When he was 13, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger had a Vision Gator deck with which he used to pummel himself repeatedly in the knees and groin. But he looked cool carrying it around, which is what really counts.
They came from nothing to change everything.
Skating movies peaked in the '80s. They were marked by bold colors, conservative plots, overproduced stunt footage, and a dash of nasty attitude to give them the proper anti-establishment veneer. Hollywood loved the flash and novelty of skating, but didn't want to dirty its fingernails with the grime of real skate culture. When a SPIN magazine article featured some of the original Zephyr skate team members and discussed the roots of vertical skating, the time for a truer movie representation had come.
Lords of Dogtown was a film in search of a studio and a director. Catherine Hardwicke, an authentic California girl, had recently broken into the ranks of mainstream Hollywood directors with Thirteen. The uneasy alliance of Hollywood fabrication magic with one of the world's grittiest, most fiercely individualistic cultures was born.
Facts of the Case
A destitute bunch of kids in Dogtown (otherwise known as Santa Monica, CA, and its surrounding area) explore the usual outlets for self-expression and creative release: surfing, drugs, sex, and vandalism. When an overly aggressive block of surfers cold-shoulders them out of the waves, Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, and friends look for something to plug the surfboard-shaped holes in their souls. Jay (Emile Hirsch, Imaginary Heroes) gets a job to help out his recently abandoned mother, Philaine (Rebecca De Mornay, Identity). Stacy (John Robinson, Elephant) smooches innocently with Tony's hot sister, Kathy (Nikki Reed, Thirteen). Tony (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas) tries to stay clear of his old man while seeking fame and fortune on the streets of Dogtown.
With all of that concrete, angst, and free time in such close proximity, it doesn't take long for a new pastime to emerge: skating. The arrival of space-age skateboard wheels encourages the kids to try daring new moves. Local stoner/entrepreneur Skip (Heath Ledger, The Brothers Grimm) sees an opportunity, forms a skateboard team, and runs roughshod over the local skating competitions with his band of gnarly skate rats.
Their brash attitude and impressive abilities ignite the nation's imagination. Sid and the Z-boys are thrust into the spotlight, but none of them is prepared for it, or for what it will do to their friendships.
Hardwicke earned the ire of some and the admiration of most with her debut directorial effort. Thirteen claimed to tell an authentic story (Nikki Reed's story, in this case) about teens doing naughty things while adults struggled to deal with those things. It had an unavoidable style of shaky camerawork, whip pans, frantic zooms, and split-second intercuts. Detractors found fault with the authenticity of the story and railed against Hardwicke's stylistic decisions, dismissing Thirteen as an amateurish, grandstanding teensploitation flick.
That vocal minority aside, most people who saw Thirteen liked it. Hardwicke asserted a discernable directorial stamp out of the gate. The controversial camera work perfectly captured the angst and energy of the demographic in question, namely disturbed thirteen-year-old girls. Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed, and Holly Hunter acted the hell out of the thing.
I bring this up because Lords of Dogtown magnifies Thirteen's approach. Once again, Hardwicke is creatively filtering someone else's story for dramatic (rather than historically accurate) effect. She's telling a sensationalistic story about teens. And she's doing it with all the dials on the camera cranked to eleven. If you found fault with Thirteen, you'll need hip waders to get through Lords of Dogtown. If you thought Hardwicke was on the right track, get your crash helmet ready.
This argument masks a critical constraint inherent to Hardwicke's film: her target audience. This movie is rated PG-13 and deals directly with teen issues. In other words, from the word go Hardwicke is treading tricky waters. If she makes Lords of Dogtown too edgy or explicit, her material becomes inappropriate for teens. If she makes it too cartoonish, she alienates adult viewers. And if she fails to keep the energy level high, the exercise becomes moot. Leaving out PG-13 films that are actually aimed at general audiences and focusing on teen-oriented PG-13 films, I can't think of many that entertain both teens and adults as well as this one. Hardwicke errs on the side of stylistic edginess and curtailed subject matter, which is the right call.
Lords of Dogtown squeezes the skating revolution into a handful of characters and a year or two. The result is bolder and more abstract than reality. Jay, Tony, and Stacy become a three-headed dog that represents the personalities of the Z-boys without delving too deeply into the whys and hows. If it weren't for the actual involvement of Jay, Tony, and Stacy, this approach would be rightly condemned. Yet we can't ignore that some of the actual Z-boys are writers, stunt people, and creative consultants to this film.
Lords of Dogtown uses a very careful approach to create visual mayhem. The skaters are followed by skating cameramen, which gives us a breathtaking sense of physical involvement. Lords of Dogtown is kinetic in the best way, expressing its themes through posture and attitude. Skating is a central element of this movie, and the crew truly gives skating its due. From exhaustive training sessions to top-notch stunt doubles to painstaking camera work, the reality of skating comes through expressively and accurately.
A carefully selected soundtrack helps this vibe along. Hardwicke doesn't break her budget on song rights, which would be easy to do in an era when '70s rock tunes retain credibility but demand high price tags. Instead, Bob Badami and Hardwicke pick alternate tracks, live performances, and original music to give the right touch while saving the classic tunes for when they'll have the greatest impact.
Music, camera work, set design, and attitude combine to give us a board's-eye view of thrashing. Even if you aren't a skater, after watching Lords of Dogtown you'll have a pretty good idea of what drives skaters and how it feels. That's what movies are supposed to do: expose us to things we can't experience for ourselves.
The excellent skating scenes and sheer vibe of the film are more successful than the story. Lords of Dogtown abstracts itself just far enough to muddle the relationships and drives of its characters. Its heart and attitude cannot compensate for a meandering story and unclear arc. However, the story has one clear strength, which is its depiction of how sudden fame can warp pure relationships and break bonds forged on the streets. Even if individual character motivations aren't fully formed, the overwhelming tide of money and fame clotheslines everyone.
I was also surprised, and a little touched, to find that Skip wasn't a completely capitalistic bastard. It's obvious that Skip is seeking to profit from the talent of his skate team, but he extends believable emotional support and a reasonable attempt at mentorship. When people cross him, he doesn't seek to crush them, and he accepts people's flaws. On the other hand, he screams and throws bottles at the sidewalk from the top of the Zephyr surf shop, so he isn't exactly a stand-up role model.
This just in: Emile Hirsch can act.
Sony's DVD treatment is as exhaustive as the camerawork. The list of extra features is long, and none of it is filler. The core of the extras is a pair of feature-length commentary tracks. Commentaries can falter through excessive silence, boring dissection of technical elements, or transparent back-patting and fawning over performances. Both of these commentaries skirt the edge of back patting, and occasionally fawn too much. Otherwise, they are filled wall to wall with meaningful, entertaining, consistent commentary. They complement each other while providing contrasting views on the same scenes. Peralta takes the reins in the Z-boys track, with Alva providing most of the color commentary. Peralta has obviously been polished a little by the moviemaking biz, but he retains his roots. Tony Alva is as outrageous and skate-crazed as Victor Rasuk would have us believe. Hardwicke and cast extend respect to the people they were recreating while providing thorough insight into what went into the production of Lords of Dogtown. Hardwicke is somehow hyperactive and demure at the same time, and seems wholly invested in getting this movie right. I was confused by her obsessive pursuit of every detailed memory, set design, and prop, when she went on to fabricate entire events and characters. Hirsch, however, cements his reputation as up-and-coming star with his perceptive, calm take on the film. The guys joke around a lot near the end, not with immature "look at how funny we are" stuff but with actually funny comments (loved the "patty slapping" scene).
Wow, two commentaries! Some films have none. When those four hours have passed your time, take a peek at the rest of the special features, but be prepared for sensory overload.
The ""Dogged on Dogtown" and "Making of" featurette provide a thorough explanation of what went into Lords of Dogtown, from conception to set design to casting. If you watch these and still have questions, you are more curious than I. These featurettes—indeed, the entire slate of extras—hint of self-promotion, but not in the grating, disingenuous manner of fluff pieces.
The cameos take us through every Dogtown luminary and his scene in the film. Mini-commentaries set the stage. Deleted and extended scenes flesh out the Dogtown environment. Alternate cursing, gag reels, spills, and such provide humorous counterpoint, while the extended pool session, "Making of Pacific Ocean Park," makeup test, skateboarding bulldog, liner notes, and storyboard comparisons (whew!) inform the behind-the-scenes action. Hardwicke is omnipresent in these featurettes, which is fine in this case because she fits right in with the Dogtown scene. She paddles out into the surf with the rest of them, uses the word "gnarly" and pulls it off. In short, no stone is left unturned to show us the inner workings of this film.
Sony's audiovisual treatment is also impressive. The transfer isn't blemish-free, but it is rich, detailed, and boldly hued enough to hurry us right past any flaws. The surround track is detailed enough to pick up the tenor of wheels on pavement and immersive enough to sell the waves, crowds, and parties of Santa Monica. Hardwicke is an experienced production designer, which shows in her careful attention to aural and visual detail.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I fully enjoyed Thirteen and didn't mind the story manipulation, the argument against Lords of Dogtown's fact management has merit, and must be acknowledged. The problem isn't that Lords of Dogtown is based on a true story—it's that the story was recently told, and told well. The documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys features practically everyone in this film, plus dozens more, and shows what actually happened in Dogtown with compelling honesty. Look at the cast list for Dogtown and Z-Boys, linked in the sidebar. Now look at the cast list for Lords of Dogtown. The comparison will give you a quick-and-dirty yardstick for which film is more authentic. Nonetheless, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a documentary, while Lords of Dogtown is a "based on a true story" motion picture event. They are different forms of storytelling and must be judged differently. It just so happens that the skating ethic embraces frankness and despises posing, which gives the documentary an edge.
What this DVD's special features make clear is that Dogtown and Z-Boys's proximity to Lords of Dogtown is no coincidence. While the original Z-Boys were sniffing blood in the movie-rights waters and trying to get their story immortalized on celluloid, they encountered reluctance. In the meantime, the tale piqued enough interest to hatch a documentary. The wild success of that documentary validated Dogtown's cinematic weight. It is difficult to separate them, but we must accept that Lords of Dogtown is fictionalized and was conceived independently of Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Camera work serves Lords of Dogtown well in the action scenes. Skating's gritty grace, urban aggression, and mortal peril are brought into clear focus when our eyes are inches from rough streets and speeding cars. The mixture of calm and adrenaline from catching airs on a swimming pool ledge comes through. But the rapid cuts and frantic camera movements absolutely detract from the acting performances. The style is so fractured that I have no idea who 75% of the people in the film are supposed to be and what they're feeling. I have a vague idea that Tony is ambitious, Jay is on the fringe of society, and Stacey is a nice guy, but beyond that I don't know who is important, who isn't, and how they relate to one another.
This may be a blessing in disguise. Subtlety is nowhere to be found in Dogtown. Heath Ledger plays Skip like a caricature of Val Kilmer going over the top, and when Val goes over the top, that top is high indeed. Ledger's buck teeth, vapid snarl, and physical buffoonery are extreme. The real Skip is out there somewhere, shaping boards, and he is an actual person. The Z-boys collectively play like distilled versions of Dogtown legends. If the camera would rest for a moment or two, we might be able to absorb the nuances of these portrayals, but as it stands we must digest these performances on the go. It wasn't until the comparatively quiet featurettes that I was able to actually watch Hirsch, Rasuk, and Robinson, and see how accurately they captured their real-life counterparts. Hirsch unarguably nails his portrayal of Jay; the two are so alike in posture, inflection, and facial expression that I could easily buy Hirsch as the younger Jay. For the rest of them, I have to go by the word of the men themselves, who claim that the cast did a fantastic job of portraying them. My point is not that the acting is bad or good, it's that I can't tell while actually watching the movie.
The camera works best in the skating scenes, and so does the story. Lords of Dogtown gets muddled when the clear plotline of "street sensations meet America" isn't marshalling everything into a logical flow. A pattern of cool skating moments and character development emerges, but the character development doesn't take a clear, informative arc. That left me shifting in my seat until the next skating competition.
You should know by now that "unrated" versions of PG-13 films rarely indicate an explicit orgy of sex, violence, and profanity. This one may be slightly saltier that the theatrical cut, but it isn't going to turn your hair white.
This is technically Catherine Hardwicke's sophomore film. In some ways it shows; she pushes style at the expense of allowing the actors room to reach us. Yet Lords of Dogtown is not truly the work of a sophomore. This movie makes clear that Catherine was a director relegated to a background role, a woman who knew she was director material. Thirteen was her proof of concept, and Lords of Dogtown is her coming-out party. She shows enough drive, involvement, and personal style to keep work coming in.
Taken together, Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen reveal a definite personal stamp. By this point, you should have a good idea of whether Hardwicke is your kind of gal. Until the ranks of female directors swell, she doesn't have many peers to compare her with, but I like what I've seen. Her R-rated debut was great, but even if Hardwicke stays in PG-13 land, it bodes well for an inconsistent bracket of mainstream film.
Not guilty by reason of sheer skating mayhem.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Z-Boys Commentary
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