05 November 2008

Dogtown and Z-Boys

I'm exhausted, but I feel like I've been neglecting this blog, so...

Honestly, I dunno, meh. This movie didn't do that much for me. I mean, the skating footage was cool, and the story was kind of interesting, but overall, I was much less impressed than I expected to be.

I suppose what was fascinating about it was, first off, this idea of skateboarding as more of an art than a sport. What's emphasized repeatedly in the film is that every skater has an individual style, and how, especially in the early day, it was all about creativity and innovation, and figuring out what you could do on the board. People think of skating as an athletic thing, and it is, but it's also very much about what it looks like. Sort of like figure skating, heh heh.

Secondly, the story itself. I'm not sure what the film was really trying to say about how this group of skateboarders became international cultural icons - and highly commodified creatures - but it was definitely interesting to think about. I've been thinking about capitalism and it's creative genius a lot lately (ever since I heard about this. Wow. Really just wow.), and this movie is definitely good food for thought in that regard.

So here are these guys who live in a crappy area and skateboard a lot. They're on the fringe of society. They're cultivating their own kind of aesthetic. It doesn't seem to be a conscious thing; they just really like skating and surfing. And then people start to get interested in them, and then this reporter writes a series of articles, with photographs, and voila, next thing you know, they're doing tours, promoting products, and generally being businessmen. And, to be fair, turning their fringe sport into a major event. Henry Rollins does a cameo and tells us about how all the kids in his snowy town were living vicariously through these guys. Tony Hawk tells us they inspired him. Ok, cool.

So on the one hand, there's the whole, what does it mean to become massively popular, and is it really a good thing? There's this curious moment where one of the guys talks about how he sort of regrets it, because it led to lots of drugs and partying, crazy stupid youth, etc. And how perhaps if he'd been better at marketing himself, things might have turned out differently. Then another guy comments, saying "Man, he could have had it all. And it's such a tragedy that he didn't". So then I wonder to myself, what does he means by `have it all'? What is it the guy could have had? More money and fame? Isn't that the part that he pretty much regrets in the first place?

Also, there's this whole issue of becoming a commodity. So these guys become massively popular, and it seems obvious to me that the major reason for this is because other people figure out there's money to be made by them being popular. So for awhile, other people are hiring them to do appearances, promote products, etc. Sure, the guys make some money, but whoever is hiring them is making WAY more. This actually reminded me of Hoop Dreams, in that again you see talented kids being exploited financially by people who pretend they're helping them make their dreams come true, and in actually don't care about them at all. But then, curiously enough, a lot of the Z-Boys seem to have figured this out and gone into business for themselves. And this, in some ways is cool - they're promoting this thing they love, and spreading it to other places, and meanwhile doing well for themselves. But still, it's a whole new thing now. At one point, a kid who's dying of cancer, as his dying wish, asks his Dad to empty out their pool and let the Z-Boys skate there. And they talk about how this is so great, because a. they have a stable location in which to work, and b. it's just them, skating, like back in the good old days. In other words, it seems to me, what they really loved all along was what they were doing in the first place - everything that followed, in many ways, wasn't nearly as satisfying. Well, except for Tony Alva, who was stoked because he got to officially be the best in the world. But then again, ahem, when you pretty much invented the sport, you know...

Then, there's this repeated refrain that it wasn't just about the skating, it was about the culture. This is particularly fascinating to me, because the culture seems to be pretty superficial - I mean, yes, there are socioeconomic factors that the Z-Boys generally share, but that's not really what they're exporting. Nor, for that matter, are they really embodying a specific set of beliefs, or an approach to the world (though the idea of skater as urban guerilla is frequently mentioned, it's also never really discussed in depth, other than some loving stories of trespassing and vandalism). At one point, they it's the attitude. But what they really seem to mean by this is a general kind of tone - a way of playing it cool. They redefined cool. But it seems to me that this is an early example of a kind of cool that is basically an empty signifier - kind of a foreshadowing of more recent commodified coolness (think Naomi Klein's No Logo) or the hyperbolically bemoaned hipster phenomenon. I mean, this is obviously a far cry from that, but, yeah, I dunno. It does seem somewhat similar, at least as presented by the movie.

Finally, there's the mythologizing aspect to it. Mythologization and commodification obviously go well together, but really, it's a little weird how nostalgic these guys are, and how much they've built up their past in these epic terms. Especially given that they don't really seem to have formed lasting, meaningful friendships, and they all basically jumped the shark the minute they had the chance to.

Some interesting material, but the movie didn't really do much with it, I guess.


elbb said...

Do they really need to expand on some "urban guerrilla" idea to have a fuller or less commodified coolness?

When you start talking about skating as mostly an aesthetic and a culture I think you're diminishing the importance of the sport: the physicality, the beauty of the athletics, the joy of landing your first trick in front of your friends. This is what the rest of the stuff is based on.

The cool thing about skating culture, much like surfing culture or snow board culture I s'ppose, is that the culture or aesthetics grew out of and with the love for the sport.

Sure, there are plenty of folks who wear skate shoes but don't skate. But I really think you won't stay on the board for long if you don't truly love what you're doing, if you don't love the sound of asphalt tearing through your trucks or if you don't love the thrill of testing gravity.

That's the beauty of it. And it doesn't need some kind of over-wrought theorizing to make it full.

culture_vulture said...

Oh no, that's not what I was trying to say. I absolutely agree, loving skating and developing an aesthetic alongside it is a beautiful thing, and doesn't require theorizing to be worthwhile. I was more talking about the people who turned it into a phenomenon for export or display - initially, I think, because they themselves were in love with it, but then later, to make money. And it seemed to me like there were plenty of moments in the film where a given person would try to attach some kind of deeper meaning to the culture itself, and ballast it with some kind of "deeper" meaning, and moments like that kind of rang hollow. I guess I was more thinking about how there's a pressure to produce meanings like that in order to justify it as a documentary project? When yeah, just the love of the sport is really what it's about.

I wasn't intending to diminish the physicality of the sport - I guess I take that part for granted. It was more that I hadn't considered the aesthetic aspects of it, and the movie made me appreciate them a lot more.