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.



Fiberglass Underdogs: North Shore

The creators of the 1987 cult surf adventure, North Shore, deserve a lot of credit. Granted, it manages to pack several tired cliches of the sports movie genre into the span of 96 minutes (the triumph of the underdog, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired romance, and the preserved spirituality of a sport that’s become a billion-dollar industry), but the filmmakers managed to successfully avoid the heavy Hollywood hand that, for example, movies like Thrashin’ and Under the Boardwalk suffered from. Having come out around the same time as North Shore, they were skate and surf movies that were obviously steered by studio executives and filmmakers who had no real concept of the then-modern teenager, nor their sport, resulting in movies that made pure caricatures of both as though the research was limited to browsing pictures in top-shelf sports magazines and scanning slang dictionaries.

North Shore, on the other hand, albeit in dated fashion, still managed to maintain a certain respectability. The movie introduced relatively unknown actors (many of whom could surf, which eliminated the need for too many stunt doubles). Major supporting roles were filled by some of the best professional surfers of the decade like big wave superstar Laird Hamilton, Gerry Lopez, and Mark Occhilupo, while guys like Shaun Thompson, Corky Carroll, and the late Mark Foo showed up in cameos. There was nothing particularly inaccessibly luxurious about the settings or the characters. They came from a regular towns and modest homes. And most importantly, the filmmakers remembered to make surfing the top priority, emphasizing this with some gorgeous 35 mm surfing footage for a documentary effect which would later be blatantly duplicated in director John Stockwell’s mediocre surfer girl drama, Blue Crush. When the movie surfaced on cable movie channels in the past, it had sometimes been accompanied by a short behind-the-scenes commentary with director William Phelps (who co-wrote North Shore with Randal Kleiser and Tim McCanlies), and it focused primarily on the cinematography, which may seem rare, considering that behind-the-scenes shorts are usually edited to be used as promos and extended trailers.

Plus, like the 80s cult favorites, Real Genius and White Water Summer, North Shore was one of those rare 80s movies whose cult appeal partly stemmed from a fairly decent soundtrack (by 1980s standards, of course!), this one featuring tracks by Australian performers such as Gangajang’s excellent, unofficial national anthem, “Sounds of Then (This is Australia).”

Despite corny dialog and again, rampant cliches, the film has maintained a strong cult following over the years, which of course, helped the transition to DVD in early 2007, marking the 20th anniversary of the movie. And thankfully fans were delivered a handful of beefy extras, although the drawback is a somewhat excessively saccharine commentary about how it was just about everyone’s dream just to appear not just in a surf movie, but in this surf movie.

The leading role of Rick Kane was played by Matt Adler. Like most of the actors in this film, he kicked around as a supporting character of B-movies for years, though John Philbin may have been the more visible among the professional cast. Ironically or not, Adler would kind of repeat the Kane model when he played a timid high school swimmer in the 1990 movie, Diving In. (By the mid 90s, Adler would take blink-and-you-miss-him roles in an array of idiotic and convoluted indie dramedies like Quiet Days in Hollywood and Hollywood Palms before fading out altogether with just a footpath of ADR Loop credits every now and again).

But here, he’s just Rick Kane, a surfer fresh from the wave tanks of Arizona. Just out of high school, he takes his meager contest winnings (well… maybe meager by today’s financial standards) and heads to Hawaii for the summer. His mother pleads that he consider his future, since he’s been offered a scholarship to an art school in New York City. “I hear the East River’s got some pretty hot waves,” he jokes, viewing the trip as an imperative, not only as a much needed break from 12 consecutive years of schooling, but also to find out whether or not he has any sort of real talent for surfing before it’s too late.

Kane is ambitious, inspired by his idol, Lance Burkhart (Laird Hamilton) who makes fine bank surfing professionally. But, he is also young, naive, and extremely cocky. For someone accustomed to surfing ripples in a wave tank, he can’t just expect to float a twin fin shortboard into some of North Shore’s most intense surf with any sort of ease.

Rick gets no warm welcome when he arrives, anyway. The guy he intends to stay with flakes on the invitation. All but his board is stolen at the beach by an obnoxious local with no tolerance for haoles (tourists). And the big kicker: he even finds out his surfing idol, Lance Burkhart, is a major asshole. Uncertain what to do at this point, having traveled 4,000 miles only to wind up broke and stranded, things start to turnaround when he meets goofy, Pidjen-speaking surfboard shaper, Turtle (played wonderfully by scene-stealing John Philbin who now runs a surf school on the North Shore) who tries to explain to Rick the social customs of the legendary surf destination (“[He works] only when the surf is bad… cause when the surf is good, no one works!”). And Turtle introduces Rick to the surfboard company owner, Chandler (Gregory Harrison), who becomes his soul-surfing mentor when Rick agrees to redesign his company logo in exchange for a place to stay.

A great feature of this film is that as Chandler mentors Rick on surfing, the viewers are given a speed course on the mechanics of board shaping and the anatomy of the beach, a rare piece of Surfing Appreciation 101 for a fictional surf film. Amidst the obligatory coaching of the underdog and inspiring that drive away from commercial to a more spiritual fondness for the sport is the sub-plot of Rick falling in love with the lovely local girl, Kiani (Nia Peeples), and is constantly met with intimidating opposition from the overly-protective males in her family (her uncle is played by pro-surfer Gerry Lopez).

The movie was left open for a sequel and Rick Kane assures his friends, Turtle and Kiani, “Hey, I’ll be back!” but the idea was nixed due to poor reception of the first film. That can be an awkward way to leave things off… unless it became a reunion film at this point.

Ho Chi Minh Doesn’t Skateboard: Gleaming the Cube

The 1980s were riddled with an abundance of ridiculously cheesy teen-targeted sport themed movies. Movies like Thrashin’ (1986), Under the Boardwalk (1989) and Rad (1986) used textbook slang, template storytelling, and stereotypical characters that made obvious commercial filmmaker and producer’s attempts to effortlessly cash in on the industries that, by the middle part of the decade, lived long enough to prosper. It would also influence the future of voice-overs in Asian film (see BioZombie).

Gleaming the Cube (1989) is one of the better skateboarding adventures, abandoning the single-minded tale of the dubious underdog who must prove his worth in some ridiculous, climactic contest. As a Cold War-themed skateboard movie, it fuses the cheesy teen sports movie with another staple of 80s movies: over-the-top action films who’s heroes were usually oiled, muscular good guys single-handedly avenging foreign-born warlords seethed in compensatory patriotism and political propaganda. The result of this marriage of strange bedfellows? Irreverent teenage skaters become defenders of American colonialism pride.

Like a Goofus & Gallant comic, bleach blond skate-punk Brian Kelly (Christian Slater) is the exact opposite of his straight-laced adopted brother, Vinh (Art Chudabala). Brian and his friends are bribing jet pilots and getting arrested for trespassing in a rich, loud homeowner’s swimming pool while Vinh is helping with his girlfriend’s father’s post-Vietnam War relief program. After Vinh brings to the boss’s attention possible errors in inventory shipping, he is curiously fired and is later found hanged to death in a hotel room. When there doesn’t appear to be conclusive evidence of foul play according to the young, hard-edged detective (Steve Bauer), his death is officially written off as a suicide. But Brian is certain that his brother wasn’t the type to check into a hotel and kill himself, and so he embarks on his own investigation which leads him on the trail of weapons smugglers and their ninja-like henchmen. Soon, he realizes the potential crime-fighting advantages of skateboarding.

Director Graeme Clifford and writer Michael Tonkin’s Gleaming the Cube (or, A Brother’s Justice as it was called in its TV release) does undoubtedly have the trappings of typical 80s teen movie corniness. Brian brazenly suggests to the hard-edged detective that if he had a dog who resembled said detective that he would shave it’s ass and tech it to walk backwards (gasp!). There’s the panicked goon who drives around in his cool black vintage convertible listening to Vietnamese covers of Motown. And who can forget the theme song, “Gleaming the Cube,” by Michael James Jackson? It was just as inspirational as Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” from the Karate Kid (1984). Although most of the cheesiness can be chalked up to Christian Slater’s hammy acting technique (especially the part where he’s informed of Vinh’s death). And, even though there are plenty of genre clichés to pack into the 100 minutes running time (which means a big chase finale), it’s all on a tolerable level and keeps it from crossing that line into it’s so bad it’s bad, though it might rightly be considered so bad it’s good.

The film’s unique quality is the not-so subtle political text for which a movie about skaters seem like an odd forum. Sure, it is not a novelty to inject it into a teen movie, and especially an action movie which undoubtedly helps to quickly create a villain as it were in Red Dawn (1984) and Toy Soldiers (1990). Yet, the intermittent cursing of the Vietcong at least doesn’t consume the entire movie.

More unusually and the thing probably keeping this movie at the forefront of pop culture memories of young 80s nostalgics (when not listing the obvious in favorites from the decade) is behind-the-scenes trivia. Documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta, a former pro-skater for the legendary Dogtown team and Powell-Peralta skateboard company co-founder worked on this movie as second unit director, shooting the skate sequences, while another legendary team of skateboarders, The Bones Brigade, were brought on to perform stunts and training. As Christian Slater’s stunt double, Rodney Mullen, the Freestyle King, can be seen in the warehouse montage and Mike McGill performed ramp and pool tricks (although he was replaced by Jozsef Attila towards the end of filming when McGill got food poisoning).

Meanwhile, Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerro (who also taught Slater how to skateboard noting that he didn’t seem too enthused to learn much beyond the basics) have minor roles as members of Brian Kelly’s skateboard posse. Probably the most endearing moment was young Tony Hawk in his Pizza Hut delivery truck barreling down a highway with a satisfying grin on his face as the sure victor in a game of chicken against some of the goons. Co-star Max Perlich was a veteran skater too, which means that Slater was probably cast primarily because he was the burgeoning teen celebrity (although he was 20 at the time of the film’s release) the same way that Leif Garrett was cast in Skateboard: The Movie (1978). Tony Hawk, in his autobiography Occupation: Skateboarder wrote about some of the movies that he worked on as a stunt consultant, including Thrashin’ (1986) and the timeless classic, (yes that’s sarcasm!) Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987). The funnier insider information there, however, being that Perlich nearly got his ass kicked by an irate guy who showed up to the set. He owned the car that Perlich did an acid drop off of one night while skating with the Bones Brigade.

A review of Gleaming the Cube on The Chucks Connection (because some of the actors wear Chuck Taylors in the movie) probably says it best: there’s plenty of cornball elements in this movie (bad acting by Slater, convoluted plot, etc.), but there’s enough to keep the not-too-serious viewer entertained.


The Zephyr Chronicles: Revolutionaries on the Blacktop

Although skateboarding had been around since the 1960s, it has fluctuated in both popularity and marketability up until the mid-1990s when it finally became a seemingly stabilized industry. Even former Bones Brigade rider turned one-man commercial empire, Tony Hawk, admitted in his autobiography the fear of being able to survive on meager royalty checks in the early 90s, taking side jobs in video editing to make ends meet.

But, what began in the 1960s as a mini-surfboard shaped deck on wheels to be used by young, adept surfers in the afternoon when the waves were low quickly faded from view as a kiddie pastime. Manufactured boards started disappearing and by the primitive planks of carved plywood and clay wheels from disassembled roller skates became the substitute for the remaining loyalists who never gave up skating.  It was a combination of nature (surfing technique and the drought made pool surfing popular), responsive architecture (the embankments of California’s schoolyard playgrounds), engineering (development of Urethane wheels and kick tails), publicity (the Dogtown articles), and marketing that turned the primitive youth exploit into a million and billion dollar industry (eventually).

Former pro skater and skate company co-founder, Stacey Peralta’s fine documentary,  Dogtown and z-boys, followed by the narrow-minded Hollywood dramatization of the tale, Lords of Dogtown, the story of Dogtown’s Z-Boys is no longer a legend reserved to skateboarding’s inner circle. The story of the teenage tyrants out of 1970s Venice Beach whose low-to-the-ground style of skating inspired by pro surfer Larry Birdlman forced the sport from its 1960s paradigm of nosewheelies and headstands is a now highly publicized one that at least youngsters outside of skateboarding may be able to recite because they saw that documentary about it, or that movie with Heath Ledger.

Unfortunately, the Zephyr story tends to dominate the retrospectives on skateboarding’s history. About as close as it’s come are the several documentaries on the born again former glory boys Christian Hosoi, who served time on drug charges, and Vision skater, Mark “Gator” Ragowski, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Those offered some background on skateboarding’s’ evolution in the 1980s as vertical gave way to street skating. Any other really extensive history of skateboarding could be found through books, and particularly Michael Brooke’s The Concrete Wave and Jocko Weyland’s very excellent The Answer is Never.

Mass commercialism and mass media really homogenized skateboarding. The tricks all got names. They all became standards. The prominent players aren’t really distinguishable in technique, except the ones that can pull off something amazingly difficult like Tony Hawk’s 900. There is no small group that really influences skateboarding anymore the way that the Zephyr did. Even later notable skaters like Rodney Mullen who’s skating is grounded in years of now defunct-freestyle. That emphasis on “style” that’s so frequently repeated in Dogtown and Z-boys documentary might mean something to skaters from that era. But probably not to young skaters of today. The flowery documentary Freewheelin‘ made in the late 1970s follows Stacey Peralta and his friends (including Tom Logan, founder of Logan Earth & Ski) as they travel to various locations for afternoon skate sessions. The group hailed from very different athletic backgrounds. One was a professional skier, another, a longboard surfer. This had an impact on the way they maneuvered their boards. Even Peralta, who was a surfer first, had a self-tailored technique that was most evident in his slalom. Freewheelin’ really gave meaning to that loose abstract, “style.”But unfortunately, it is a uniqueness that likewise appears lost in the age of mass-everything and generic representation.

Where there lacks more extensive histories of a sport that began four decades back, a review of the Dogtown and Z-boys, which offers insight on both the pre-commercial and post-commercial developments (whereas Lords of Dogtown is saturated with focus on the latter) reveals that the core of the legend is that major shifts in the sport can be synthesized to a simple event: neighborhood surfers emulated their favorite pro surfers on a pavement playground. On a concrete wave. That is the beginning of the Dogtown story. The histories tennd to understate the fact that skateboarding became what it became because of the unadulterated spirit of its the people who did it for fun, and stuck with, making sure that skateboarding, even in it’s darkest days, never completely disappeared. They existed all along. Dana Brown, son of Endless Summer director Bruce Brown, may have been one of the few to really capture that perpetual essence, but in the surfing world, with his documentary, Step Into Liquid. It focused on various sects of die-hard surfers and their own definitions of the perfect wave. They may buy factory-produced surfboards and wetsuits, but when it comes to running out in the cold ripples of Wisconsin’s waters (yes… Wisconsin), the brand of board or the logo on the wetsuit doesn’t matter one damn because the enjoyment, that purest thrill, stems from the emotional, the mental, the physical, and the spiritual connection to the activity. Skaters are the same. It’s those moments when the fact that pro surfer Kelly Slater won a world championship title or that skateboarder Geoff Rowley has a signature shoe doesn’t mean jack shit.