Treading a fine line between documentation and sales pitch, Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys is a hyperbolic account of the birth of outlaw skateboarding in the early ’70s. Its po-faced portrayal of the era as slightly less epochal than the Renaissance may be risible, but its spirit of iconoclastic abandon—however canned—makes for unexpectedly giddy viewing.
The film traces the lives and careers of the Zephyr Skating Team (of which Peralta was a member), a group of Southern California teenagers who altered the course of skateboarding with their disdain for convention and feats of physical derring-do. Originally a gang of low-rent surfers who frequented the dilapidated beaches of south Santa Monica (the Dogtown of the title), the Z-Boys were known for their fierce, often violent territorialism and predilection for suicidal stunts. After taking to the pavement and stealing the show at a corporate-sponsored skateboard derby in 1975, the boys found themselves—like the pros they once considered beneath their contempt—courted by fat-pocketed skate companies sniffing around for promotional talent. Thirty years later the moves they pioneered are the stuff of network-TV sportscasts and multimillion-dollar ad campaigns.
If this wholesale sellout cast a pall on the group’s camaraderie, you’d never know it from Peralta’s movie. The now middle-aged Z-Men gush about the good old days (embellishing wildly, one suspects), and their blowhard earnestness adds to the film’s endearingly overstated tone. Visually, Peralta proves himself as natural with a camera as with a skateboard. His irreverent patchwork style is an ideal match for the material, and he nails every narrative arc the story has to offer. (He also gets extra points for working Alice Cooper’s “Generation Landslide” into the otherwise familiar soundtrack.)
The drawbacks to Dogtown‘s insiderish approach are most apparent when the director himself steps in front of the camera to reminisce. Helmed by a key participant in its story and partially funded by skateboard shoe manufacturer Vans Inc., the film is virtually devoid of objectivity or skepticism. Considering the financial boom that a positive spin on Z-history offers both parties, the accentuation of the Zephyr team’s influence on the sport seems more than a trifle suspect. It doesn’t help that the single note of tragedy Peralta and co-screenwriter Craig Stecyk (a photojournalist and hanger-on from back in the day) wring from the tale comes at the expense of Jay Adams, the highest-profile member to pass up the perks of skateboard godhood. Peralta and Stecyk’s framing of his troubled life as a warped mirror image of their own success is boorish and unnecessary. For all that, you have to give them credit for making the best infomercial you’ll ever pay to sit through.
If Dogtown captures L.A. in all its sun-drenched, prefab glory, Adam Rifkin’s Night at the Golden Eagle showcases one of its funkier downtown hellholes. Set in a festering fleabag hotel, the film follows two aging crooks (Vinny Argiro and Donnie Montemarano), a suave pimp (Vinnie Jones), and several inexplicably urbane “hoo-ers” (including Ann Magnuson and Natasha Lyonne) over the course of a single eventful night. Rifkin milks the generic Bukowski-land setting for all its melodramatic potential, but what little grace his tale of precarious skid-row dignity achieves is pushed into the margins by predictable plotting and tiresome histrionics. Tap-dancing great Fayard Nicholas and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) provide poignant relief as longtime tenants, but their scenes are as fleeting as the movie’s inspiration is pallid. Was the need for The Million Dollar Hotel II really so pressing?