Journal of American Folklore 117.464 (2004) 197-198
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As its somewhat obscure but intriguing title suggests, the documentary film Dogtown and Z Boys focuses on a self-defined subculture. This subculture claims an ardently oppositional identity, which positions itself against the values of mainstream middle-class life. "Dogtown" describes the depressed, lower-middle class, south Santa Monica neighborhood that witnessed the birth of contemporary skateboarding. The "Z Boys" (not all of whom were boys) are the twelve members of the original Dogtown skateboarding team, a group of unsupervised Santa Monica preadolescents in the mid-1970s who convened around and then were sponsored by the local Zephyr surf shop and who went on to revolutionize the sport of skateboarding. The surfers-turned-skateboarders saw themselves as guerilla warriors in the name of recreation, using public spaces in transgressive and creative new ways. First, they surfed the waves cresting dangerously beneath the piers of abandoned amusement parks, and then skateboarded the oceanfront roads when the surf got too rough in the afternoons. Later, they snuck into school playgrounds and parking lots to skateboard and, eventually, commandeered and drained private swimming pools in order to expand their skating terrain. Filled with shots of skateboarders zipping past "No Skateboarding" signs, teenagers scaling fences, and descriptions of skateboarders as outcasts, antisocial, and unconventional, the film insists on the outsider status of the skateboarders. At the same time, Dogtown and Z Boys documents, extensively and convincingly, the original aesthetic that this neighborhood group brought to skateboarding culture.
The film consists of extensive still photographs and film footage from the era, with voice-over narration by actor Sean Penn, interspersed with contemporary interviews presumably conducted by Stacy Peralta, one of the Z Boys, an international skateboarding star in the 1970s and the director of the film. Musical interludes punctuate the film, generally in the form of aggressive period rock music, including Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Stooges. The original twelve members of the Zephyr skate team, all but one of whom were interviewed, include the legendary Tony Alva, as well as other skateboarders such as Jay Adams and Peggy Oki. All testify to the expressive nature of the culture they helped create. They note first the aesthetics of the skateboards themselves, which drew upon the mixed-race, outsider ethos of the neighborhood as well as the car culture of Los Angeles. In a montage sequence, each skater describes a different step in the construction of a skateboard. Many of these brief narratives involve the creative transformation of an everyday object into a skateboard, as pieces of bureaus and cabinets become material for a skateboard deck, for example, while other pieces of hardware are stolen from local stores.
In addition, the skaters attest to their dramatic revision of the aesthetics of skateboarding. As the historical footage of their recreational and competitive skateboarding demonstrates, the Z Boys eschewed the upright moves that had previously dominated the sport, advancing instead more fluid movements that mimic a surfing style. Team members eventually introduced the soaring vertical leaps that have become standard today. The film traces the influence of the Z Boys, who helped transform the clean-cut, 1950s look of the sport of surfing, into the alternative, bad-boy urban style of skateboarding. This aggressive new style is culturally coded as masculine. Peggy Oki, for instance, remembers the other girls in an early skateboarding competition protesting that she skateboarded like a guy. (She won the event.) Skateboarding, which began as a uniquely American sport and pastime, is defined not [End Page 197] only by style, but also by an anarchic use of public and private space for play, rather than work.
The interview subjects repeatedly refer to the power skateboarding held and continues to hold in their lives. They note that the surf shop, the sponsored teams, the neighborhood, and the success of the sport they helped define provided them with a sense of family, recognition, identity, and, ultimately, fame. Although the documentary makes no effort to...