Tuesday, June 07, 2005

REVIEW: Lords of Dogtown

Ever since "Boogie Nights," the default arc for recent-history biopics has been as follows: The hero(es) begin living lives of utopian happiness in the "carefree" 1970s, and come crashing down once their various lifestyles are tainted by the stain of 1980s capitalist "greed." Previously, the "empty" hedonism of the Disco Age was shown as the "dark finale" of the "peaceful" 60s, as seen in the 80s fantasy musical "The Apple" where 60s-style folk singers lead a rebellion against a facist Disco-themed world government. That may have worked before, but to a generation for whom the "flower children" have grown up into "the system," it just no longer washes.

And so we have the "Boogie Nights" model: The sex, drugs, glitter-fueld and responsibility-free 70s are the days of wine and roses, and if only they could've gone on forever instead of being cut down by recessions, Reaganomics and AIDS. The heroes are happily living out perpetual adolescence, only to be "cruelly" smacked down by sudden and horrible adulthood. How perfectly this resonates with a certain bulk of "Generation X," so often raised themselves in utopian extended childhoods by hippie-turned-yuppie Boomer parents only to be shocked upon entry into the real world, has everything to do with why the model keeps getting used.

"Lords of Dogtown" tries, with varying success, to press into this model the story of the rise of modern skateboard culture through the eyes of the "Z-Boys" skate pioneers in Venice Beach, California. The characters and rough outline are sketched from an excellent documentary from a few years back, "Dogtown & Z-Boys," which should be considered required viewing if you wish to understand a single thing that happens in this film and are not already intimately familiar with the Venice Beach skate culture.

Briefly: The "Z-Boys" are Venice Beach surfer teens who, upon the invention of eurythane wheels, learn to "surf" on concrete with skateboards. Their feats of acrobatic derring-do turn skateboarding from a niche non-sport into a cultural phenomenon, but it also turns them into marketable celebrities. Eventually endorsement deals, shifting loyalty and the pressures of grownup life destroy their innocence, break the group up, contribute to the dreaded "commercialization" of the skate culture and yadda yadda yadda...

Meanwhile, the "Boogie Nights"-mandated soundtrack of classic rock hits blares on over the soundtrack, and eventually the film becomes and endless swirl of skateboard terminology and name-dropping. Certainly, those with a pre-existing fascination for the sport and this formative era may indeed find all this fascinating, and I enjoy a good show of skateboard stunts as much as the next guy... but it's finally just hard to care about much that happens here.

Which is not to say that the material can't be made interesting. On the contrary, writer Stacy Peralta (one of the founding Z-Boys) directed the "Dogtown" documentary which was riveting because it featured the real participants in the action, and their nostalgia was infectious. Here, with actors in the roles and a narrative drama-structure imposed, it's just hard to develop a lot of interest.

Yes, very sad and very happy things happen to the characters, but it just can't escape the problem that a story of a niche sport going mainstream is not in itself really very interesting to watch. It must have been fascinating to live through, and the documentary allowed the audience to experience that. The film, while earnest and made with great sincerity, just cannot accomplish the same thing. It's like watching people's vacation videos: No matter how interesting a place they may have traveled, the footage almost never conveys what it must have been like to be there.



Cammo said...

I loved Lords Of Dogtown. It is probably the best movie I have seen so far this year. Or at least right up there with Sin City.

Bob said...

I really WANTED to like it more than I did. It's heart is obviously in the right place, but I just couldn't shake two feelings: First, that I'd just seen this story too many other times with different professions rising and falling, and second; that I was much more engaged by the side-story arc of Skip the Zephyr shop owner than I was in any of the Z-Boys.