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Dogtown and Z-Boys

For better or worse, the Vin Diesel movie XXX, the late-'90s resurgence of baggy pants, and the popular use of ironic distance share the collective fingerprints of the world of skateboarding. In fact, skateboarding culture has become one of the most influential in America — music, clothing trends, and youth culture have drawn a lot from this way of life. Spike Jonze was making skate videos long before working with The Beastie Boys or directing Being John Malkovich. And with such a pre-eminence in America, there are two expectations one should immediately dismiss about 2002's Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary about how skateboarding was transformed into the "extreme sport" it has become today. One might expect it to be of the good-for-you-like-sour-medicine Ken Burns style, where lengthy and (for some) insomnia-curing public broadcasting dissertations flutter past in a way that deadens one's interest in the material. The second fear (and the more likely one) is that it would be pop-treacle, where the only parts of interest are the hypnotic grace of skateboarding, but little substance. What is then most welcome about the film is how its flashy exterior and subject-matter is balanced by an insightful portrait of the people involved. A lot of information is packed into the 90-minute running-time, as the documentary manages to be informative and entertaining without missing a beat. Directed by Z-boy Stacy Peralta, Dogtown and Z-Boys follows the evolution of skateboarding from its beginnings as a '60s recreational gimmick (which, had it not been for the invention of urethane wheels, might be mentioned in the same breath as pogo sticks) to the So-Cal skaters who transformed it. Coming from both a surfing culture and the alpha-male nature of their neighborhood (Dogtown is a part of the southern Santa Monica and Venice Beach area that was impoverished during the mid-to-late '70s), the Z-boys were members of a skate team born of the Zepphyr surfing team. And through the influences of surfing, the Z-boys transformed skating from a gymnastic aesthetic into street culture. This meant skating in empty swimming pools and paved concave school parks, touching the pavement like how surfer Larry Bertleman was touching waves, and walking the board — all of which led to fame and sponsorship for most of the team. Dogtown then follows three of its brightest stars: Stacy Peralta, who formed Powell/Peralta and became one of the major players in the '80s skating scene as an impresario; Jay Adams, for whom skating and a young fame led to some darker places; and Tony Alva, who defined what skateboarding cool meant through his hard-driving skating and rock star approach, and who continues to skate. The film then changes gears to examine the weekend that changed the way that skating would be done from then on.

*          *          *

Even if you have no idea what kickflips or k-grinds are, Dogtown and Z-Boys is fascinating because the filmmakers do such a remarkable job of creating a compelling portrait of young men and the sport they love. As narrated by Sean Penn, one gets to understand their backgrounds and the influences that affected the way they skated. Since the stories are told by the original Z-boys (now Z-men) and the one girl of the team, their recollections are filled with enthusiasm over earlier accomplishments. But the film never becomes a series of talking heads, thanks to some great period footage. Just as impressive is the soundtrack, which keeps the picture moving at a fast clip and is loaded with great songs by Iggy Pop, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, T-Rex, Neil Young, and many more. Though some might question the fact that the director himself is interviewed as one of the major players of the scene (there are some awkward moments where interviewee Peralta seems to be performing for what director Peralta needed), he more than makes up for it with his first-hand experiences, which keeps the documentary honest and enthusiastic. And most impressive is the final ten minutes, where Dogtown tries to pinpoint the moment where the sport was irrevocably changed — a day when the Z-boys were asked to gather at a swimming pool at the request of a cancer-ridden skateboard enthusiast. Dubbed the "Dogbowl," the film theorizes that, with the Z-Boys skating together after becoming famous, they pushed each other so hard that the frontside air was born. Though this sequence has an almost "print the legend" quality to it (by suggesting this was the place where vertical skating began), it's so compelling that it's easy to believe that this is where it happened. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Dogtown and Z-Boys presents the film in full-frame 1.33:1 (as it was shown theatrically), and since it was all shot on video it looks great, while the soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.0. An audio commentary with Peralta and editor Paul Crowder is included, where Peralta is humble and says that the project — from conception to completion — took six months, and that the film (originally sponsored by Vans) was produced in a hands-off manner that let him make the picture he wanted. If you select the option, there are occasional "on-the-fly" icons offering more uncut skating footage, and also included is footage of Tony Alva skating in 2002 alongside old Powell-and-Peralta skater Lance Mountain. Crowder and Peralta discuss a promotional trailer they made to secure the music rights, but it is not included, although the theatrical trailer is here, which promotes the film's festival-circuit success. Keep-case.

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