Flick Chick | Film | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published May 22, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Even earthbound people clueless about skateboarding are likely to enjoy Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary chronicling the obscure origins of a sport that first took off in the early 1970s. What contemporary American town doesn’t have kids zooming into the air courtesy of these seemingly insubstantial pieces of wood on wheels? Today’s youth culture apparently owes it all to Southern California adolescents who, three decades ago, explored the extreme angles now taken for granted in this popular endeavor.

Middle-aged director Stacy Peralta shows up in archival footage during his 89-minute film, opening this weekend in Burlington. He’s seen as one of the rough-and-tumble children who gather in the decrepit Dogtown section that straddles Santa Monica and Venice. These surfer-dude denizens of “the last seaside slum” thirst for replacement recreation when the Pacific Ocean is not serving up wipeout-strength waves. Many of them join the Zephyr Skating Team, named for a surf-shop hangout owned by board designer Jeff Ho and two friends.

It must be cosmic justice that the documentary is narrated by actor Sean Penn, whose role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High nailed the longhaired surfer-stoner persona. His character, Jeff Spicoli, might easily have hailed from the milieu that mixes California cool with testosterone-fueled bravado to revolutionize what had been a relatively tame athletic activity. The story traces the Z-Boys’ ascent with the same sort of cinematic adrenaline rush that lends dramatic energy to biographical rock ’n’ roll films like The Buddy Holly Story or Backbeat.

Nowadays architecturally sound skate parks offer sturdy half-pipes for kids to execute their “tricks.” Back then the innovators were in perpetual guerrilla mode as they tried out “kickflips” and “powerslides” by whatever means possible. When Dogtown screened for critics at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, old fogies like me felt vicarious exhilaration.

As wheel technology shifts from clay to more reliable urethane, the real-life Dogtown protagonists skateboard in parking lots before discovering the contours of backyard swimming pools drained as a result of West Coast drought. Sometimes the Z-Boys pull the plugs themselves with clandestine efficiency.

The movie covers the Z-Boys from local phenomenon to the 1975 national championships, where they captivated the country by demonstrating far more daredevil physicality than the mainstream competition. Certain Dogtowners become bonafide stars — Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Peralta each push the vertical envelope with remarkable grace — only to discover how elusive success can really be. We see them all on camera then and now, pioneers in an acrobatic dance that defies gravity, if not common sense, but is never less than thrilling.

fusco show: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a DreamWorks feature-length animation that hits theaters nationwide this Friday, is about a wild mustang in the Old West. He befriends a Native American, falls head over hooves for a mare, and endures captivity by the Cavalry.

Luckily, the animals do not speak in this production — that’s left to narrator Matt Damon and the actors who lend their voices to humans depicted in the heart-warming saga. Their dialogue and the plot are attributed to screenwriter John Fusco, who lives near Stowe. He’s in the Canadian province of Alberta at the moment, where his Dreamkeeper television mini-series is being shot.

Fusco e-mails word that another of his projects, initially scheduled to start this year, has been postponed. He says he “successfully stalled Rebels till next spring,” because of “my push for more Vermont scenes and more Vermont actors. As this affects the budget, we needed to delay and regroup. I might have to take some flesh off the script. So all this requires time.”

The film, about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, was slated to substitute Slovakia for New England in many sequences. Fusco says Jim Caviezal is still “attached,” in Hollywood parlance, to portray the mercurial leader of the Green Mountain Boys.

Due to scheduling conflicts, David Cunningham has had to bow out, but Fusco explains that “there are some other exciting directors knocking on the Catamount Tavern door right now.” He is playfully referring to the Bennington watering hole where Allen and his merry men gathered to strategize battle plans while imbibing vast quantities of brew.