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Lords of Dogtown (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 03 June 2005
In the 1970s, Venice, California, was very different from what it is now; from Santa Monica south to the canals, the beach area was seedy, rundown and crime-ridden. Almost every flat surface was covered in graffiti, and highly territorial surfers daringly laced through the blackened pilings of the collapsed Pacific Ocean Park. But you can surf only a few hours a day. For a group of kids who hung out at the Zephyr surfboard shop owned by Sid Engblom and Jeff Ho, this meant skateboarding was the order of the afternoon.

Skateboards had gone through a brief surge of great popularity in the early 1960s, but by 1970, the fad had faded. But some smart entrepreneur—a surfer himself—thought that the standard clay wheels of skateboards could be replaced with tougher wheels of urethane. The long-haired, thrill-seeking kids at the Zephyr shop eagerly glommed onto these new wheels that seemed to actually grip the concrete rather than slide across it. Meanwhile, Southern California was undergoing one of the worst droughts in its history.

Most people would see no connection between these two circumstances, but those kids did. Searching for skateboarding venues other than sidewalks and streets, they hit upon the ingenious idea of skateboarding inside swimming pools emptied because of the drought. They ended up changing their lives in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and in some cases didn’t really want, as well as totally revising and reinventing skateboarding. What was once seen by most as another annoying thing kids did became a daring, eloquent sport based on daring, grace and style.

In 2001, one of those kids, Stacy Peralta, made an outstanding documentary, “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” tracing the history of the events and the lives of people he knows very well, including himself. Now he’s written the script for “Lords of Dogtown” which tells the same story in fictional terms. It’s a good, solid summer movie that’s not just for teenagers; Catherine Hardwick (“Thirteen”) directs in a convincing, involving style, clearly very much in tune with her young performers. And from Heath Ledger, as the uber-Southern Californian Skip Engblom, she gets the best performance so far in his promising career.

The surfers around Pacific Ocean Park’s ruins think of it as their personal property; “locals only” is seen frequently among the graffiti that’s everywhere. A bunch of younger kids long to make the grade as surfers, particularly Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk). They idolize Skip (Jeff Ho is not depicted nor mentioned), hanging around the shop, with some of them, including clumsy Sid (Michael Angarano) working part-time. But Skip himself is hardly interested in working; he has a blender constantly whirling with what looks like Harvey Wallbangers, he’s always stoned, he occasionally surfs. He’s the epitome of a particular Southern California stereotype, who could have been the real-life model for Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”—except that there were so MANY such real-life models.

The movie traces the same story as the documentary, with the kids getting those skateboards with the urethane wheels. They try them out on streets, in drainage canals, in blacktopped playgrounds, always trying to find ways to emulate wave surfing on hard surfaces. As one says, “there’s more concrete in the world than good surf breaks.” Until these guys came along, skateboarders stood erect; when the beach kids took on the sport, they began stooping, squatting, trailing their hands along the pavement as they flashed down slalom courses, steep hills, and finally around and around in empty swimming pools. When Skip sees what these kids can do, he immediately forms the Zephyr Skateboarding Team, passing out coveted navy-blue t-shirts to the most promising kids—but doesn’t give one to Stacy. They astound the audience and judges at their first skateboarding competition; it still has the mostly-flat skill areas that then were the norm, but the Z-Boys (for Zephyr, though there was at least one girl) are clearly way beyond these limitations. And they’re a rowdy bunch, long-haired, blasting their music everywhere, eager for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

In the documentary, there were twelve Z-Boys (including that Z-Girl), but this fictionalized movie concentrates on three of them, Jay, Tony and Stacy. We see a little of the rough home life of Jay and Tony, though very little of Stacy’s, which is evidently much more normal. Jay’s hot for Tony’s sister, and though he’s the best skater, can’t bring himself to take anything seriously other than developing his own skill.

All these kids are doing is trying to have fun, to get very good at their chosen sport, but hey, this is America, and if there’s a way to make a buck out of this, sure as hell someone will find it. Not Skip, though; when someone suggests he shares the growing profits from the competitions with the Z-Boys themselves, he’s stunned—“WHAT profits?” he asks. All he cares about is enough money to keep him in drinks, drugs and hamburgers.

But others care, and soon the Z-Boys are being picked off one by one by entrepreneurs bent on turning this nascent sport into a major industry. (They did it, too.) Tony is quickly signed up; a montage shows him being lionized around the world, selling his Alva line of skateboarding equipment. Stacy, too, eventually succumbs to the lure of big piles of money and fast cars. They’re teenagers, for crying out loud, what would you EXPECT them to do? Jay never quite grows up; for him, it remains the skating itself, not the money to be made from it. When “Dogtown and Z-Boys” was released, he was serving time in a Hawaiian jail.

The kids here are very convincing as the real-life boys they play, particularly Victor Rasuk as Tony—he looks astonishingly like the real Alva. Emile Hirsch suggests Jay’s greater daring—in an early scene, he times a downhill run to arrive at the bottom just as the light turns green.

The best scenes are the skating sequences; Hardwick has found ways to film from unlikely perspectives—following the kids as they loop down a drainage canal, or from the front of the skateboards, or even, amazingly, from UNDER the skateboards, the wheels whining just in front of the camera lens. She makes good use of the carefully-chosen locations (hardly Venice, as it has since Yuppified like mad), and with the hair and clothing precisely right, really does conjure up a realistic feeling of that period. She undoubtedly used Peralta’s documentary, as there are matching shots in both movies.

But despite the kids, who are all good, the one character you best remember is Skip Engblom. Ledger plays him as an annoying, self-centered but equally generous giant kid (and looks alarmingly like Val Kilmer much of the time), who just loves hanging out at the beach, working with surfboards, and taking the Z-Boys to the skateboarding competitions. He’s hurt and confused when they leap away from him to land on much wealthier vehicles, and just cannot find a way to make the transition from surfer to plutocrat.

Hardwick depicts the kids’ searches for empty swimming pools with great style and wit. They roam alleyways, looking for unattended pools they can commandeer for the day, fleeing when cops or owners show up. It turns out that Sid, the hanger-on kid, lives on a plush estate with a perfect pool for skateboarding. In the documentary, this is identified as the Dogbowl; in this feature, though, if it’s named it went by me—but there are happy dogs hanging around.

The movie unravels as it enters more familiar territory. It begins to follow several standard sports-movie arcs: the greedy guy who makes it big, the talented guy who never becomes an adult, and the wise one who emerges largely unscathed. It’s true that the lives of Tony, Jay and Stacy really did follow those lines, but the result of largely ignoring the other Z-Boys, the movie seems all too conventional.

It’s good enough that it will probably excite kids the world over, and interesting enough that you may want to seek out the documentary, widely available on cable channels and DVDs (it was on last night as I write this). The odd thing is that Peralta already told this story with the real people; why did he want to make a fictional version, too? There’s nothing dishonorable about his script; he’s fair to himself and to his friends, and has created an interesting movie with an unusual background. But neither he nor the talented Hardwick quite make it reach the eloquence it’s striving for.

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