Judge Adam Arseneau's exploits on the halfpipe are well known, but not as well known as the skate legend, and felon, documented here.
Like Gleaming The Cube, except with a plot.
Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator tells the compelling life of Mark 'Gator' Rogowski, 1980s skateboarding superstar extraordinaire, who is now serving 31 years to life in prison. As documentaries go, this one is top-notch, and Palm has done a great job of cramming as much nostalgic, old-school skateboarding goodness into this DVD as possible.
Facts of the Case
In the early 1980s, skateboarding existed as a fringe sport, a kind of deviant activity undertaken by disaffected youths in California, breaking into abandoned lots or backyards to skate in empty swimming pools or on crudely constructed ramps. Mark Rogowski, AKA Gator, was one of the best of these young skaters—he had flair, attitude, and an aggressive style that caught everyone's attention.
As the culture began to explode, skateboarders started to take on a rock star-esque persona, bigger than life, local celebrities who would draw crowds everywhere they go. A few risk-taking entrepreneurs began to promote the sport, the fashion, and the skating through clothing designs and videotapes that rapidly grew in popularity. Suddenly, skateboarding was a hugely popular sport, and the skaters themselves were overnight global superstars, riding around in limousines and pulling in six-figure salaries, hardly any of them over the age of eighteen.
This new wave of instant teen celebrities were without peer, and as such, had no role models, no guidance, no experience in riding the tides of success…only an industry that wanted to take advantage of their celebrity and profit off them. As the popularity of the sport grew, the skaters grew more and more detached from reality, living fantasy lifestyles, thinking the good life could never end, getting further and further away from the origins of the sport, further from the street, from the disaffected youths they once were. Without them even knowing, the anti-establishment was rapidly becoming the establishment.
Nobody lived the life harder, and bought into his celebrity more than Gator, who had clothing lines, his own brand of skateboards, life-sized cardboard cut-outs, videos, the works. Then, the sport hit the wall. Overnight, the focus changed from vertical, ramp-style skating to a more urban, street-oriented style…a style that anybody with a skateboard anywhere in the world could go out and practice, without having to live in California and find abandoned swimming pools. The rapidly changing sport turned hostile toward the bloated commercialism and pompousness of the previous skate stars…and suddenly, Gator and his peers became obsolete.
Some of the skaters found ways to weather the transition, but Gator struggled endlessly. As his celebrity came crashing down, he fell deeper and deeper into alcoholism and self-loathing, until he shocked the skateboarding world in 1992 by suddenly committing a heinous act of violence, a crime that landed him with a sentence of 31 years to life in prison.
I was awfully young for a good portion of the 1980s, but even as a nine-year-old, I had myself an old-school Dominion skateboard—this egregious yellow thing with giant fluorescent pink wheels that I proudly would ride everywhere and fall off like a fool. But oh, the radical fashions, the excessive use of pink and pastel colors, the gigantic skate wheels, the flamboyant skateboarding stars of yesteryear! How could you not love it?
Comparisons can be made to another skateboarding documentary of worth, Dogtown and Z-Boys, a film that has received some measure of critical success, and indeed, both films complement each other well; Dogtown outlines the basic fundamental development of the sport from surfing culture in the 1970s, full of long boards and swimming pools; a movement ending in the 1980s, where the next generation—Gator's generation—picked up the sport, changed the skateboard designs, and took to the air, developing a vertical style of skateboarding centered around aerial maneuvers.
Stoked is a ragtag blend of stock footage, demo tapes, home videos, testimonials and interviews, newsreels, and music videos assembled together to tell the life of Mark "Gator" Rogowski, a tragic figure in the skateboarding universe whose incarceration coincides quite nicely with the peak and demise of the vertical professional skateboarding world. In fact, Gator has a lot to say about his own life, and his presence is felt in this documentary through phone interviews recorded from the California prison cell that he now calls home. Stoked opens with the haunting voice of Gator, in prison, apologizing for his life, expressing regret for his crimes, asking forgiveness from anyone that ever looked up to him for letting them down. These phone interviews, spaced periodically across the film, are rather haunting and portray a harsh contrast to the flair and fun of the 1980s skateboarding scene.
The rise and fall of Mark Rogowski seems to coincide with the decadence and materialism of the 1980s itself, and Stoked does an excellent job of illustrating exactly how the early skateboard culture—which was nothing more than a bunch of badly dressed, dysfunctional teens searching for an alternative to high school football with absolutely no quarrels about hurting themselves and breaking laws—was consumed, digested, and spit out by corporations looking to profit from their prowess and popularity. The early skateboarding companies and sponsors reaped massive financial benefit from these youths, took the money, and then abandoned the youngsters to fend for themselves after the increased popularity of the sport damaged it to the point of self-destruction.
Gator was the archetypal 1980s skateboarding hero…he had the look, the dysfunctional family, the attitude (or "baditude," if you will), the outrageous fashion sense, and an undeniable skill on the half pipe. He was nowhere near the most graceful or talented skater out there, but he was always one of the best. His presence made up for his lack of grace, and an attitude that carried him further than he could have ever imagined. Plus, he knew how to party…and in the '80s, few things could take you further.
As big business took more and more notice of skateboarding, Gator's financial success grew by leaps and bounds. As one of the primary spokespersons for Vision Street Wear, his celebrity helped pioneer the entire skateboarding clothing market. Of equal importance, Gator was one of the first skateboarders to have his own skateboard line, as well as figure prominently into the home video market, from which the modern skateboarding culture eventually emerged. Videotapes allowed teenagers from all over the world, not just California, to appreciate skateboarding culture. But this rapid growth eventually caused a serious backlash. The skateboarding heroes were rapidly moving out into the remote hills of Fallbrook, building giant mansions and ramps, and getting farther away from origins of the sport. Concert organizers started organizing "skate concerts"—the precursor to ESPN-type coverage of skateboarding—where skateboarders would tour across the country, doing demos, signing autographs, and featuring live music, all while being televised.
As the popularity of the sport grew, it collapsed in upon itself, and a new generation of kids started getting back to the street; thus, a new style of skateboarding was invented. This new street-style was immediately successful because all you needed was a board and a street. You didn't have to be a vertical pipe champion, or break into abandoned swimming pools, or build insanely expensive half pipes. All you needed was a skateboard. And suddenly, the rock-star skateboarding stars of the '80s were suddenly out of a job.
Self-loathing and alcohol became Gator's source of dealing with his falling celebrity, cumulating in an accident in Germany where he got messed up on Jagermeister and swan dived out of a hotel room window, landing on top of a fence. As his money dwindled away, barely out of his teens, Gator suddenly found himself abandoned by the companies that only a year ago were flying him around the world, paying for limousines, and selling custom clothing lines featuring his name. Stoked pulls no punches painting a rather grim picture of Mark Rogowski's declining fortunes, until his mental snap, which resulted in a very dead woman and a life sentence in prison.
One of the more interesting aspects of Stoked is the modern-day interview/skate footage of Gator's peers who did survive the transition into the modern day of the sport; skaters like Kevin Staab, Steve Caballero, and Tony Hawk skated side-by-side with Gator back in the salad days, and still actively contribute to the sport, having overcome the adversity of changing times, and coming out better for it in the end. In fact, most of these people have become insanely wealthy, capitalizing off their celebrity in a decisively non-destructive way (unlike Gator). Even more ironically, many pro skaters of yesteryear are the ones running the so-called "evil" skateboarding companies today.
Visually, Stoked looks pretty well preserved. A lot of archival footage, home videos, and other sources go into the documentary, and under the circumstances, have been presented in the best possible quality. The image quality is typical documentary…nothing too stunning or impressive, but certainly the most well presented visual quality possible. A Dolby Surround 5.1 track is included as well, which in theory is a nice feature. Unfortunately, the mix is somewhat weak, with only the ambient sounds mixed into the rear speakers, with the vast majority of the dialogue and action in the front channels. It is far from being a bad audio track (when is surround sound truly bad?), but some more action in the rear channels would have justified the space taken up for a Dolby 5.1 track on this particular DVD. In comparison, the Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounds virtually identical, with reasonable documentary levels of audio response, and would have sufficed alone. Dialogue is always clear, and sound effects and ambient noises are well balanced overall. Music played an important part in early skateboarding subculture, and Stoked is loaded with appropriate music from the era, with a soundtrack that sounds suspiciously like my high school record (yes, record) collection. Featuring music from Black Flag, Agent Orange, the Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, the Butthole Surfers, and other early Southern California-type punk bands, the music in Stoked complements the film both thematically and historically, and makes for a rocking good soundtrack.
Stoked did some serious digging in terms of coming up with all sorts of goodies to cram into this DVD. A timeline feature outlines the major events of Gator's life and career, with the option to view segments of the documentary relevant to each particular point. This linear exploration of the film is an interesting feature for those interested in a more fact-driven examination of Gator's life. A massive list of extra features includes old vintage interviews, skate demos, ramp footage, home videos, skate jams, a television special, vintage advertising photo galleries, poems, apology letters, and a police confession (all written by Gator), and numerous other bonus little features and videos for your consuming pleasure. You can't knock the amount of extra goodies thrown into this disc. The only feature pointedly missing from Stoked would be a commentary track, but for a single disc DVD, the offering of extra material is most impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, it is difficult to determine where the filmmaker's sympathies lie. Stoked does a wonderful job of outlining the life and downfall of Mark Rogowski, but does an even better job of illustrating the demise of skateboarding itself…at least, the demise of the corporation-controlled, commercialized, overhyped, oversaturated, bloated, and excessive skateboarding culture. Gator himself asks for our forgiveness, but the film steers clear of voicing an opinion on the matter one way or another. For a documentary, it does some serious waxing romantic about the skateboarding culture of the '80s, but on the subject of Gator himself, Stoked is remarkably stoic and nonplussed.
Like his peers, Gator came from dysfunctional family situations. Like his peers, he came to skateboarding as an alternative to traditional sports, with the baggage they entail. So why then does Gator self-destruct when so many others survived? The film goes so far as to suggest the lack of a solid role model is to blame for Gator's demise; that if somebody had been there for him to give him support, perhaps his outcome would have been different.
So can we feel sorry for Gator? In the '80s, Tony Hawk built a mansion beside him, and they had a photocopier installed for the sole purpose of making Xeroxed copies of their butt cheeks. And yet, Hawk survived the rebirth of the sport…and how! Countless others survived as well. Certainly, the end of a skateboarding era is something to be preserved and mourned in a respectful way, but as for Gator's life…well, hard to say. His crime was inexcusable, and there is no fundamental way around that. His story is a tragic one, but in the end, there are few people on which we can pin the blame other than Gator himself.
Anyone that lived the life or grew up in the 1980s admiring the skateboarding lifestyle will find Stoked quite to their liking, and even if you are new to the subject, you will no doubt find the material fascinating. That is to say, totally tubular, dudes!
It is hard to find too much sympathy for Mark Rogowski in Stoked, whose crime was particularly disturbing and vicious, but nevertheless the film does a fantastic job of chronicling the entire California vertical skateboarding movement. Throw in some amusing special features to the mix, and Stoked emerges as a totally radical, gnarly DVD. Without a doubt, you will be stoked to add this hip, blast from the past documentary to your demented DVD collections, dudes and dudettes.
Like, soo not guilty, dudes. As if! Pshaw! Right!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
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