How Lords of Dogtown Reminded Me To Live (While Entertaining Me With A Human, Honest Script and Engaging, Artistic Cinematography)

Lords of Dogtown, the story of a young skateboarding crew from Venice, California, who revolutionized the sport in the 70’s, struck a cord in me.
And I wasn’t even a skateboarder.

Lords of Dogtown poster on

I have vivid memories of riding my Canadian Tire board down the small hill by my house.
I didn’t have a skate crew to ride with, so I didn’t know what I was doing. I just jumped on, and hoped for the best.
Actually, I probably didn’t hope for the best. Knowing my mind, I probably feared the worst and continued to shit my pants until I inevitably crashed.

me at 7 years old

This is a telling vignette from my childhood. 8 years old, a mostly absent father (no one to encourage his son to find his prepubescent balls and “Just go for it!”), an overprotective mother (To be permitted to skate, I was caked in pads and guards. As if I wasn’t unconfident enough, I felt like a grade-A geek riding up and down 48th street), and waaaay too shy and unconfident to find a skate gang, if one even existed in my hometown.

Maybe that’s part of the reason that Lords of Dogtown resonated with me: I admired these balls-to-the-wall kids. They were living, truly living.

A couple years ago, on a particularly adventurous weekend night out, I found myself walking through downtown Vancouver in the dawn light, feeling alive and free. It’s when I drew this self portrait in the bathroom on the beach:


It occurred to me: If you ain’t living, what are you doing? Essentially, live to the fullest, or you’re wasting time. It doesn’t mean that you have to be throwing yourself through eight-foot waves or off the edge of half pipes. What it means, though, is LIVE. Don’t get caught up in the repetitive doldrums of an ordinary, safe existence. Challenge yourself constantly. Take risks. You’ve heard it before:

It won’t be the mistakes you made that you’ll regret at the end of your life, it’ll be the chances you didn’t take.

Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink For Beginners

Or, as I read recently in Days of War, Nights of Love

If your life was made into a movie, would it be worth watching?

If this doesn’t resonate with you, don’t sweat it. It’s ok. One path in life is not for everyone. If you are truly happy being safe and not taking risks, then cool.
The main thing is, find out what makes you happy and do it. If you have the ability to, you should go for what you love and what inspires you, what fires you up.

Lords of Dogtown fired me up.

Dogtown and Z-Boys on Creative Cow

It probably helps that I had already watched the documentary about this exact time in history (Dogtown and Z-Boys), so I know that this Hollywood version didn’t actually glamorize the story all that much. When you watch Lords of Dogtown, and you should, you’ll be watching a pretty faithful example of the excitement and innovation that these kids created.

It probably doesn’t hurt that this Hollywood rendition is written by Stacy Peralta, who’s one of the original legendary Z-Boys. I was quite surprised to discover that it was Peralta who wrote the script, since his character is cast as quite a sensitive geek compared to the others in the group. Maybe this is the truth, so I give props to him for being so honest.

vintage shot of Stacey Peralta - on Peralta's myspace

vintage shot of Stacey Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys

And it is this honesty that gives the film one of it’s most engaging, endearing qualities that set it apart from most Hollywood “based on reality” movies: it is full of brief interactions that could be considered unnecessary to an average scriptwriter, but Peralta knows that these interactions actually help the audience feel closer to the characters in the movie.

In one of these examples, Skip (Heath Ledger), Zephyr shop owner and “coach” of the Z-Boys, finds the boys at a burger joint. He’s pissed off because the boys haven’t been showing up to practice. What he doesn’t know is that they’ve made an amazing discovery – due to the drought, backyard pools are sitting empty, and the kids have been riding them, pushing the sport to a new level and actually creating the future for skate bowls. So the kids are laughing. Skip isn’t impressed, so he slaps one of them (Tony Alva) in the face with a burger, then walks off. Alva says, rather deadpan, “He took my burger!” The others laugh, saying, “You just got patty-slapped!” It’s brief, potentially unimportant, but it actually succeeds in being a critical part in developing the characters’ personalities and relationships.
Watch Lords Of Dogtown scene: Patty Slapped (on Video Detective)

Overall, it shows the main characters as people – not just superhumanly talented rebel kids, not as a cooler-than-thou surf shop owner. Instead, Skip begins to show his frailty, and the kids show that they are kids. They’re silly and fun, yet they know that they’re on to something big at this moment in their lives. They’re stoked and have a jovial lightheartedness to everything they do.

This becomes especially apparent as their popularity increases and, one-by-one, Skip’s Zephyr team is broken up by offers of money, cars, and fame from competitors. The series of climactic competitions are incredibly engaging as the former friends find themselves at war with one another in more ways than one.

Z-Boys on overblog

All of this is shot with incredible filmmaking. From beginning to end, director Catherine Hardwicke pushed her cinematographers to capture truly alluring footage. There are many shots where you find yourself tearing along the asphalt right beside the spinning wheels of a skateboard, others where you are high above the swimming bowl, in perfect view to see the skaters grow from dots at the bottom, up to full frame explosive bodies bursting into the sky.

It’s a music video’s worth of camera angles, without the mind-numbing number of edits. Hardwicke may want to make an exciting movie that emulates the excitement with which the Z-Boys lived their lives, but she also knows when a long, steady shot is needed to soak up emotion and pull the viewer in to the harsh world of Venice, California.

Lords of Dogtown on

Not only is the footage exciting, Hardwicke and her editors also had an artistic vision for the postproduction quality of the film that truly impressed me. There is a masterful control of the saturation in Lords of Dogtown that I appreciated as a photographer and film aficionado, and lifted this movie from a great to fantastic film.
In some scenes, the saturation is turned right down, giving the film an aged edge. In others, saturation is turned right up, along with increased exposure, so the light in slightly blown out. In others, this look has a cross process feel – high contrast and high saturation. I always appreciate a well written, well acted, well directed film, but when I am also visually stimulated in a pleasurable way, I’m caught like a hungry fish to the lure.

All in all, these artistic adjustments to the film are not distracting, they change seamlessly and intelligently, not only matching the mood of the scene, but emphasizing it, as good music choice does. Which this film doesn’t lack either. One of the best examples is when Skip forces his eight-track into the stereo at the judges desk before Alva competes. On comes “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, on comes Alva, to befuddle the judges with moves they’ve never seen before.

Lords of Dogtown on Askville

While I enjoyed this movie thoroughly, it was difficult to watch Ledger at times. Like every role I’ve seen him in, he commits himself to his character completely. Although he doesn’t hold as much screen time as the three main Z-Boys, he manages very early in the film to portray a man who is tough, demanding, and egocentric, yet also sensitive, caring, and supportive.

In one of his last scenes, it is almost tear-enducing to watch him watch his young proteges be lured away by glamour and big money. If it wasn’t for Skip, these boys wouldn’t have been pushed to compete on the national stage. Now that they’re stars, his presence fades into the past, and Ledger’s portrayal of a discarded coach is heartbreaking. That this incredibly talented actor is gone is almost unbearable.

But now is not the time for mourning – it is time to seize ourselves by the belt and LIVE! Because that, more than anything, is what this movie reminded me to do.

Lords of Dogtown on Georgian Underground


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