Movie Review
Lords of Dogtown
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: John Robinson, Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch

california, as we’ve seen depicted in countless films and novels, is a mausoleum of dreams. From the migrant farmers in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, to ex-governor Gray “Girly Man” Davis, the state mood seems to be—or so the cliché goes—one of unmitigated failure in the face of wild possibility. At one point in his novel, Steinbeck describes the state’s inhabitants as descending from “frantic hungry men” who “guarded with guns the land they had stolen.” California, here we come.

By the mid-seventies, however, Steinbeck was dead, perhaps secure in the knowledge that generations of high school students would grow up looking at his photograph and wondering, mostly aloud, why the author of The Red Pony would bear such a profound resemblance to Lucifer. And it is most certainly this kind of youth, unruly and bellicose, who populate the scorched California landscape of Lords of Dogtown, a film that documents the rise of skateboarding in America.

"No, seriously, dude, I don't really have a frizzy blond perm, do I?"

Based on a true story which was made into the 2002 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys by Stacy Peralta (LOD’s screenwriter and, appropriately, a central character), the film stars Heath Ledger as Skip, a washed-up beach bum and surf shop proprietor with designs on bringing his neighbourhood’s skaters together to form a team. Skip handpicks the local gang’s most prodigious talents and sponsors them in competitions under his Zephyr brand name. Three skaters, Jay (Emile Hirsch), Stacy (John Robinson), and Tony (Victor Rasuk), distinguish themselves as the real winners of the bunch by taking advantage of the smooth surfaces found in their community’s dried-out swimming pools to practice, and the entire team achieves a kind of celebrity not yet possessed by any other skateboarder.

Though relentlessly commercial, the film’s negligible “star power” derives from Ledger, who has apparently hung up his jousting regalia from A Knight’s Tale in favour of a set of false teeth and a bottle of Jim Beam. The definitions below,* taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, may help to shed some light on Ledger’s appearance in the film: (1) frilly, over-the-top affectation, (2) with nothing but the potential of box-office revenues motivating the decision to cast him. Instead of haunting the film with something like the ghost of Jim Morrison, Ledger comes off as invoking the funeral pyre of Val Kilmer’s career.

The film’s drama, however, is as empty as its swimming pools. Jay’s mother works long hours in sweatshop conditions to pay the rent, and Tony’s ego begins to careen out of control when he falls prey to Topper Burks (Johnny Knoxville) and Boogie Nights-style excess. After some brief romantic strife, Stacy is fine. All three characters’ plotlines fall flat, partially because the frenetic screenplay doesn’t linger on anything for long enough to extract any real tension, and also because none of the actors has even close to the kind of charisma necessary to match their real life counterparts.

"So baked right now..."

A viewer might also question whether director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) cares at all about skateboarding. And what, if anything, does it mean to these guys? For Jay, the lucrative possibilities of sponsorship understandably serve as a possible meal ticket, a way out of his “ghetto by the sea” neighbourhood and an opportunity to support his flaky, perennially sun-baked mother. But outside of a few extended bouts of unrestrained (and irritating) horseplay, there are almost no scenes in which the boys are allowed to truly inhabit their sport and all of its potential for freedom. The film also fails to harness the kind of slacker-cool aesthetic embodied, for example, by the curb-gliding speaker of Pavement’s suburban hymn, “Range Life:” “Out on my skateboard the night is just hummin’ / And the gum smacks are the pulse I’ll follow if my walkman fades.” Skateboarding, in other words, requires a kind of grace that shuts out the world and its trifles, but the film’s visual depiction of the sport rarely moves beyond lame, exhibitionistic trickery.

Ultimately, Peralta’s documentary helps to elucidate many of the film’s more puzzling qualities, and makes for a more compelling look at the socio-economic factors that resulted in the development of the sport. An obvious attempt to draw in skateboarding aficionados interested in seeing how it all began, Lords of Dogtown is guilty of the same kind of crass consumerism of which it (reluctantly) accuses the skateboarders’ sponsors. Oh well, just another California letdown.

* Heath: A shrub with small pink or purple bell-shaped flowers.
Ledger: A book or other collection of financial accounts.

By: Bob Kotyk
Published on: 2005-06-13
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