Overlooked Oeuvres: Stacy Peralta and American Skateboarding

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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I’ve been catching up with the film work of Stacy Peralta. Are UR readers familiar with Peralta? He’s a notable figure in the world of surfing and skateboarding who has recently turned his attention to making documentaries. These films, largely focused on the sports in which he made his name, are stylish, informative, and filled with human interest, and they reveal Peralta as a natural cultural historian — a guy with a zeal (and a talent) for imparting and contextualizing information. Peralta seems to realize how fortunate he was to be in the right place at the right time; now he’s doing what he can to preserve the history of the communities he helped to create.  There’s an evangelical aspect to his work as well: it reaches out of the realm of board riding and draws viewers in, where they can engage with the richness of the subculture and gain a sense of its general contours.

Born in California in 1957, Peralta came to surfing early, cutting his teeth in the waves below the ruined carcass of 1970s Venice Beach. His 2001 film “Dogtown and Z-Boys” recounts these days; in the process it reveals how Peralta and his buddies, many of them lower-class kids from broken homes, revolutionized skateboarding by infusing it with techniques drawn from surfing — things like crouching low and touching the pavement like surfer Larry Burtleman did the ocean, or riding up wave-like slopes of concrete, an action that became known as “going vertical.” When Peralta emphasizes the stylistic boldness of the Z-Boys (they surfed and skated for Zephyr, hence the “Z”), you can’t resist making a connection to his filmmaking, which is as slashing and bravado-laden as any surfer’s wave carving routine. And the editing, by Paul Crowder, has a flitting-but-muscular quality that suits the sports’ Hendrix-solo rhythms. It’s especially effective when toggling back and forth between footage of surfing and skating. This reveals the continuity of style undergirding the sports, and it allows you to see the arcane moves the interviewees are talking about. (Sadly, as the principal narrator, Sean Penn is a dud.)

At some level “Dogtown” is about style; its stealth subject matter is the rivulet of technique, talent, and ‘tude that flowed through surfing, into skating, and then into the broader ocean of the ’80s youth scene, where skateboarding came to seem inextricable from the sunny fuckyouism of post-punk suburbia. Peralta was witness to all of that, and he seems keen to be its official chronicler. This really comes across in the second of his skating documentaries, the 2012 “Bones Brigade.” It’s a sequel of sorts to “Dogtown,” and it picks up where the earlier film left off: in the early ’80s as Peralta joined forces with skateboard manufacturer George Powell to form the signature skateboarding outfit of the Reagan era, Powell Peralta. Having skated on one of the sport’s earliest teams, Peralta knew the company needed a stable of stars, so he quickly assembled a group of talented kids to promote the brand. With Peralta acting as their mentor, always taking care to steer them (at least for a while) away from the pitfalls he knew lay in wait for professional skateboarders, the Bones Brigade set out to bring skateboarding to the masses. “Bones Brigade” is a testament to their success.

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All things considered, “Dogtown” is probably the better movie, but “Bones Brigade” has a stronger human element. (Peralta has no interest in downplaying his personal connections to these guys or in being objective about his life-long passions.) And perhaps because it focuses on the era in which I grew up, I found it rather poignant. All of the team’s big names are present, and Peralta gets them to open up in ways you don’t expect. There’s goofball underdog Lance Mountain, athletic innovator Mike McGill, poetic freestyle savant Rodney Mullen (his presence is almost unbearably tender), punk-styled spark plug Steve Caballero, music-minded Tommy Guerrero, and of course Tony Hawk, the guy who would become skateboarding’s most recognizable star.

Emerging at a time when the counter-culture had mostly stopped providing figures of semi-polite rebellion, these guys had quite an impact on the legion of American kids who followed their exploits via “Thrasher Magazine” and low-budget videos distributed through mail-order. To a cloistered suburban teen, bored by MTV and the no-style ethic of indie rock, their proto X Games feats and colorful, punk-meets-the shopping-mall fashion sense were richly evocative. Among other things, they seemed an emanation of a quasi-mythic California (in hindsight, they were part of its last gasp), and it was stimulating to know they were out there somewhere, in a place where it was always sunny, brazenly turning death-defying tricks and inventing new, ever-weirder hairstyles. Even the names of these guys tickled the imagination. Who but someone truly awesome could live up to a name like Lance Mountain?

Both “Dogtown” and “Bones Brigade” benefit tremendously from their liberal employment of vintage footage; in both cases, a considerable effort must have been made to locate, transfer, and edit old film and tape, and to massage it into balance with the newly shot material. This gives the movies a poignancy they wouldn’t otherwise have, because it allows us to compare the youthful athletes with their grizzled older selves, and to wonder how one ended up begetting the other. In the case of “Bones Brigade” especially, much of the older material was shot by Peralta himself, often working alongside his partner in crime, the artist and DIY sage Craig Stecyk. Applying what they’d learned in the ’70s working with Zephyr, the duo marketed the Brigade as a group of crack skaters who were also unique individuals, and their use of outré imagery derived from punk and radical politics made the team seem poised right on the cutting edge, even if its members were really just normal kids.

(Along with Peralta, Stecyk strikes me as a figure of considerable interest. Based on what we see in these films — one of which he worked on — he’s partly responsible for the unique look and feel of modern surf and skateboard culture, and a quick Googling shows he’s still out there promoting his punk-meets-athletics approach to art and design. Good for him. See below for some links.)

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One of their primary marketing tools was the aforementioned series of skate videos. Distributed via cheap VHS cassettes, these started out showing the Brigade skating around streets and parking lots (the idea was to present them as urban guerrillas); later they evolved to incorporate some crude narrative elements. The most famous was the enigmatically titled “The Search for Animal Chin,” an hour-long mix of slapstick and skating that has the Brigade go sleuthing after the mythical inventor of skateboarding, a Confucius-like figure who has been driven underground by mysterious dark forces. Although the Peralta of 2012 seems a bit embarrassed by these lo-fi efforts, I was pretty impressed by “Animal Chin” when I revisited it a little while ago (I’d seen it a few times in my teens). Cheap though it is, it’s effectively paced, it does a good job of individualizing the members of the team, and the skateboarding is phenomenal; I think it has a lot more personality than its primary model, Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing opus, “The Endless Summer.” (Happily, Brian De Palma regular Gerrit Graham has a brief turn in “Animal Chin,” playing a thoroughly unradical skateboard manufacturer.)

In the late ’80s videos like “Animal Chin” were more than just skateboarding demonstration reels. They were compendiums of fashion, style, and have-fun philosophizing, and they pointed kids towards a lifestyle that was a little more colorful — and perhaps just a bit more dangerous — than what they were capable of finding in their living rooms and backyards. Though ignored by the mainstream, they energized kids all over the country; many of them came for the skating and left with a new fascination for the latest in slang, clothing, and music. (The videos served as de facto advertisements for underground bands like D.R.I., Metallica, and The Misfits; if their music wasn’t featured on the soundtrack, their logos showed up on the t-shirts worn by the Brigade and their friends.) A few years later, these same kids would serve as the tinder that fueled the grunge wildfire, and they would go on to make the X Games into a new institution. For a while, the influence of skate style was evident all over: I recall flashing on it when I first saw the colorful, pell-mell look of David Carson’s “Ray Gun” magazine.

The ’80s weren’t a great time for homespun youth culture. MTV had a rather deadening effect on music. The veiny hokery of pro wrestling seemed to be everywhere. And, following FCC deregulation, even cartoons came to be little more than advertising pitches for giant corporations. But skateboarding was something else again — an unpredictable and largely grassroots subculture, one which took the look and ethos of punk and gave it a candy-colored, athletic spin. I think it’s worth paying attention to.

“Bones Brigade” can be streamed via Netflix. “Dogtown” is available on Amazon.

Related:

  • The trailer for “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”
  • The trailer for “Bones Brigade.”
  • “The Search for Animal Chin” in its entirety.
  • The making of “Animal Chin.”
  • Peralta also directed “Riding Giants,” a terrific documentary on big-wave surfing. I guess it can be seen as being part of a trilogy along with “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and “Bones Brigade.” Available on Amazon.
  • A Hollywood movie was based on “Dogtown.” I haven’t seen it. Anyone know if it’s good?
  • One thing I wish these docs spent more time on: the graphics which decorated the boards of the various skaters. I’d be interested in learning more about skate-derived graphics and design in general. Seems like a great opportunity for a publisher like TASCHEN. Here’s a Flickr gallery of some vintage boards. Some more.
  • The “Times” haughtily dismisses “Bones Brigade.” I guess I don’t have a big problem with the “self-mythologizing” aspects of it. Somebody’s gotta do the mythologizing. . .
  • Venice Beach in the ’70s. My, how bodies have changed since then…
  • Free download of “The Search for Animal Chin.”
  • Slate on “Animal Chin.”
  • An interview with Craig Stecyk.
  • Another.
  • A short film featuring Stecyk.
  • Stecyk on Tumblr.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Performers, Personal reflections, Sports, Women men and fashion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Overlooked Oeuvres: Stacy Peralta and American Skateboarding

  1. Great piece. I loved “Dogtown” too, especially as cultural history, and like you I think skateboarding style has been HUGE in the culture generally. Here’s a little bit I got off back at 2Blowhards:

    “Are Craig Stecyk and Glen Friedman the most influential photographers of the last quarter-century? That’s what I was left wondering after watching Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta’s documentary about what the SoCal skateboarding scene was like back in the 1970s. The film is fascinating cultural history, even if its attempts to create a skateboarding look in film terms grow tiresome. But, for all the virtuosic athleticism and attitudinizing on display, what struck me most was the style thing — how big an impact skateboarding has had on photography and graphic design. Forget deconstruction and art school. What inspires a lot of today’s young, hotshot photogs and designers is skateboarding style, which Stecyk and Friedman played a big role in creating.”

    Sigh: I don’t know why I found the find a skateboarding look in film terms tiresome — my failing. Maybe it’s just because ’70s-’90s skateboarding (and ’80s pop culture generally) wasn’t my era.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Oh, wow. Didn’t realize you’d posted about “Dogtown.” I can maybe see it getting tiresome. It’s definitely a wall-to-wall stylization sort of thing, and it goes on for quite a while. I appreciate how much effort Peralta and co put into visually orientating the viewer, though — they bring you into the time period AND the sensibility. I caught up with some of Peralta’s Crips/Bloods doc last night (even though I have absolutely no interest in gang bangers). It’s less successful. He seems kind of lost outside of his home turf, and his sensibility is an odd fit with the subjects; he keeps trying to turn it into a movie about chic radicals. (I also suspect he’s way too PC-minded to treat these folks as anything other than symbols of oppression.) My main takeaway was something along the lines of: Wow, these guys really like to boast about their exploits as Very Dangerous People. In that respect it reminded me of the Miami Hurricanes doc made by that guy who did “Cocaine Cowboys,” who I suspect is less of a hippy than Peralta is.

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      • Looking forward to catching up with his other — OK, some of his other — movies. And interesting and talented figure, no question about that. I’m a little puzzled that more people haven’t acknowldeged the huge role skateboarding style has played in the culture generally. But maybe I just haven’t been following the right conversations.

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      • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

        PR — Aside from you in that 2Blowhards bit you quoted, I’ve never heard anyone make a case for skateboarding as being culturally interesting. But even back in the ’90s it seemed fairly obvious to me that some of the look and feel of ’90s “alternative” music and other then-new things was derived from that scene. (I’d known a lot of skateboarders, had seen the cheap-o movies, etc.) Watching these Peralta movies got me to thinking about it again (I just stumbled across “Bones Brigade” on Netflix instant, then rented the others). I ended up focusing the post on Peralta, because I feel like I have a fairly good handle on him now, and I think he’s a talented filmmaker, but I only have a vague inkling of who the other major figures might be. Stecyk seems like an obvious one, however. You mention Glen Friedman. That’s a new name to me, though it sounds sort of familiar.

        Definitely check out Peralta’s “Riding Giants.” I liked that a lot, especially the very early material about the big wave riders of Hawaii. Never knew about any of that. It seems those guys created their own little surfer-beatnik haven before the rest of the world caught on.

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  2. agnostic says:

    The link to the Flickr gallery goes to the Riding Giants page on Amazon. Here’s a gallery of the top 25 skateboard decks of the 1980s:

    http://www.complex.com/rides/2012/10/the-25-best-skateboard-decks-from-the-80s/

    They look kind of cool, though you can find the same overall look with more style on a heavy metal poster or album cover from the same era. Both took part of the broader Egyptian revival of the ’80s, so that’s a good comparison point. Here’s the #1 skateboard design showing a Pharoah, and the album cover for Powerslave by Iron Maiden. Neither is mind-blowing, but the heavy metal one is a more distinctive appropriation of Egyptian iconography for the scene’s own use.

    http://www.complex.com/rides/2012/10/the-25-best-skateboard-decks-from-the-80s/sims-pharoah

    What kept the skating scene from developing an style was its “fuckyouism,” when one of the main motivations to creating a style is to entice the unconverted to join the movement, and its “everything else sucks” view of eclecticism, curiosity, and jamming with other style schools that would have provided variation for them to build on.

    Too much ‘tude and an almost glib dismissal of outside influences run throughout the punk / skater / grunge lineage, and have become mainstream by now. And the visual result is no surprise: jumbled-up, in-your-face, wacky-zany references, and kneejerk iconoclasm. Heavy metal aesthetics have an order that can hold your attention, the surfer dude and disco dancer way of life was carefree laid-back and inviting, psychedelics revived Art Nouveau while new wavers revived Art Deco, and none of them were into wacky-zany (metal had pretensions toward the serious and sublime, for better or worse in any case).

    I don’t think people appreciate how strikingly different aesthetics stem from fundamental splits along personality lines. The more socially-emotionally avoidant, the more minimalist or jumbled-collage-y the style, depending on whether they want don’t want to be noticed at all, or want to emphasize how little they want to get close to the audience. The more open, secure, and engaging the personality, the more inviting, exciting, and catchy the style.

    The crucial contrast is between skaters and metalheads. Skaters had less style and were deliberately underground, while metalheads had more style and grew into an army during the ’80s. Mainstream culture never felt threatened by skaters, either their look or their behavior, while they thought the metalheads were going to take over, corrupt, or destroy all that was good.

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  3. agnostic says:

    “The ’80s weren’t a great time for homespun youth culture.”

    It was the height of unmediated, grassroots youth culture. Look at any phenomenon that relies on oral or in-person transmission:

    Breakdancing, the dance craze in general, urban legends and tale-telling generally, children’s subversive schoolyard songs (“I hid behind the door with an M-64, and she ain’t gonna teach no more”), playground games old and new (four square, butt’s up), youth slang like totally taking over to the max, joke-telling and entire joke “cycles” (dead babies, Polacks, screwing in lightbulbs), DIY jean jackets among metalheads, playing with hairstyles to lead in different directions, carving initials into trees, carving messages into wet cement, painting messages on the overpass, graffiti covering every square inch in certain urban areas, the God Squad (enthusiastic, evangelical religious youth groups) on high school and college campuses, teenage runaways hanging out on the street during the day and squatting some abandoned apartment building by night, street gangs, 1 out of every 4 dudes being in a local band….

    I could go on and on. All of that stuff was barely getting started in the 1960s, and was still a fringe thing in the late ’60s. Not since the Roaring Twenties had the oral / in-person culture been so pervasive. Even the culture that was mediated was not a top-down mass medium — the overpass, the tree bark, the sidewalk cement, the subway car.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I’ve always taken it as a given that “homespun youth culture” (whatever I mean by that — I’m not even sure) decreased considerably as the ’70s became the ’80s (and as the ’80s became the ’90s). My very general sense is the kids have been progressively less likely to run free on the range and make things up on their own in every decade since the ’50s. Glad to know your take on the ’80s is different. Those are some good examples of youth culture.

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  4. Pingback: Documentary Recommendations | Uncouth Reflections

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