There’s such a frenetic, freestyle buzz to the construction of Dogtown and Z-Boys that it might be easy to overlook an apparently mundane detail: the absence of opening credits. Dogtown dives into its documentary story the way many Hollywood films do nowadays, with nothing more than the title identified onscreen in the first few minutes. Is it a little disingenuous of director Stacy Peralta to downplay his involvement in the making of the film—especially when he’s also one of the film’s principal characters?
Peralta’s little game of Hide the Director might have compromised too much filmmaking integrity—if, in fact, filmmaking integrity were really at stake. Instead, his film keeps punching style through its substance, percolating with the anything-goes mentality of its trend-setting subjects. It may be self-congratulatory autobiographical cinema, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to watch.
Peralta wastes little time thrusting us into the gritty, blighted West Los Angeles beach communities that became the “Dogtown” of the film’s title. It’s there in the early 1970s that Skip Engblom and Jeff Ho launch the Zephyr Production Surf Shop, which would become home to innovative surfboard designs and a competition team of surfers. Many of the local teens who frequent the shop, looking for an afternoon activity after the best waves have come and gone, also become interested in the once-hot 1960s fad of skateboarding.
But the Z-Boys’ interpretation of “sidewalk surfing” begins to incorporate the moves of Hawaiian surfing superstar Larry Bertelman in “carving” maneuvers executed on playground asphalt and drought-emptied Southern California swimming pools. And by 1975, the low-slung, gravity-defying brand of skateboarding created by Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams and a dozen others would come to define the sport through the X-Games era.
Peralta structures the film smoothly, using Sean Penn’s narration to set the history of Pacific Ocean Park and its uniquely risk-taking brand of surfing. Archival film footage and photos by journalists Craig Stecyk and Glen Friedman capture Dogtown residents launching themselves off waves through dilapidated piers, and making the first grinding runs through their makeshift skate parks. The film compiles a fascinating visual history that allows you to watch an entire cultural phenomenon created before your eyes. Dogtown and Z-Boys explores such an intriguing subject and its impact on society that it probably would have worked as the most straightforward of talking head documentaries.
But if there’s one thing Dogtown isn’t, it’s “straightforward.” Nothing’s out of bounds in the giddy, stream-of-consciousness collage of images Peralta uses to capture his crew’s quest for a fresh thrill. Photos jump, jitter and burst into flame; interview footage arbitrarily rewinds or speeds up in mid-sentence. Peralta incorporates modern-day commentary by the Z-Boys in black-and-white footage, an almost wistful acknowledgement that their past was much more colorful than their present. He even retains a piece of Penn’s narration where the actor pauses, clears his throat and starts again. In a perfect example of wedding content to concept, Peralta turns the film into a punky, pugnacious showcase for freewheeling improvisation.
If Dogtown falters anywhere, it’s only when you start to feel Peralta’s lack of objectivity. At times he’s amusingly self-effacing, as when he stops the film in its tracks to include a clip of himself looking frighteningly like Penn’s Jeff Spicoli doing a cameo shot on Charlie’s Angels. Yet there’s also a sense that he doesn’t know how to put himself and his former cronies in a contemporary context that doesn’t feel glad-handing. He tiptoes around the personal problems of Jay Adams, and generally makes his decision to explore any of the Z-Boys’ post-Dogtown lives look questionable. Every time Peralta’s own face appears on screen to offer the most scripted takes on their legacy, or as part of a segment on his prudent business choices, it’s hard to shake the sense that someone else might have dug deeper.
Of course, that same hypothetical someone probably wouldn’t have given this story the attitude that makes it so much fun. “Style was everything,” one of the Z-Boys retrospectively muses, and Peralta infuses his film with a delight in looking as cool as humanly possible. It’s a history lesson spiked with rebel energy. And if the passage of years has proven that the Z-Boys were decades ahead of their time, then maybe it’s only fitting that this history was written by one of the victors.