A Kook’s Guide to Skateboarding: Thrashin’

It’s always funny to see an “official” analysis of subculture, or the mainstream trying to interpret the latest subcultural hysteria like punk or text messaging. The Grunge era was indicative of this. Eddie Vedder notoriously made up words when the New York Times asked him to name and define some grunge terminology for their dictionary of young, modern lingo because, as can be interpreted from this, the activity of the youth as seen from the non-youth is just so complex. What it also meant was that a subculture was gaining popular – and in that case it was the underground music scene (and not just in Seattle) – only to be devoured and perverted once it became adopted into the mainstream, inevitably leading to the purist’s accusations of selling out.

Teen markets are the most lucrative, since you tend to get fickle in spending when you start making your own, limited income. In the case of skateboarding, there has been numerous Renaissances and Dark Ages in its more than 50 year old fluctuating history, and “outsiders” to the activity were there at every profitable upturn to hungrily exploit. It isn’t all a Boogie Man’s Tale, and in fact, opportunism led to a lot of much-needed improvements in the device central to the activity: the skateboard itself, among other things. But on the other hand, those decades churned out a lot of nonsense intended to catch the eyes (and dollars) of skaters and non-skaters alike by characterizing and simplifying the scene. By the mid-80s, the meant depicting the skater as misfits and California as their cultural Promised Land (although, California was the cultural promised land to most everything young and hip in the eyes of mid-80s Hollywood… except for those suckers in the fictional landlocked locale of Shermer, Illinois). Suddenly, skating, which managed to survive the bust of the second generation (post-Dogtown), was something worthy paying attention to again. But, as far as mainstream appeal goes, craft and technique wasn’t as important as attitude.

Two more skateboard-themed adventure films emerged during the late 80s — Gleaming the Cube in 1989 (see the earlier Muvika! blog post “Ho Chi Min Doesn’t Skateboard”) and Thrashin in 1986 — that are probably the more oft-cited ones today (because not too many nostalgic film fans are familiar with the 1970s choices of Skateboard: The Movie, where real skaters Tony Alva and Ellen Page play second banana to one very annoying Lief Garret, Freewheelin which was corny enough to be a grade school slide show for a desperate substitute teacher but, with plenty of skate sequences with Stacey Peralta, Paul Constantineau (another Dogtowner), Russell Howell, Tom Sims coming from different backgrounds (surfing, skiing, and even rollerskating) actually made some sense of the never-elaborated suggestions of  “style”, and even the short documentary Skateboard Kings (available on YouTube) which really emphasized the commercial advantages and the marketable misfit personalities of guys like Alva. The skateboarding films that followed in the 90s and beyond weren’t all that much of an improvement – Grind despicably played up an unmitigated obsession with sponsorship; Clark Walker’s little-known Levelland tried to get political in his film of a handful of skater friends making sense of the boredom and hopelessness in a small Texas suburb; and Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown perverted everything Peralta’s wonderful Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary laid on the table (Hardwicke and Peralta both worked on the film, and earlier on, both worked behind the scenes on Thrashin’).

As far the two mid-80s picks go, Gleaming the Cube certainly tried too hard to get spiritual with audiences (though at least thankfully made an attempt) in trying to explain the allure of the activity, but it was at least much more innovative with the plot than most sports-themed films tend to be: a teenage skater avenges his adopted brother’s death in an adventure/action film doused in Cold War politics. Though Christian Slater took the helm and hammed up the screen, pro-skaters (many of them Bones Brigade members at the time) were allowed slightly more camera time especially Tony Hawk and his perfect McSqueeb hair. Even actor Max Perlich (as Yabbo) could actually skate. Plus, the skate sequences were quite good and plentiful (as they should be) with Mike McGill and Rodney Mullen both pretty obviously doing those tricks as a stand in for Slater (who was taught the basics by Tommy Guerro).

But what to say about Thrashin‘? That it was directed by David Winters, the man responsible for the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which riffed on disastrous Space Mutiny? That it had a typical 80s California title song performed by Meatloaf? That the promotional poster featured the nonsensical taglines, “Reckless! Totally Insane!” That is was a knockoff of The West Side Story? Or that it egregiously plucked from its portrayal of skateboarding two of its most appealing features (at the time): the individuality nurtured by an activity completely devoid of rules, and the camaraderie in a sport that really needed that kind of solidarity to survive   the historical slumps.

After unsuccessfully trying to land Johnny Depp for the leading role as the director initially wanted, Josh Brolin, fresh from finishing The Goonies, instead played Cory Webster, an amateur skater visiting friends in LA where he’s expecting to compete in a downhill race. (The funny part is that he spends most of his time practicing for the downhill on vert sessions… uh-oh!). With twinkles in his eyes, he is hoping to get sponsored if he does well enough in the race. Cory and his happy-go-lucky friends from the Valley, the agonizingly named “Ramp LOCALS” frequently have run-ins with a black-and-skull clad skate gang called The Daggers, lead by a guy named Hook (Robert Rusler, from Weird Science and Shag). (Sherylin Fenn in one of her many weird choice of second roles in 80s movies, has a small part as the strangely obedient girlfriend of Hook). The Daggers embody that early stereotypical skate “attitude,” probably as result of the gross-out graphics and bone-centric logos that were beginning to mark the norm in skateboard graphics (Skull Skates were on the market, too, at the time).

Hook and his zealous goons, who despise the pretty young things from the Valley, become a real liability (real men proving their prowess with pool jousting!) for Cory and his friends when Cory shows an interest in Hook’s normal kid sister, Chrissy, who is visitng from Indiana.

Cory and Chrissy finish a big bowl of ice cream. Where’s their Ziggy Piggy badge? (screen cap from www.chucksconnection.com)

Eventually, Cory shows Hook he isn’t a bad skater, and like the Cobra Kai’s Johnny’s weird reversal of character at the end of the first Karate Kid movie, Hook decides, that clean cut kid who can skate really isn’t such a bad guy afterall.

It wasn’t all that disastrous, though the continuous declaration that the “board industry” continues to regard the movie as “legendary” is extremely questionable (this crying foul for Wiki!). The early club performance of Red Hot Chilli Peppers that the RampLOCALs show up was unfortunately chock full of 80s cheesiness when, like the BMX-off at the school dance in Rad, Cory’s friends gain the spotlight on their skateboards.

No doubt, there were at least enough appreciable sequences that showed the variety in skateboarding that really doesn’t exist anymore. At Venice Beach, Cory and his friends enthusiastically observe both street skaters like Caballero and freestylers like Per Welinder in the same concrete arena. Cory and his friends demonstrated their vert skills on their homemade half-pipe, doing aerial tricks just a few inches below the boom mike that falls into the frame. And the end presents the Hook-and-Cory face-off while competing in the downhill competition, a pretty tricky lot, considering the speeds at which skaters travel. And, probably missed by most of the non-skating 80s fans who seem to keep this movie from being entirely forgotten, is that Thrashin’ features plenty of familiar skating faces. Tony Alva and Christian Hosoi play members of the Daggers (odd for such a reputably nice guy like Hosoi). The Bones Brigade also make an appearance, and visible on the street course are Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, and as already mentioned, Steve Cabellero and Rodney Mullen. Even Kevin Staab, Allen Losi, and Lester Kasai show up as pool skaters.

A cheesy sports movie might get by if the action sequences are ample and well done. The previews to Thrashin’ focuses more on the rivalry and romance than it does any of the skateboarding, quite telling of the film’s action sequences (the trip down Hollywood Boulevard feautres an unmatched number of stunt riders in obvious wigs) and laughable moments (did the jousting sequence inspire the event in the NES game, Skate or Die?).

The movie is available on DVD, but for the impatient, check it out on YouTube before the copyright police jack up the audio track.


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