each other, the real Zephyr skaters guiding their fictional counterparts to play themselves in the locations where the real skaters made these marks. “Under the paving stones, the beach!”

An anthropological experience is one thing (one almost reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing), but Hardwicke’s direction takes point on delivering the feeling of this world, the truth that this skate crew lived out. The camera work is an urban guerilla too, frantically crashing against waves of editing to a mellow roll in brief, clear moments of peace. The skating sequences flow through the air, their motion exquisitely captured in balance with the environment around them. The purity of the pursuit of skating is presented with the same genuine reverence that the Z-Boys expressed in their documentary. And that balance, which is only found fleetingly, is the binding invisible thread tying together their world as it explodes from its centre.

For sure, their history is more glamorised here, their counterparts more chiselled and handsome and made more palatable in their aesthetic to the cinema world we are used to. The scuzziness however, is never hidden away or betrayed by that often cultural compromise we make when we make fiction out of our history. To watch origins become truth become record become myth is something we are constantly doing as humans, editing and re-editing endlessly the stories of who, what, when, why and how did all that happen. The intermediaries along the way sometimes have good judgement, but often the boiling down of history to fit a feature length timeslot kills a lot of the deep truth of the events. For better and for worse, the Dogtown crew had some input into how their history, their myth was presented. First in their own lens, and then in the lens of a sympathetic, closely aligned in artistic spirit director. This allows the films to be alive in a deeper way, to be unified with that anarchic low to the ground pursuit which fills the imagination of the screen.

Roots are important because they support what grows, even if their presence becomes invisible to the naked eye. To spend time in the mud is to understand it, become accustomed to it, see what the world looks like from the ground. Skateboarding in my life has meant a lot to me, and it has in general always been defined antagonistically towards general society. A refuge for many continually painted as danger, a threat. Society spends a great deal of time outcasting its’ subjects, and navigating the world these days feels more complex than ever. Perhaps I feel that call again to pick up a board and just experience the grit under my feet and the motion of the air around me.  The same wish, same spirit which traces haphazardly through the past to the present of 1970s California.

The urge to feel free.


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Grit/Motion: Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) & Lords of Dogtown (2005)

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