For those who imagine that skateboarding first met cinema with Dogtown and Z-Boys, consider this: As Hollywood fumbled through skatesploitation failures of the ’80s and early ’90s like Gleaming the Cube and The Skateboard Kid, a burgeoning subculture fostered both Spike Jonze and the Jackass crew, who learned their craft shooting material for skate videos. Via Kids and Ken Park, Larry Clark has emerged as a para-skate demigod. Now, skate cinema has reached two new milestones with Helen Stickler’s indie documentary Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator and Warner Bros.’ moronic, big-budget tits-and-teens comedy Grind. While Stoked serves up a gripping look at skate history through an investigation of one of its darker moments, Grind belittles its intended audience by imagining it as merely another target market.
Incisive and clear-eyed, Stoked tracks the career trajectory of Mark “Gator” Rogowski, an ’80s vert master whose bad-boy-in-spandex shenanigans, photogenic profile, and extensive merchandising helped craft the image of pro skater as rock star. Considered one of the decade’s top skaters, he was earning six figures a year by age 17. But when vert’s theatrical, air-catching style grew uncool following the rise of street skating, and his major sponsor, Vision, failed to change with the times, Rogowski’s ego trip took a nasty detour. A hardcore fame junkie, he plunged into an unstable withdrawal. “My photo coverage in all the magazines was getting less and less,” he recalls in Stoked. After a near fatal on-tour freak-out and a subsequent conversion to Christianity, Rogowski lost his long-term girlfriend, Brandi McClain, then hit rock bottom. In an apparent act of rage and revenge, he brutally raped and murdered McClain’s best friend, Jessica Bergsten, and buried her body in the California desert. He’s now serving 31 years to life.
Through interviews with Rogowski’s circle, which includes many of skating’s superstars, Stickler tells the tale of how skate- boarding grew from a small-time kiddie pastime into a global youth lifestyle industry, embracing the inherent and at times absurd contradiction of a subculture fostered through corporate-sponsored generational rebellion: Ultimately, Gator’s antics served more to promote skateboarding’s punkass, fuck-you-very-much self-image than any of his mall-friendly Vision Wear fashions. In chronicling this rise, Stoked works as a dizzying database of ’80s moments, including Rogowski’s David Lee Roth-esque Vision promo spots, his dorky Club MTV appearance, and the overblown WWF-style Swatch Impact tour. Lurking behind these near-surreal Day-Glo video artifacts is a critique of market-driven excess and the human fallout it can leave in its wake. As Stickler notes in the coda, Rogowski was not the only pro skater of his generation to end up in jail.
One of Gator’s contemporaries in Stoked is clean-cut Tony Hawk, whose savvy entrepreneurship helped mainstream skating’s image. Little surprise, then, that the partially Hawk-produced Grind is a logo-laden celebration of the joys of sponsorship wrapped inside an innocuous teen-pic package. Four high school grads pose as a skate team funded by the fictitious “Super Duper Skateboards,” road-tripping cross-country to skate demos in hopes of landing a real sponsorship that will grant them unlimited access to “girls, money, and signing autographs.” Though the likable cast works smoothly with the well-oiled script, Grind is, sadly, no Dude, Where’s My Skateboard? Despite cameos from Bobcat Goldthwait and Tom Green (the latter in a vintage Gator T-shirt), the humor rarely rises above fart and poop jokes, and the treatment of female “characters” (to use the word generously) is wearisomely sexist, even for this genre. In the end, of course, the boys get the money, the swag, the fame, and the ladies: a dream of corporate-funded eternal adolescence, eerily similar to the fantasy sold to a previous generation. Later, Gator.