Dogtown & Z-Boys

May 22, 2002 at 12:00 am

Jimi Hendrix cranks up “Easy Rider” as director Stacy Peralta’s camera zooms up to and away from the talking heads of the men and lone woman who were once called “Z-Boys,” the Zephyr Skateboarding Team. It moves as they did on their scaled-down, wheeled surfboards catching waves of concrete and asphalt on the static shores of ’70s West LA — “Dogtown.” It moves as they still do on the faded color footage that flashes by like the white lines of a highway seen from thin boards of wood rushing just inches above the blacktop.

It all makes sense. Hendrix took a slab of wood strung with wires — almost a jet-age parody of a guitar — and made a revolution of sound that transcended the instrument. The Z-Boys took a toy surfboard that was once as faddish as the yo-yo or the hula hoop and used it as a tool to revolutionize their lives, carving and grinding their harsh urban landscape into a playground and work of art. Stacy Peralta was one of them.

Peralta documents the class lines and struggles of Santa Monica through the rise and fall of Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions associates Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk (Dogtown co-writer with Peralta) and the kids that they coached as the Zephyr Skateboarding Team. The Frankies and Annettes from North Santa Monica weren’t welcome: “Little blonde girls named Buffy just wasn’t my scene,” Engblom laughs.

Ho designed, Engblom built and Stecyk painted boards inspired by hot rods, Chicano lowriders and urban graffiti. The Zephyr Surf Team smashed ’em up surfing through the pilings, broken concrete and exposed rebar of Venice’s ruined Pacific Ocean Park pier, which they defended from Northern beach-boy interlopers as their gang turf. Peralta, appearing as a talking head in his own documentary, calls the team “a mafia.” Only “made men” were allowed to surf.

The Skateboarding Team took the by-any-means-necessary Zephyr spirit to the streets. The rainbow coalition of Z-Boys (including two Asians and a black) literally got down to the nitty-gritty, bending low enough to caress passing road as they got their swerve on new urethane wheels. They were the scandal of competitions that used the upright and uptight old-school maneuvers.

Peralta glides and cuts through archival photographs and footage that illustrate his story like a Ken Burns alternately cranked on a bump of crystal meth or mellowed on a blunt and a 40. The look is calculated rawness, a visual punk jazz of adrenaline and improvisation.

But the visuals are just icing on the cake of an archetypical tale of revolution. There are betrayals and sellouts as the Z-Boys pull themselves up by their own skateboards. There are tragic falls beyond the road as some ride with ego-swollen heads on wheels of clay. But the heart of the Dogtown Movement, as the Z-Boys call it, is that the ultimate underprivileged — poor kids — managed to not only take control of their lives but their environments and carve a wonderland from urban concrete in lines as graceful, if not as enduring, as Jackson Pollock’s.

And between these lines lies a message that makes us uniquely human: At our best we may take anything — like a wooden board — push it and ourselves beyond all logical limits to cut even the primordial bonds of gravity and learn to fly … not just physically, but spiritually.

Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

E-mail James Keith La Croix, Anita Schmaltz or Richard C. Walls at [email protected].